Eric Fischl’s new cycle of paintings depicting contemporary art fairs may seem a giddy leap from the subdued suburban eroticism of his seminal works. But while these latest canvases exchange the everyday settings of old for the sparkling carousel of the international art circuit, they are as acutely anthropological as anything he has created before. Their cluttered vistas—fictional amalgams based on photographs taken at different fairs—are almost dismayingly real.
Fischl dispassionately records more than he transmutes or satirizes. And perhaps his subject would be hard to satirize with subtlety, filled as it is with nuance and inhibition of peculiarly insipid and fugitive sorts. Scenes of cagey perusal and purse-lipped peacockery play out against the exuberant, somehow damning backdrop of art. (Fischl remarked in a recent interview that his human subjects “are being regarded and judged by the work” surrounding them.)
In Art Fair: Booth #4 The Price (2013), buyers and sellers surround a globular Ken Price sculpture, consulting cell phones or staring into space, while behind them a giant Joan Semmel canvas showing two nude figures lying in bed looms unobserved. Fischl’s scene is one of finely studied nonchalance, and his “near enough” brushwork is apt here in its very insouciance. The characters’ rivalry and expectation are held in urbane check as they ponder the price (rather than the Price). Theirs is what René Giraud called “mimetic desire”—a desire that mimics and feeds off that of other people, with the supposedly coveted object relegated to secondary importance. The carnal desire evoked by the Semmel picture, all sprawling flesh and stroking fingers, offers a telling counterpoint.
The paintings’ mood is one of deadpan narrative figuration, albeit without much narrative. An unavoidable irony lies in the fact that Fischl’s style is of a variety so rarely seen at fairs—too candid and unassuming, perhaps, yet facilitating a marvelously dry documentation of the events themselves. Art Fair: Booth #1 Oldenburg’s Sneakers (2013) depicts the preening deference of commerce to wealth: men in suits stand dutifully around as two wandering women wonder whether to buy. And we wonder, in turn, what Oldenburg-who puffed up the everyday only so as to deflate it—would have made of the whole ritual of poised politesse.
In Art Fair: Booth #27 Ridiculous Sublime (2014), Fischl’s trick of collapsing and condensing space (the floor lurches upward at an impossible diagonal) achieves a kind of hall-of-mirrors effect that nicely captures the visual clamor of art fairs. A female-leggy and busty atop a plinth-divides the canvas along the center; whether this is an inanimate statue or a living “sculpture” is unclear. Nearby, a woman regards an abstract canvas in a pose (arms folded, legs mid-stride) that radiates a mixture of curiosity and ennui. The question of what, precisely, is ridiculous and what sublime lingers unanswerably in the air.
The confusion in this and several paintings between sculpted bodies and actual ones recalls that found in Johann Zoffany’s fantastical Tribuna of the Uffizi (1772-78), where we find the greatest paintings and marble statues of the Western world admired by the dilettanti of the day. Fischl is the 21st-century heir to that tradition, but a lackadaisical heir. His art-fair paintings bear dispiriting witness to an ultra-refined social performance in which narcissism and rivalry are sublimated into a delicate, mannered set of relations. Figurative painting is perhaps the only medium up to such a task: the visceral has rarely lurked so insistently beneath a slick veneer.
In early May, Jablonka took the opportunity of Gallery Weekend Berlin, a three-day marathon of openings, to unveil a group of large-scale paintings by Eric Fischl. Titled “Corrida Paintings” (2009), the series was inspired by photographs the artist took on visits to the southern Spanish village of Ronda, the birthplace of modern bullfighting. Like Goya, Picasso, Hemingway, Bacon and Bataille before him, the New York artist is fascinated by the Spanish blood sport, which for decades has caused animal rights activists to take to the barricades.
Showing different matadors, bulls and fights, the seven canvases capture the essence of the battle par excellence between man and beast. Corrida in Ronda No. 7 depicts five matadors in bright and elaborately decorated garb prancing around a dark, silhouetted bull. The matadors’ semicircular arrangement meets the curve of a shadow in the background, so that the animal is completely encircled. Although the bull may be lunging at its adversaries, its head is partially hidden, and the creature appears immobile and docile. With its crude and formless dark hide rendered in broad brushstrokes and flat colors, this bull already looks as lifeless as the one being decapitated in Corrida in Ronda No. 6, which hung on an adjacent wall.
The flamboyant figure of the matador is undoubtedly a seductive one for Fischl. His attraction to pattern is expressed in the accentuation of the costumes’ black stitching, which runs in wispy strokes along taut surfaces. Fischl effectively conveys how, despite his rigid formality, the matador must always strike a graceful pose. In stark contrast, the artist’s treatment of the bull, especially in Corrida in Ronda No. 4 and No. 2, is completely underdeveloped.
Fischl has painted animals before, particularly dogs, but center stage was usually reserved for the relations among human characters, who establish a certain ambiguous mood in each scene. In the “Corrida Paintings,” using simple narrative structures, Fischl for the first time depicts the confrontation between humans and animals just as atmospherically. Without compromising the spectacle’s existential intensity, he cracks the shell of the macho, triumphant matador to reveal the figure’s vulnerability within the highly charged encounter. The theatrical lighting shrouds him in a lugubrious mood. The drooping head of the matador in Corrida in Ronda No. 4, or the look on his face in Corrida in Ronda No. 6, highlights his resignation before the death of either himself or the bull. By investing the scene with this emotional charge, Fischl elicits in us a feeling of empathy, although we are never sure whether it is inspired by man or beast.