The Michelangelo of Suburbia

The Michelangelo of Suburbia

Exploring society's public and private failings, Erich Fischl has emerged as a leader of a return to figurative art.

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"Erich Fischl: Fallen" by James Romaine, in Image: A Journal of the Arts & Religion (Summer 2003), 3307 Third Ave. West, Seattle, Wash. 98119.

Erich Fischl is one of a handful of artists who emerged during the 1980s "spearheading a return to figurative representation after the dominance of abstraction and conceptual art in previous decades," says Romaine, an art historian. Yet it was not just a return. Many viewers find Fischl’s depictions of "the leisured suburban existence of the American middle class in all its physical and spiritual nakedness" unsettling. But this edginess, Romaine suggests, comes both from "a theme which appears in many of Fischl’s works: the public exposure of the private," and the longing of his painted characters to return to "an Eden they cannot recreate."

Born in New York City in 1948, Fischl grew up in the Long Island suburbs with a salesman father and an alcoholic mother. "The permeating message of his childhood," says Romaine, was that "what happened inside the home, family, and individual was to be concealed from the world outside." This tension plays out in many of Fischl’s paintings through figures that are literally naked— stripped, as Romaine puts it, "of the pretensions of society," but also suggesting, in the artist’s own words, "the vulnerability of the human condition." But his juxtaposition of clothed and naked figures can sometimes explore uncomfortable areas of sexuality. In one of Fischl’s more troubling works, Bad Boy (1981), a self-absorbed woman lies naked on a bed. Watching her, his back to the viewer, is the clothed young "bad boy" of the title. "But his transgression is unclear," says Romaine. Is it his presence? That behind his back we can also see his busy fingers rifling through her purse? Or something else? As is the case with many of Fischl’s paintings, we get "only a fleeting glimpse of a larger, more complicated narrative." Indeed, Romaine suggests, "the mind we come closer to understanding is our own. The viewer is the central character of Bad Boy."

This kind of psychological subtext feels very distant from the Old Master figurative tradition, yet Fischl has expressed in interviews his affinity with such painters as Giotto, Fra Angelico, and Michelangelo, not so much for the doctrines of faith they depicted as for the spiritual drama they conveyed. He views himself as a "post-Fall Garden painter"—suburbia being only the latest effort to recreate Eden. His pictures are disturbing because the loss they portray reminds us of our own.

In Tumbling Woman, Fischl confronted America’s greatest crisis in modern times. Inspired by the television images of people leaping from the World Trade Center, the nearly life-size sculpture was erected in Rockefeller Center around the time of 9/11’s first anniversary. Within days, recounts Romaine, outcry over the work had reached such a fever pitch "that the sculpture had to be covered with a sheet and removed." The outrage was not universal; many viewers found the work profoundly moving. The conservative New York Sun defended Fischl.

Romaine believes that the sculpture embodies the ambivalence that has made Fischl such an important figure in the post-abstract art world. "Tumbling Woman confronts us not only with the disturbing and brutal facts of the fate of some on September 11, but it also challenges us to confront the collective spiritual cancer that lay behind that awful day. Her fall is a consequence of the Fall." Like all of Fischl’s work, says Romaine, it "conveys a powerful visual manifestation of our fallen condition," and "holds a mirror up to the hidden self that many of us would rather hide under a sheet."


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