Eric Fischl’s ‘Bad Boy’ Memoir

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It’s ironic that the man once deemed the “sensitive no-expressionist” is now being hailed as the “bad boy” of the art world.

Of course it makes sense that Eric Fischl is getting called that particular name right now, as his memoir, “Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas,”—taken from his 1981 painting “Bad Boy”—has just been published. And man, has there ever been a ton of hullabaloo surrounding it. Headlines in major publications the world over have been screaming about “Eric Fischl, Bad Boy” since the book was released on May 7.

But the truth is that in real life, the legendary artist seems to be nothing like his oft-repeated moniker. He’s soft-spoken, thoughtful, respectful and articulate.

Iconoclast? Sure. Envelope pusher? Absolutely. Modernist? You betcha. But bad boy? Not so much.

Hailed as America’s foremost figurative painter, Mr. Fischl is more comfortable calling himself a “representational painter, a narrative painter, a storyteller.” In his art, and now in his memoir, it’s his ability to draw his audience in, sharing deeply personal subject matter, that will ultimately carry his legacy.

Last Monday afternoon, on the eve of a big book launch party—to be held in Manhattan at the gallery of his longtime art dealer, Mary Boone—the next day, Mr. Fischl invited the Press to his sun-dappled studio in Sag Harbor for a conversation about the book, his art and his creative journey. Sprawled in a wooden rocking chair, surrounded by large-scale paintings, life-size and small-scale sculptures, he cut an impressive, if slightly imposing, figure.

But Mr. Fischl’s patrician good looks belied his hospitality, as well as some of the major forces that drive his artwork: self doubt, the desire to fit in and be accepted, the disconnect between appearance and reality, the drive to be “normal.”

“ … As I grew up I came to realize that so much of my life has been a search for normal,” he writes in “Bad Boy.” “ … I’ve been searching for a sense of wholeness and belonging all my life, trying to reconstruct Paradise before the Fall. If there’s been any theme uniting the stages of my life and my art, it’s been the theme of redemption—the recovery of openness, intimacy, and trust.”

Many of those feelings of inadequacy and torment came because his mother, Janet, was an alcoholic who eventually committed suicide. As a result of her battle, he and his siblings had lives fraught with inconsistency. The experience of living with, and loving, his mother shaped him as a person, and certainly pushed him in his artwork.

“It’s not something that you’d wish on people but it might be a necessary ingredient on some level,” he said last Monday as he contemplated childhood traumas. “There are very few artists that I know who have had that sort of totally happy childhood, some sort of deep level of comfort in themselves and the world.”

He continued.

“I know many people who have had happy times,” he paused. “And they’re not artists,” he laughed.

“Maybe part of it is that you process stuff a different way because it’s not going through the right channels. You develop other skills. Certainly on some level art is about order in the world; trying to make something controllable inside that rectangle. And if you come from a place where you have very little control, I don’t know,” he trailed off.

But the book isn’t just a vehicle for Mr. Fischl to air his family’s dirty laundry or bemoan a tumultuous childhood. It’s about the creative process, the philosophy of art, the context of his work, his journey, and a primer of sorts for young artists. “Bad Boy” chronicles his life—from childhood to present day—and gives an uncensored view into the good, the bad and the deeply personal moments of his life, including some juicy tidbits about his meteoric rise in the drug-fueled 80s art world and his eventual path to sobriety.

The book also contains intriguing insights by others. There are many short essays written by his friends and family: Holly Fischl Giloth, Ross Bleckner, Alana Johnston, David Salle, Bill Swaim, Allan Hacklin, April Gornik, Julian Schnabel, Bryan Hunt, Mary Boone, Bruce Ferguson, Mike Nichols, Marsha Norman, Ralph Gibson, John McEnroe, Laurie Fischl Whittle, Robbie Baitz, John Fischl and Steve Martin. There are plenty of tales about Mr. Fischl and his contemporaries in the book as well, with compelling fodder about the heady days of the artist as superstar.

“Rock stars are not artists. Painters are artists,” he said during a discussion of fame, fortune and creativity.

“But painters can also be rock stars,” the Press responded, pointing to Mr. Fischl.

“Well, that was a short-lived and really bad idea,” he laughed.

“The nature of being an artist is really not being front and center, it’s sort of being off to the side, looking in and then trying to put it all together. Celebrity doesn’t really help that at all,” he added.

Like it or not, Mr. Fischl was catapulted to celebrity approximately three decades ago. But there have definitely been perks: the money, the acclaim, as well as meeting art icons and other legendary figures. The artist has had a few such celebrities pay him studio visits, including Andy Warhol, Mick Jagger and Jasper Johns.

“I couldn’t believe he was actually talking. I thought he’d be like a Buddha, just sitting there,” Mr. Fischl said of Warhol. “I’ve certainly been blessed by getting to meet some amazing people. Warhol was a big experience.”

He continued, “Jasper Johns, when he came to my studio, he wanted to buy a drawing. I had sort of set out drawings that I thought he might be interested in of mine, and I had kept one drawing for myself—an oil on paper that I thought was the best piece that I had ever done. And I thought ‘if he wants it, who doesn’t want to have Jasper Johns …,’ so I put it out as well. So he comes, and we have some drinks and talk and he looks at what I’ve done and he looks over at the wall and he sees this sort of irregular-shaped piece of paper on the wall that I had done just that morning as a study, a quick sketch for an idea for a painting, and he says ‘I want that.’ It was great.”

At its heart, “Bad Boy” is a book about demystifying the world of art. Particularly Mr. Fischl’s process, including the ambiguity that’s present in his work.

“They’re ambiguous in that I’m trying to communicate with another person in a way that’s not about shutting down that conversation,” he explained. “It’s not a one-sided monologue. It’s about creating an experiential space in which I and the audience share. I don’t have the last word on what the meaning of that experience is, what I have is the skills to create the experience. That I think is the essential thing. How I came to it, my feelings, my thoughts, my observations—all of those things that go in to create that moment—but I want to leave it open enough that it’s not about me. That’s communication, that’s how art functions best I think.”

He said that his wife, Ms. Gornik, summed it up best.

“April has a great way of describing it, she says that great art makes itself vulnerable to interpretation,” he continued. “That’s really what you’re looking for, so ambiguity is essential. Ambivalence is not. That’s a big distinction. Ambivalence is where it could be this, it could be that, as though it doesn’t matter. Ambiguity is that you bring it into something where it’s so complicated an experience that it can’t be singularlized or nailed down in some way. It keeps shifting. But as an artist you try to contain what those interpretations, the range of them.”

Ultimately, though, art, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder and not necessarily the creator, according to Mr. Fischl.

“Funny because it’s actually completely unimportant what the artist thinks the work is about. And everyone kind of wants to know as though the artist has some kind of ‘a priori’ sort of understanding of this thing when in fact they don’t,” he said. “For me, for example, I try to paint myself out of the painting. That is to say that I create an experience at which at some point I become like everybody else: the viewer. I’m stepping back from it, I’m looking at it going ‘What’s going on here? Who are these people? What are they doing? Why are they doing this?’”

“Bad Boy: My Life On and Off The Canvas,” by Eric Fischl and Michael Stone, is on sale at bookstores everywhere. The artist will be giving book talks and signings at a number of East End locations, including at the Westhampton Library, co-sponsored by Books & Books Westhampton Beach, on June 15 at 4 p.m.; at BookHampton in Southampton on June 22 at 7 p.m.; at Guild Hall in East Hampton on June 26 at 7 p.m. and at the Hampton Library in Bridgehampton on August 2 at 5 p.m. For more information, visit randomhouse.com.

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