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Why Painting Is a Lot Like Tennis

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The enigmatic art of Eric Fischl.

"Were these our seats?" says my friend Penley, just a little too loudly. The woman in front of him has moved our belongings onto one chair and is now occupying the other one, in pretended ignorance of the plight she has put us in. New Yorkers, I've learned, can be subtle with their incivility. Especially at art shows.

"I think so," I reply, in a tone designed to make the squatter uncomfortable. We continue this obviously staged dialogue for a minute or so, but the woman ignores us and continues her conversation. We're going to have to get another chair from the back.

We are here to listen to Eric Fischl. He is an artist, mostly a painter, famous for his vernacular, suburban backdrops that depict scenes bordering on the taboo and dangerous, and often hinting at the allegorical although the viewer can't always readily unpack the immediately suggestive imagery.

Fischl is very distinguished looking, with a black blazer over a black dress T-shirt and suit pants. His graying hair is longish, brushing his shoulders at times; he has that Richard Gere look about him, and I think that he could definitely pass for an onscreen presence. He waits patiently while someone delivers the obligatory aggrandizing introduction; then he steps to the microphone.

"Can everyone hear me?" he asks, with the confidence of a high-school debater who knows he's about to give a decisive rebuttal. There is a chorus of "no," "yes", and "a little!" from various parts of the room. Fischl shrugs.

"Well, there's nothing we can do about it, so … " There is a pause. "I'm a little tired right now," he apologizes. "I was just playing tennis." He could be talking to one of his students, or his wife. The audience giggles at his familiarity.

"You know, tennis is a lot like painting," he continues. I brace myself for a painfully stretched analogy. Surprisingly, though, Fischl carries it out with deft ease, winning soft laughter from us. "Both take place inside a rectangle. They use tools—a brush and a racket—that extend your reach and make strokes. There are rules, which are sometimes broken. Opposition and resistance are part of the goal; they improve you, make you into a more skilled competitor. And there are two camps of participants: professionals and amateurs.

"In tennis, there are two audiences. First, there is the audience that receives the full force of the ball, the one that resists your intentions. Your opponent. And then there is the audience that comes to watch the game. They don't care about the players. They care about the game itself—they want to see a good match.

"In art, there are also two audiences: first, again, the audience that resists your intentions; your opponent. It could be your love for da Vinci, which forbids you to paint a certain way, or your sixth-grade gym teacher, who instilled a lack of self-confidence in you that lasted well beyond the middle-school years. It is the voice inside the artist's head that tells him what he can or can't do. And the second audience, the one that comes to the show—they don't care about you," Fischl explains. "They want to see your work. They want to see the result of your struggle—the result of the existential-psychological-aesthetic battle between the artist and his soul."

He pauses to let the full weight of his words sink in on us. "Does that make any sense?" he asks, as if fully expecting us to speak up if it doesn't. There is silence, and many heads nod vigorously.

The lights dim, and Fischl begins to take us through slides of his work. There are many of them—he reveals later that he has brought his entire collection. They give the impression of being very brightly colored, but actually are in more muted tones; lively figures splashed across the canvas, sometimes with heavy emotion and sometimes with lighthearted fun. He flips through a few in a cursory manner without speaking, then stops to ponder one, as if considering anew what he was trying to get across in this painting and if he was successful with it.

"Can everyone see the slides okay?" he asks. There is a murmur of responses, all affirmative. "Beautiful!" is the loud reply from a boisterous fan in the back. On the screen we see a girl kneeling on a mattress, hugging a black Labrador with fierce affection. She has curlers in her hair. The room around her is described by Fischl as being "cold"; indeed, it has all the trappings of a doctor's office or a hotel room. Ugly, quietly garish wallpaper; a blanket that is too blue.

Each painting, Fischl says, has its own emotion, its own story: "I want my work to generate questions." (I am relieved, because I have many.)

"Yes, but do they give answers?" comes the voice of a bold, uninvited interrogator. Fischl doesn't bat an eyelash. "Not at all." He pauses for thought. "But they give associations, which are your answers." (So, for example, a painting of a priest, seen in profile, facing an altar, is subtly decentered by the figure of a man in the foreground, casually aloof, his back to the priest. And the questions —the associations— are multiplied by the title of the painting: The Confession of a Mafia Don.)

Fischl talks about his college days, when he and his colleagues liked to paint that which was taboo. (He received a B.F.A. from California Institute of the Arts in 1972.) He clicks to the next slide: one of his most famous. A boy, about 11 years of age, masturbating while standing in the ankle-deep water of a kiddie pool. "Here," he says, "I started out with the simple intention of painting a dirty picture." He's not sure if he accomplished that or not; he thinks it ended up in a more fertile area—an expression of a poignant time in the boy's life.

Many of Fischl's paintings, like this one, are nudes. An interesting observation comes up later, in the question session: While his characters are exposed physically, they seem to reveal almost none of their feelings to the viewer. This creates an uncomfortable sensation of voyeurism and invasiveness; the viewer initially feels as if he is intruding on the scene simply by looking at it.

