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Alec Baldwin: This is Alec Baldwin and you're listening to Here’s The Thing from WNYC radio. My guest today, painter Eric Fischl, became known in the 1980s art scene for work that explores issues of sexuality and power and what it means to become a man. In Bad Boy, which Fischl describes as his most famous and notorious painting, there is a naked woman lying on a bed. A young boy is standing in front of her, his hands behind his back, seeming to be taking something from her purse.
The complexity of his early pieces can be attributed, Fischl has acknowledged, to his childhood.
He grew up in the privileged country club culture of Long Island. To be specific, the Port Washington Yacht Club. But his mother suffered from depression and alcoholism and committed suicide when Fischl was 22. After decades of living in New York City, he and his wife, painter April Gornik, now live full-time in Eastern Long Island.
In his recent autobiography, Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas, Fischl details his youth, the art world, his own struggles with depression and substance abuse, and his thoughts about the creative process. For Eric Fischl, the book challenged him in unexpected ways.
Eric Fischl: The difficult part of writing it wasn’t the early stuff where it was about family traumas and, you know, dealing with that. That was actually the easiest part to write because I put that into my paintings and stuff so I had already gone through the emotional ramifications.
What was difficult was actually trying to find some perspective in the present moment as to what my feelings were, what was going on in the world around me at that time. I went through a lot more confused feelings about the present. In the past, I dealt with it so much in the work that I knew exactly what I felt. It was just a matter of putting it into words.
Female: Eric Fischl first picked up a paintbrush in college, an experience he describes as an awakening. Fischl was in the first undergraduate class at Cal Arts, a place that would become known as much for orgies as conceptual art. But it would be some time before his skill, talent and voice found a home in realism.
Eric Fischl: I started out being trained as an abstract painter. You know, if you were going to be a painter, you should be an abstract painter, so I tried. What it turned out was that every abstract painting I made felt, like, it was absolutely the last painting I could make.
Then at some point, I started to work with figures and with narrative and language and stuff like that, and it flowed. That’s when I realized I was now doing the work that I was supposed to do, that I was built for. And then it was a matter of getting better at it, and you know, perfecting it, honing it, et cetera.
Alec Baldwin: What was among the first things that led you to that? What was the story? What was the narrative you thought, ‘I want to put that on canvas somehow’?
Eric Fischl: It was a process, actually. The process was that I found this transparent paper called glassine paper. It’s this kind of paper they use to put chocolates in and stuff. It accepts oil paint beautifully. That is the brush feels great gliding across the slick surface. If you make a mistake, you wipe it off. Very little shows of that, you know.
And it’s got this transparency so I would start with an image, a chair. And I would paint a chair on this paper and I’d stick it on the wall. And then I would sit and look at it. And I’d say, ‘Okay. Where is this chair? Is it in the living room? Is it in the dining room? Is there anyone sitting in the chair?’ As I was thinking that, I’d go get another transparent piece of paper, lay it on top and say, ‘Okay. It’s a person and then they’re sitting this way in the chair. No, that didn’t work.’ Take that off. Get another one, put that on.
‘Okay. They’re actually standing next to the chair.’ So I would paint that. I would just talk to myself and as I did, I would sort of create these images and eventually a scene would emerge that seemed to resonate for me that had some kind of memory to it, some kind of feeling in it that was expressing something about relationships between people, families, interfamily relationships, people and objects that they surround themselves with.
And then eventually I decided I wanted to actually bring that into the painting world and with color, and canvas and stuff like that, more detail, more specific detail. And so it evolved into the work that I do now.
Alec Baldwin: When I see my snapshot of you, when I paint, the painter in me paints Eric Fischl on a canvas. Very handsome guy, very gregarious, your sisters talk about how funny you were and how gregarious you were, and kind of volcanic and volatile and so forth. And I think to myself, you know, there’s a description in the book about how it was the first time you were comfortable being alone when you had those tools and the material in front of you, which I found fascinating. Was there ever a thought of you doing something else creatively?
Eric Fischl: Well, music was out of the question ‘cause I have a tone-deaf ear so, and there’s no way I could do that.
Alec Baldwin: That’s a problem.
Eric Fischl: I was in a play in eighth grade, in which I – it was called It’s Cold in Them Thar Hills. And I played this hillbilly named Zeke who didn’t speak through the entire play, but was on stage the entire time, until the very end when I had this big speech where I proclaim my love for this person who didn’t know I was even present.
Alec Baldwin: Do you get the girl?
Eric Fischl: And I get the girl. But it was like spending a lot of time kind of being present and absent at the same time, was actually a profound experience for me. But it didn’t lead to me wanting to do the next play – to do that and I’ve actually become more of a public person over the years. I was much more reticent, much more behind my eyes, which is really where the painter comes from.
And it was a lot easier for me to, in private, have my thoughts and feelings and sort of express them before anyone ever saw them. And so I can actually control the form of expression before it entered the world.
Alec Baldwin: So painting gave you art and privacy?
Eric Fischl: Yes. Exactly. Exactly.
