On Modern American Art: Selected Essays

By Robert Rosenblum | Go to book overview

RIC FISCHL 1984

Ever since Freud's generation, artists, together with the rest of us, have tried to pinpoint and savor the memory of some long-ago childhood trauma, of some indelible image that haunts like a recurrent dream. Already by the 1890s, Edvard Munch had succeeded in seizing, within everyday settings of domestic interiors and local landscape, the immobilizing chill of a family deathbed, the throbbing excitement and terror of puberty, the lonely pressure point of the one excluded from the eternal triangle. By the time of the Surrealists, this territory of disturbing, buried emotions was excavated in an almost programmatic way. Whether through the uncanny, miniaturist clarity of 20/20 dream photographs or through the pulsating fluidity of abstract shapes and colors that, as in a nightmare just beyond recall, keep eluding final definition, this shadowy prey of repressed psychological biography was pursued. But by the 1980s, such goals must have seemed like old-hat art history. Who would ever have guessed that a young American painter, Eric Fischl, could resurrect them in a completely unexpected way, in the language of the plainest American prose?

De Chirico may well have evoked his father's towering tyranny; Dalí, his teenage guilt as a masturbator; Bellmer, his morbid obsession with dolls; or Balthus, his Lolita syndrome; but these excursions into the more perverse paths of psychodrama occur in an arty, theatrical environment, where we expect to relish a bizarre case history, more fiction than fact. With Fischl, the shock is of a different, more American kind, as if Winslow Homer, in the 1860s, had been obliged to illustrate his first experience of genital turmoil, or as if Edward Hopper, in the 1930s, sought to depict the erotic innuendos of a high-school girls' locker room. For the environment that Fischl spreads before us as decor for these sexual revelations is of the most startlingly contemporary Americana. Familiar enough to viewers of Dynasty and readers of pulp fiction, Fischl's milieu, which documents the material facts of the lives of Preppies, Yuppies, JAPs, and their families both at home and on vacation abroad, is alien to most of our expectations about serious settings for deeply unsettling paintings. In place of de Chirico's phallic towers, Dalí's detumescent watches, or Gorky's feathery orifices, Fischl rivets our viscera with an inventory of the most familiar objects, things we feel we have never seen in a painting before: a towel rack, a bidet, a wind-up monkey toy, a slice of lemon, bathroom tiles, a bedside wall telephone, a poolside sling chair. This insistence on the common coin of our environment is oddly disturbing, for it provides a deadpan background of ordinary truths to a domain of pounding emotions, presumably inaccessible to a painter who would

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