Eric Fischl: Painting Stories

Media - 2013.72.3 - SAAM-2013.72.3_1-000001 - 89549
Eric Fischl, The Clemente Family, 2005, oil on linen, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the James F. Dicke Family, 2013.72.3, © 2005, Eric Fischl
September 24, 2014

Having titled his recent memoir Bad Boy: My Life on and off the Canvas, Eric Fischl kicked off this season's annual Clarice Smith Distinguished Lectures in American Art series with a survey of his work, spanning more than forty years. From art school to the heady days of being an art star in New York City in the 1980s, to his life and current work on Long Island where he lives with his wife, painter April Gornik, Fischl's eye and intelligence were apparent. The bad boy is now 66, with a mane of white hair—more eminence than troublemaker.

Fischl began the talk by showing us an abstract painting he struggled to complete in art school, a painting that he said changed his life, and became "the muse" that he built his career on. So frustrated by the process that he poured turpentine on the canvas, and where the paint disappeared, he painted a shape that resembled a house, a room, a bed, or all of the above. As Fischl began to explore figuration, that shape became both sign and symbol for the artist, as his work over the decades often features lovers in rooms, on beds ("the bed as arena"), caught in a moment in time. Like paintings by Edward Hopper—albeit with fewer clothes—Fischl strips down his subjects to create a painting as well as a psychological portrait.

From decade to decade, from room to room, exteriors and interiors, Fischl shared with us his lifelong relationship with figurative painting, printmaking, and sculpture. Glassine works from the 1980s gave Fischl the opportunity to talk about his creative process and how to assemble a narrative. Other works include celebrity portraiture, such as the Francesco Clemente family portrait, (currently on view on the third floor of the museum) and an upcoming series on art fairs. Fischl offered fascinating insights into the Clemente portrait and the role each family member plays in creating the narrative, deliberately or unwittingly. Martha Graham famously said, "movement never lies." After hearing Fischl's talk, I'm wondering if the same thing could be said about paint.

In case you missed Fischl's talk, you can watch the webcast.

On October 22, Jerry Saltz will be the next speaker in the Clarice Smith Distinguished Lectures in American Art series.


Recent Posts

Detail of Phoebe Kline. She is sitting in front of orchids and smiling.
Docent Phoebe Kline began at SAAM in 1974 and she's still going strong
A photograph of a woman in front of artwork
More visitors and new exhibitions highlight a season of change.
 Stephanie Stebich, SAAM's Margaret and Terry Stent Direction in the museum's Lincoln Gallery. Photo by Gene Young. 
Stephanie Stebich
The Margaret and Terry Stent Director, Smithsonian American Art Museum and Renwick Gallery
Marian Anderson and symbols that surround her life
William H. Johnson portrayed the singer in multiple paintings, including in his Fighters for Freedom series.