Fischl describes his evolution as an artist. His earliest works, he says, were done in layers. First he would paint an object—a chair, for instance —on a transparent surface. Next he would paint someone in the chair, or standing next to the chair, or an object sitting beneath it, on a separate transparent sheet. He continued to add and take away characters and objects in this manner in search of something meaningful.

In his comments on some paintings, Fischl takes us through his thought process as he was creating them. Penley, who also paints, tells me this is just part of the experience of being an artist —not knowing what the finished product will look like until it is finished. But I have mixed feelings about this; it is amusing to hear how many "mistakes" Fischl made, but the mystery of wondering what the artist was thinking about a particular piece is lost when it is painstakingly explained to me. It feels a little like reading someone's diary.

One painting shows a girl lying on a bed in a postintercourse position. In the foreground, turned away from her, is a boy —again, about 11. A bowl of fruit rests on the table; the most interesting visual feature of the painting is the venetian blinds, which cast curious, meticulously painted shadows over everything in the room. "Believe it or not," he says confidentially, "I started this one just wanting to paint a bowl of fruit." The audience giggles.

Once the girl appeared—he says it as if she just jumped onto the canvas of her own accord—he tried many different "props": first a grown man, next a baby, then a little five-year-old looking out of the window. "By the time the boy got over to the table," Fischl says, "he was about 11." (More giggles.)

Fischl is aware of his stereotype: the "psychosexual suburbia" painter with a penchant for the uncomfortable. It was hard for him, he admits, to break the mold —to paint something that wasn't a "typical Fischl." He clicks through a few more slides, then stops. "This painting put me on the map."

The painting he has paused for is typical Fischl in that it contains nude figures in a slightly uncomfortable domestic setting: a father hugs his very small daughter on a chaise lounge outside of a Malibu-type condo. Fischl struggled with this painting, he says. He had finished the central figures, but there was something that didn't work, a kind of tension in the aloneness of the two naked bodies. He tried adding the mother on an adjacent chaise lounge. He experimented with a gardener. In frustration, he painted himself in. "At that point," he says, "I turned to myself and said, 'You are pathetic!' "

The audience roars; apparently, many of them have experienced similar feelings of self-abhorrence during artistic struggles.

"There is nothing wrong with this scene," Fischl explains. "We just have this anxiety about privacy. It becomes dirty. Just a simple scene of father and daughter, alone, is scary to us." He finally added a glass of iced tea on the table, which he says "implied" a presence nearby.

One of the final slides is of a painting entitled Why the French Fear Americans. An old man sits on a park bench by a carousel, his back to the viewer. Opposite him is a black woman, shorts around her ankles, T-shirt in her hand, stark naked, a wide grin on her face. There is yet another round of giggles.

Fischl talks about the importance of body language; how it can rivet him to something when he can't decide why he likes it. He elaborates on the difference between pose ("the aesthetic composition of a form") and posture ("how the body has reacted to the experiences of its life"). Penley, who has been concentrating intently for some time, suddenly whips out his pen and writes these two definitions down in his sketchbook.

Questions begin to trickle in, and quickly grow into a flood. "When is a painting finished?" This is the ultimate question for any artist, Fischl says. For him, it occurs when he becomes the audience. There is the usual onslaught of personal inquiries, which he dodges graciously without making the questioners look foolish. Penley raises his hand and comments on the difference between Fischl's early work, which was less confident and more sensational, and his later, which is much more self-assured but relies on more subtle imagery. He asks Fischl for his thoughts, but the artist (who seems surprised at such an intelligent question) gives him a glossed-over response. Later, Penley tells me that he likes the old style better—the bold rashness mixed with insecurity at being relatively new in the field, the visible process of carving out his niche in the art world.

I am soaking it all in—enjoying watching Fischl, certainly. He is supremely confident and seems to enjoy the devotion of his audience, feeding off the giddiness of all the old ladies who fancy themselves art critics. The art is disturbing at times, which is the effect he was trying to achieve—and often it is strikingly beautiful.

One set in particular holds my attention for days afterward: The Travel of Romance, which exists in five different scenes. In the first, a woman is shown with her lover; although he does not appear in any of the other scenes, she seems to be searching for him. The body language of the figures and the tone of the pictures are powerful enough to overcome the emotionlessness of the woman's face, the typical Fischl face that reveals nothing to the viewer. The high contrast of rich, dark shadow and blindingly bright slices of sunshine on her body is a visual delight.

Things are starting to wind down, and Fischl glances at his watch. "Okay, tell me honestly." He's 20 minutes overtime. "I have about 15 more slides on the next tray. We don't have to see them." There is a burst of spontaneous applause, complete with some whistles from the back section of rowdies. Fischl feigns embarrassment. "Please," he implores, as if he fears the applause will run out, "save it for the end."

Photo: Zen Garden - Los Angeles, June 2004

Copyright © 2009 Emily Jorjorian Lowe. All rights reserved.

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