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Art: Discontents of The White Tribe

5 minute read
Robert Hughes

Eric Fischl has become the painter laureate of American anxiety in the ’80s. From the moment he exhibited Sleepwalker, 1979, his image of a teenage boy resentfully masturbating in a suburban wading pool, Fischl has zeroed in with unblinking curiosity on the discontents of the White Tribe whose territory stretches from Scarsdale to Anaheim: unreachable kids, grotesque parents, small convulsions of voyeurism and barely concealed incestuous longing.

This is the suburb as failed Eden, noted by two out of three American sociologists and not a few novelists. But Fischl’s project is not to embroider cliches on it. Rather he finds images that seem to trail a whole narrative history behind them, but obliquely — so that you, as viewer, are put at the threshold of a hidden life that may, if you look closer, be yours. Fischl is a true American realist, but he works at a pitch of psychological truth ! (especially about adolescent sexuality) not known in the American narrative art of his forebears in the ’30s. At his best he seems, roughly, a cross between Edward Hopper and the Philip Roth of Portnoy’s Complaint. Thus it seems just right that Roth has written a catalog introduction to Fischl’s current show in Manhattan, six paintings on view at the Mary Boone Gallery through June 25.

When Fischl started out, the odds were against the very idea of narrative painting based on the human figure. Born in New York City in 1948, he went to the California Institute for the Arts in Valencia in 1970, just at the height of the belief, then endemic in the American art world, that “painting is dead.” Cal Arts epitomized the frivolity of late-modernist art instruction — no drawing, just do your own thing and let Teacher get on with his. Art education that has repealed its own standards can destroy a tradition by not teaching its skills, and that, broadly speaking, was what happened to figure- painting in America between 1960 and 1980. Fischl is not a mature artist yet, but he deserves nothing but respect for his struggle to create a mode of figuration that is tense, dramatic and full of body. He has managed to reconstruct at least some of his birthright; his figures, though they inhabit a wildly different sexual and psychic world from that of late-19th century America, have a direct matter-of-factness that reminds one of Winslow Homer. But the signs of loss do show.

Clearly, Fischl wants an overall look that is not too finished, consistently “imperfect,” with an air of unconcern for its own pictorial mechanism — the creamy, dashed-off realism of a Manet oil sketch. But this requires a mastery over the detail and frequency of brushstrokes, and a certainty about the drawing embedded in them, that he has not yet attained. He will slide from a passage of near virtuoso colloquialism to one of awkward smearing and prodding, and not fix — maybe not see — the difference.

He also tends to work as though he were afraid a single surface could not be “radical” enough. Hence his use of canvases butted against one another, overlaid, leaning together, with the scene continued across them. This “collage” sometimes carries a memory of constructivism, and suggests the overlay and dissolve of film images. But it is still a pedantic device. In The Young Max B. in Kansas, 1987, where an altar boy in a white surplice is standing behind a kitsch ornament on a lawn in front of a tract house, the ornament on its separate canvas looks like an afterthought, even though its blue sphere, coarsely suggestive of infinity, is essential to the image. Fischl’s work is far stronger when it speaks directly from a single, continuous, rectangular plane, so that the argument between illusion and brushstroke and dramatic scenario is not cluttered by artsy, shaped-canvas garnish.

The most ambitious painting in the show, The Evacuation of Saigon, 1987, is only half an allegory. Its title invites you to see the naked girl at the end of the jetty as an abandoned South Viet Nam and the rubber boat as leftover military hardware, but the invitation is not very strong, since her chunky white body is so obviously Western. The work is more a genre painting of some unclassified weekend incident.

The strangest image, and the simplest, is Girl with Doll, 1987. Wiry, squinting and indefinably prole in her nakedness, she recalls one of Homer’s Maine girls deprived of innocence and brought up to date. But the Bullwinkle doll she holds is like some witch’s comic-repulsive familiar in Goya; it has her by the neck, and the pairing is so vivid that for the moment you ignore the formal lapses in Fischl’s painting, such as the overstressed modeling of the knobbly knees. The canvas provokes comparisons with monster-and-innocent pairings in older art, and then slyly retracts them: Hey, lighten up; it’s just a kid on a beach! This harsh painting exemplifies Fischl’s desire to turn the viewer into a reluctant and embarrassed witness. At such moments you realize that, whatever awkwardness his work still harbors, you cannot wait to see what he is up to.

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