Chicken or the egg? When looking at the work of Eric Fischl, which is it that strikes the viewer first: his masterly painting skills or the subject matter? Renowned for his work with light and shadow, color, and brushwork, he has also never shied away from being provocative with his imagery and composition. His early works featured psycho-sexual melodramas of suburban pool and party scenes. The images made the viewer think, "Waitaminnit, what the..." but after the initial "shock," Fischl's painting skills took over or at least had equal weight. Other examples are the controversial Arthur Ashe and 9/11 sculptures, the latter which led to its removal. A few years ago he displayed very large paintings of bull fights (reviewed here) which also tweeked sore points with some viewers.
The current show, "Portraits," goes into an odd place. A series of weekend/vacation shots that seem innocuous and relatively tame, until you realize it's Lifetimes of the (Art) Rich and Famous. Models include: the painter Francesco Clemente and his family, Paul Simon and Edie Brickell, model Stephanie Seymour, collector and LA real estate mogul Eli Broad, director Mike Nichols, John McEnroe and his family, artist Chuck Close, writer E. L. Doctorow, Steve Martin...and the artist himself.
On one hand they shout a blasé, smug attitude of "Oh yeah, these are my friends" in an eyes half-closed acknowledging NON-acknowledgement that these are very famous, talented, rich people. Is he saying, "It's no big deal to me, I'm one of them and you're not"? Or is it the opposite, that Fischl is saying, "These ARE famous-talented-rich folks, I am fortunate to share in their GENUINE friendship, and this is my way of showing my affection for them, just like the average shmoe frames a snapshot of a holiday with his amigos. The main difference is, my "snapshots" hang in the Mary Boone Gallery." It's best left for each viewer to decide where Mr. Fischl is coming from. Perhaps it's merely a very talented man congregating with other very talented people. Not so much celebrity portraits as "these are my friends hanging out...they all just happen to be famous, rich, and fabulous."
So much for the subject matter. What really jazzed me about this show was the incredible handling of light and shadow, especially the severe light of a summer's day. Look at this detail (above) of Francesco in "The Clemente Family," 69x86". The warm red orange in the left side of the face in shadow is bold and contrasts with the purple highlights on the right side of the face. The extreme light on the nose captures the intense sunlight. Deft brushwork. This face is a lesson in itself.
This poolside piece (haven't been able to locate the title) harkens back to early work and is another example of his ability to make dealing with extreme light seem easy. Compositionally, the couple looks right at the viewer but you feel more like part of the crowd, naked, taking a snapshot with your I-Phone rather than the artist painting a pose.
Last is another detail, this from "Untitled," 84x108". A difficult thing for new painters is pushing your darks and pushing your lights. This is another good example of the results of this pushing, accentuated by the twist of the torso as he turns to look at the camera. Probably mid-late afternoon as the sunlight is coming from one side more than above. These pieces are perfect examples of why it is so important for painters to go to galleries and museums to see the originals. The best photo or poster simply cannot fully capture the nuances, the brushstrokes, and the decisions the artist made while painting the piece. If you can put aside the 1% vs 99% aspect of these paintings, there's quite a bit for a visual artist to learn from them.
Mary Boone Gallery, 541 W 24th St, NY
Eric Fischl "Portraits" 2/11-3/17/12