There seems to be an upsurge of interest in painting these days, but let’s be clear - what type of painting and to what end? Artist Eric Fischl gave a lecture at the University of Pennsylvania on April 11th, titled, The Death of Painting from van Gogh to Chris Burden. Mind you, Fischl is not an exponent of the position that painting is dead, far from it; he’s a figurative realist that insists painting is still unsurpassed in its ability to communicate with an audience - a position I’m naturally in accord with as a fellow realist painter.
Over the years Fischl has championed the cause of figurative art, and he’s remained a vocal critic of the postmodernist trend that dictates it’s not necessary to know how to draw or paint in order to be an artist. In a 2003 interview with Robert Fishko titled Art In Troubled Times, Fischl said that he “felt outcast as a student, because figuration was illegal. Painting was dead, and figure painting was really dead.” Here the artist revealed the atmosphere he encountered at Cal Arts, but he was really speaking about the way art was being taught everywhere. I encountered a similar experience at Otis Parsons in the 1970s - and unfortunately art is still being taught in the same manner today. You may leave art school with a degree, but you won’t be any closer to having acquired a painter’s set of skills than when you first entered.
Since the early 1980’s Fischl has been “trying to find a way of re-engaging the public” with his figurative works, adding realist sculpture to his repertoire. He’s met with no small degree of success, but it’s still an uphill battle. He ran into a major controversy with his sculpture, Tumbling Woman (2002) which was removed from Rockefeller Center because people found it offensive. Meant as a loving commemoration to all those who lost their lives during the 9-11 terror attacks, the statue is actually quite tame, and merely shows a woman plummeting through space. The shoulders of the statue rest on the ground, and so bear the weight of the massive figure. However, the emotional impact of seeing a woman in freefall, twisting and turning in space, and knowing her fate, was too much for people and the monument was removed from the corporate lobby. Obviously, if Tumbling Woman had been an abstract work the reaction to it would have been much different; which is really the point of Fischl’s long held argument that non-figurative artworks cannot deliver the same powerful emotional impact to a wide audience in the same ways that figurative works can.
In a 2002 interview with the New York Times, Fischl said: “The art world has been training younger and younger artists in ideological gamesmanship, and there’s been a lack of training in history and in techniques that one could apply in rendering the human form, for example. A lot of the young kids are sort of fabulous at drawing cartoons. But a cartoon’s going to be pretty hard to express a lot of the experience of the last year.” In that same interview he went on to say, “When something terrible or powerful or meaningful happens, you want an art that speaks to that, that embraces the language that would carry us forward, bring us together, all of that stuff. I think that September 11 showed us that as an art world we weren’t quite qualified to deal with this. Not trained enough to handle it.”
Not trained enough indeed, a bitter pill for today’s artists and the art establishment to swallow, but who can deny it? Fischl’s lecture at the University of Pennsylvania praised old masters like Caravaggio and modernists like Vincent van Gogh and Edvard Munch, but had nothing other than disdain for the likes of Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Chris Burden, and a number of other art star personalities. Fischl seemed well aware of the difficulties inherent in revitalizing figurative painting in today’s art world, and he told his audience, “I’m trying to find a reason to paint, so I’m going to find all kinds of reasons tonight why painting is better than anything else.” For some Fischl crossed the line when he hurled invective at postmodernist sacred cows, no doubt making a few in the audience uncomfortable at having to hear his critiques. But then he committed a truly unforgivable offense, at least in the minds of those apolitical intellectuals in the audience - he mentioned the ramifications of an art practice devoid of political consciousness.
Fischl closed his talk by saying, “Maybe art is inferior to the needs of the culture. My final point, and it’s probably way too histrionic, is that removing the body from the experience means we can’t empathize. Therefore we can tolerate Abu Ghraib. It’s amazing when you think that art - even modernist art - was allied with politics and there wasn’t so much that was big going on. Then we get to a point when something really big happens, 9-11 and Abu Ghraib - and now we’re a country that tortures people - and we’re mute.”
Undoubtedly Fischl’s remarks will be maligned by a number of people in the art world who are quite satisfied with the way things are, others will simply misconstrue his words. Writing for artinfo.com, Robert Ayers wrote that Fischl’s lecture “came close to regaining some of his former reputation for shock,” not for the topic of the address, but “rather for the sudden shift into politics that he took at the end of his lecture.” If Ayers can’t recognize that a painter critiquing the entrenched postmodern establishment for sidelining realist painting, is itself an event with a political dimension to it - then he wears the same blinders worn by all others who insist “art is above politics.”
Reacting to Fischl’s concern that the artistic community is mute in the face of mounting horrors, Ayers retorts “Somebody might have responded by asking Fischl what he made of Richard Serra’s specifically Abu Ghraib “Stop Bush” poster currently at the Whitney.” Does a single work of art created by a lone artist somehow release all artists from social responsibility? I applaud Serra for taking a stand, but his gesture absolves no one but himself. The “Day for night” 2006 Biennial at the Whitney is nothing more than a tentative first step towards developing the aesthetics of resistance and affirmation so sorely needed at present. Since 9-11 we’ve all heard that “America will never be the same” and that “The world has changed forever”, but you’d hardly know this by looking at the narcissistic, blinkered and inward-looking contemporary art scene. Fischl was speaking of shared obligation and accountability, not a retreat into isolation and individualism, he challenged the entire artistic community to find its voice and react appropriately to the storms now threatening humanity - and that is the vision to which this web log is wholly dedicated.
[ UPDATE: After reading my web log post, Eric Fischl wrote a personal e-mail to me that offered some clarification of his stance. I apologize to Fischl for making him "uncomfortable" with my misinterpretation regarding his feelings toward Pollack, Warhol and Burden. It was not my intention to put words in his mouth, and so with his kind permission, I’m publishing an edited version of his remarks to me. ]
>> I appreciate your passions but was a little uncomfortable with your description of my feelings about Pollock, Warhol and Burden as disdainful. It is not exactly what I meant to convey nor is it something I feel towards them and their work. I fear that in order to make my point about the loss of the body, about our discomfort with it, and about our losing our ability to empathize, I overstated or drew too stark a contrast. Pollock let go of the figure but not the body and Warhol trivialized the icons of religion and art, making us acutely aware of what was being lost.
Artist don’t lead the culture and can’t turn the tides or stem the bleeding. Artists observe and respond. They are as much a part of their moment as anyone else but just happen to be able to see it better or more dimensionally at least. Anyway you know all this and you know that in your studio you just try and make the world be as real as it is to you. What else can you do? When painting was declared dead I now realize that the reasons given did not explain clearly enough “how” it died. That is what the gist of my talk was about.<<