In the early 1980s Eric Fischl burst onto New York’s art scene with his Neo-expressionist figurative paintings exploring erotic, psychologically charged,

Seeing Eric Fischl’s Work through Pincus-Witten’s Lens

In the early 1980s Eric Fischl burst onto New York’s art scene with his Neo-expressionist figurative paintings exploring erotic, psychologically charged, and often uncomfortable scenes of suburban middle-class America. He became part of a group of artists– including Ross Bleckner, David Salle, and Julian Schnabel – who broke from 1970s conceptual and minimalist movements and came to define art of the new decade. Represented by the trail blazing gallerist Mary Boone, Fischl epitomized the go-go eighties with his bold, sensual paintings that sold for press-worthy prices.  Fischl parted ways with Boone in 2013, and now exhibits with Skarstedt gallery in their well-appointed townhouse on the Upper East Side.

Please Wait, Sir, 2022, acrylic on linen, 65 x 75 in

Grandly titled Towards the End of an Astonishing Beauty: An Elegy to Sag Harbor, and Thus America includes eight large canvases that show scenes from a local Halloween parade in the artist’s hometown. Continuing his exploration of disquieting undercurrents in everyday suburbia, they depict familiar scenes that are subtlety askew. Here, in what should be a wholesome American scene, Please Wait, Sir (2022) presents an ominous figure disguised in a plague doctor’s mask, hands in pockets, approaching an unsuspecting young girl eating ice cream as a young boy in a skeleton suit reaches his hand out towards the predator. In many of these compositions the characters, and even other objects, seem to be heading in different directions, unaware of the movements of others, much like our current social and political situation.

Robert Pincus-Witten delivering a lecture organized by Ray Kass and John Link, 1980

The renowned art historian and critic Robert Pincus-Witten wrote a series of diaries published in Arts Magazine between 1976 and 1991 chronicling his many comings-and-goings in the art world. By 1979 he was grappling with the ‘return of painting’ and his own relationship to contemporary art. “I misprize the broad range of the current revival of painting not because I dislike it – indeed I love it, it being so easy to love – but because of the glib assumption that painting is some form of moral or ethical good. But is there any questioning of painting’s very existence? No.” Pincus-Witten continues, “1978 on merely accepts painting as a societal given. Well, that’s nice it represents only a moment in the little history of art. To recognize this – even say it – does not close me off to the art of the moment.”

The Parade Returns, 2022, acrylic on linen, 68 x 96 in

But his observations on painters such as Fischl are often snarky, and he labels them “Boonies” for their shared gallerist. By April 1981, Pincus-Witten observes: “In a capitalist bourgeois world, painting is inevitably reduced to its decorative common denominator which, after all, just may not be so terrible as all that. The forestalling of this inevitability can only be achieved through the artist’s control over meaning.”

These observations seem to anticipate his visit with Fischl in June of 1981: “A compelling deception inhabits Eric Fischl’s suburban world.” Pincus-Witten elaborates, “One is thrown off track by his skillful faux-naif execution and a skewed expressionism intensifies a cunning iconography exactly suited – image to image – to a classical Freudian skin-flick.” Blaming some of Fischl’s aesthetic on his years at CalArts – where he was in the first graduating class and met Salle and Bleckner – Pincus-Witten points to Hollywood’s influence on Fischl’s film-like framing and later split screen narratives. But his pithy observations are often raw, as he says of Fischl: “Contrary to my snotty expectation, Fischl is not a Long Island Jew, but a cautious, taciturn 33-year-old Protestant who hails from Port Washington.” Which makes for entertaining, personal, and what might today be considered inappropriate reflections.

Towards the End of an Astonishing Beauty: An Elegy to Sag Harbor, and Thus America was on view at Skarstedt Gallery (20 East 79th Street) from September 14 through October 29, 2022

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