Alec Baldwin: But that changed –
Eric Fischl: But my sensibility is very much, I think, consistent with, you know, an actor’s sensibility and a director’s sensibility and in that sense of understanding what a dramatic moment actually is, where meaning is present and how it comes through, not just a language, but it comes through a body language.
It comes through a light source. It comes through a clearly defined space and how one sort of negotiates that space. And those are the things that I’m most compelled with. And in fact, my greatest pleasure is when people in the dramatic arts connect to my work, ‘cause I feel like they get it in a way that people, other painters, don’t necessarily.
Alec Baldwin: You do expect the images at some point to start moving.
Eric Fischl: To move. Yeah, yeah.
Alec Baldwin: Or speaking.
Eric Fischl: And you know I—my work is based on – or that as a source material, photographs. What photography showed me, because it slices life so thinly – it showed me that everybody is in constant motion and that everybody is off balance, and that that animates a scene, you know?
It’s one of the reasons I don’t actually bring models into the studio and have them pose for me because they become a static pose, when what I’m looking for is something that triggers a feeling or a memory or a provocation of some kind. And I find that whereas you look at a photograph that you took of somebody that is slightly turning, shifting weight in their body, doing something like that that really sets those questions.
Alec Baldwin: What I love when I look at photographs, when I look at paintings, when I look at your paintings, when I look at films I like and the visual because I went to an acting school where they said, ‘Watch the movie with the sound off.’ And if you can’t convey something, if the picture isn’t telling the story, 60 – 75 percent of the time, then the movie’s a failure.
Eric Fischl: Something’s wrong. Yeah. I mean, the difference between film and theater and painting is that in both film and theater, you build an emotional sort of construct. You build a narrative construct over a set period of time with various scenes that lead to it. Where with painting, you're trying to shrink it down into this one moment that when you stop that action is when it actually begins to spin the mood, spin the moment, spin the thoughts and projections and stuff.
So it’s about trying to find okay, where do I stop the action, right? For me, you stop it at something just before something happens or just right after something happens. If you stop it in the middle of something happening, what you end up with is a kind of confusion that doesn’t take you anywhere, but if you stop before, the audience rushes in to complete it.
They know where it’s going now. ‘Oh, that person’s doing this and that’s gonna happen because they just blah, blah, blah.’ Or if right after, dealing with the emotional aftermath of that, then the audience, again, rushes in with the memory of those feelings that they associate with what just happened. That I find to be the real challenge and the fun part of it as well.
Alec Baldwin: Do you think another aspect of it for you is that, as you talked about you – you know, some of your first experiences of being comfortable and feeling secure alone with yourself, do you find that this carries through in so far as a painter, and this is my view. I’m not saying this is a commonly held view, but this is my view and that is that the work I do (a) it requires an audience –
Eric Fischl: And also somebody giving you a role.
Alec Baldwin: Right. And someone – exactly. Someone, unless you’re self-producing, but for you, my view of it is I sit there with – and look at painters and I think, ‘God. How much I envy them.’ You sit in a room and you're totally self-generating and you do exactly what you want to do and then you send it out into the world and say, ‘If you like, it great. If you don’t, I really don’t give a shit.’ It’s completely on the self-conscious in that way unless you’re doing a commission, you know what I mean. Do you feel that way that it’s a part –
Eric Fischl: I think that I don’t give a shit is a protective –
Alec Baldwin: Is it?
Eric Fischl: A response. I think it’s, like, ‘God. I hope they like this.’
Alec Baldwin: You do?
Eric Fischl: Oh, sure. Yeah, but the – you’ve already done it. You accept it may fall short of your hope and expectations, but I don’t believe any painters, sitting there, pretending that they only do the work for themselves and stuff. They’re seeking some kind of resonance, some response.
Alec Baldwin: Have you ever done a painting and you were mistaken, meaning you did a painting – and I’m being very melodramatic – you did a painting and you were done and you said, ‘Good God, Fischl, you’ve done it. There it is. There you have it.’ And the painting did not succeed in one term, and other times you sat there and said the opposite. You said, ‘This is a piece of crap,’ and it was one of your more successful paintings. Has that happened?
Eric Fischl: Not in the extreme, but I’ve certainly done paintings that I thought were better than they were received. And I’ve certainly had the experience where I’ve seen paintings that I didn’t think were so good when I did them, and see them ten years later and go, ‘You know that actually isn’t that bad.’
So I don’t know, but this is a little off the subject, but more back to sort of acting and painting, I did a project once where I actually used actors. I was given a house, a Mies van der Rohe house in Krefeld, Germany, to do some kind of interaction with the house. I never worked with actors before and so I went to friends who were in the business, writers, playwrights, screenwriters, whatever, directors, to give me some ideas. Like, how do you talk to an actor? What gets them going, et cetera? Because I had no clue.
And the simplest advice came back from Mike Nichols, who said, ‘Oh, give them problems. They love problems.’ And I says, ‘What the hell is a problem?’ And he said, ‘Oh, you know. She wants to borrow $500.00 from him, but you wont tell him why. Why not just give them that? You’ll see,’ right? It was, like, ‘Okay.’ So I went into this thing with these two actors who happened to be German. They understood English, but they performed – and they did whatever they did in German –
Alec Baldwin: What a funny thing for him to choose.
