An Interview with The Artist
- Eric Fischl -
Interview - New York Art World
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© Photograph by Michele Asselin
David Rakoff: Your sculpture commemorating September 11, "Tumbling Woman," was recently removed from Rockefeller Center. Is that the largest controversy you've been through? Certainly the Arthur Ashe statue at Flushing Meadows freaked out some people.
Eric Fischl: I guess it would be the highest profile. With the Ashe statue, the criticism seemed to come from very literal-minded people who would say things like, "We've never seen a nude tennis player" or "Where's the tennis racket?" I think I'm most hurt by this one.
David Rakoff: But isn't a certain amount of controversy what an artist hope for?
Eric Fischl: I just feel like it would be cynical of me to appreciate the controversy, but it wasn't controversy that I was looking for.
David Rakoff: You're not a provocateur in that way?
Eric Fischl: No. I actually have done paintings in the past, back in the early 80's, that came out of profound anger and confusion. The sensational aspect was unintentional. But that was a long time ago by a young artist.
David Rakoff: Where did that guy go?
Eric Fischl: He went into an adult world more complicated and subtle and more fascinating, and whatever. I wasn't trying to make a universal monument to sum up the entire experience of 9/11. The kind of response that I was wanting to get was one in which people would allow me to share in the experience, the holding up, the sitting with - so of course the response of "Get this out of here, you can't feel this" or "You can't make us feel this way" was incredibly hurtful.
David Rakoff: Maybe the problem is that some have interpreted this body twisting in freefall as a piece of grim, plastic photojournalism.
Eric Fischl: One might see a moment of impact in a kind of way that implies brain splattering, a graphic moment there. The thing is that if you look at the piece itself, it feels like a dream in which somebody is floating. There's no weight there that is sending the crushing, rippling current back through the body as it hits a solid mass. It feels more like tumbleweed, even though it's a massive sculpture. So somebody else looking at it might say, "God, it reminds me of falling in a dream right before I wake up." Both of those are probably correct.
David Rakoff: Has your art now turned to other current events?
Eric Fischl: No. It's actually gone back to sort of smaller, more confined spaces. I've been working on the relationship between men and women, intimacy, privacy, boundaries, all of those issues.
David Rakoff: Given the outcry, would you have done things differently?
Eric Fischl: I wouldn't have made the sculpture differently at all. I even regret caving in to Rockefeller Center so fast and saying: "Yeah, take it away. I don't want to hurt anybody." I'm sorry I didn't raise a stink over it. I hate this idea that there are some poeple who have a right to express their suffering and others who don't, that there are those in this hierarchy of pain who own it more than you do. It's not necessarily about witnessing firsthand that makes the experience. Picasso wasn't at Guernica when it happened; Goya wasn't there on the firing line. This is what a culture looks to art for, to put image, or voice, or context to a way of rethinking, reseeing, re-experiencing.
David Rakoff: When "Guernica" was first exhibited, I don't think people felt Picasso wasn't entitled to paint it.
Eric Fischl: Yeah, I think this is a new turn, for the worse. Right now we're shrinking away from truth. No one can criticize the president because we're in a very vulnerable time, even though he's doing some things that are terrifying. You can't express your personal horror and trauma at something that we all experienced. I think that what happened is that since the 60's there's been an ambition that art merge itself with pop culture. At first it was an ironic stance, and then it became actually a real thing; people wanted to have art as a playground and as entertainment. And that's fine in good times, but when something terrible or powerful or meaningful happens, you want an art that speaks to that, that embraces the language that would carry us forward, bring us together, all of that stuff. I think that September 11 showed us that as an art world we weren't quite qualified to deal with this. Not trained enough to handle it.
David Rakoff: That's some fairly grim training we're facing, then.
Eric Fischl: It's a terrible way to have to be trained, it's true, but the way the art world has been training younger and younger artists in idealogical gamesmanship, and there's been a lack of training in history and in techniques that one could apply in rendering the human form, for example. A lot of the young kids are sort of fabulous at drawing cartoons. But a cartoon's going to be pretty hard to express a lot of the experience of the last year. People have told me I should stop talking about this, just let it die down. But I can't stand idly by.
David Rakoff is an art critic for the New York Times.
© David Rakoff Reprinted from the New York Times