Eric Fischl: Actually –
Alec Baldwin: [Laughter] That’s so weird.
Eric Fischl: I know and that’s strange. And I was taking still photographs, too. I was just clicking snapshots. I wasn’t recording it. I didn’t think I cared about, you know, the dialogue. I didn’t care about the sound that said – whatever – all I wanted were these sort of still moments.
What blew my mind was that I would give them a problem and I was surprised at how fast I could tell that the problem I gave them wasn’t any good. They couldn’t get animated. And they were just like–
Alec Baldwin: It wasn’t achieving the desired effect.
Eric Fischl: No, they were just dead. It was nothing. Their body couldn’t even move hardly. And at the same time, when I gave them something they could really bite their teeth into –
Alec Baldwin: For example?
Eric Fischl: Well, I did a –
Alec Baldwin: She’ll sleep with you, but she has to break up with her boyfriend first.
Eric Fischl: Yeah – [Laughter] – the thing is, the female actress had like zero interest in him, but she was very professional so we’re going to do the bedroom stuff. And I set up some stuff in there and it really wasn’t working. It was something. They were dressed in evening clothes, it was late, they come home, he’s drunk, she’s hoping that they could have some sex, maybe, he’s, you know, what, can’t kinda get it together. It was lame.
So he gets up and he goes off to the bathroom or something like that. So I say to her, ‘Look. Take off your clothes and get in the bed. You're a wild animal. Whatever you do, don’t let him in the bed.’ Now this bed that I had chosen was like a modernist bed that had this igloo of a mosquito netting over it, so it made like a cocoon or something like that, a tent. So I said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t let him in the bed. You're a wild animal.’
All of a sudden she curls up into this incredible creature and then pushes herself against the end of the wall and is like, just sitting there waiting, right? And he comes back into the room and now he sees her in the bed, she’s naked, it’s like, ‘Oh.’
Alec Baldwin: Now we’re getting somewhere.
Eric Fischl: Now we’re getting somewhere, right? And he takes his bathrobe off and walks over to the netting and he starts to lift it up. And she comes flying across the bed, one leap, and smashes him in the face, right? And he’s, like, ‘Whoooooa,’ then the guy goes, ‘Whoa.’
Alec Baldwin: Whoa…
Eric Fischl: This could be fun.
Alec Baldwin: I like the women challenge.
Eric Fischl: Yeah, and I’m going, ‘Oh no.’
Alec Baldwin: and you got good images from that.
Eric Fischl: I got great images off of that. Yeah, yeah. They did a whole dance around getting in and out of the bed and when he finally got in, she slipped out and it reversed the roles and stuff. That was that.
Alec Baldwin: Now with people that you photograph, manipulate, paint, whatever verb you want to use for the work that you do and the stages of the work you do, how much of it would you say your view of people – ‘cause I think most men, we have this in common, which is this relationship of your mother.
And if you have a good relationship with your mother, let’s say you want to replicate that and if a terrible relationship with your mother, you want to find someone who’s the opposite of your mother or you want to restage the drama with your mother. As a therapist once said to me, ‘We want to restage that in our lives and you get all the good lines now, which eluded you in your youth.’ So –
Eric Fischl: I think all art expression is in some way, trying to correct a lot of stuff.
Alec Baldwin: And for you, how so?
Eric Fischl: And trying to put some clarity to it, some order to it, make it make sense, you know?
Alec Baldwin: How would you think that you’re – you're very candid about your mother who is obviously very ill. She’s a very sick woman and that plays out in her behavior. She wasn’t a mean-spirited woman.
Eric Fischl: No.
Alec Baldwin: She was just completely overwhelmed by alcohol.
Eric Fischl: She was just out of control.
Alec Baldwin: How would you say that color – because count to three, when you read the book, and your bellbottoms and Haight-Ashbury and you're into a very summer of love, ’66, I think, is when you head out to the West Coast, and you're in the thick of it. How did you think – what did you carry out there with you in terms of your idea about women, what you wanted – ‘cause what I get from the book is you're someone who was kind of raised not to ask for anything.
Eric Fischl: Well, I had sort of two kinds of relationships with women. One was I was attracted to women that were absolutely bad for me. They opened up that void, just emptiness, that, in a way that was –
Alec Baldwin: Replaying that feeling.
Eric Fischl: Yeah, and it was full of passion. And it was full of you know this profound need and stuff like that. It was very emotional and very short-lived. And then the other kind of woman was one where they were really stable.
Alec Baldwin: Reliable.
Eric Fischl: And reliable.
Alec Baldwin: Available.
Eric Fischl: Yeah. And I married them. [Laughter]
Alec Baldwin: Right, right, right. You're married to April.
Eric Fischl: I married – I was married once before.
Alec Baldwin: You were married once before.
Eric Fischl: And…
Alec Baldwin: Stable.
Eric Fischl: And stable enough, yeah. But, yeah. I married April and you know, for the last 30 some odd years, yeah.
Alec Baldwin: Did your work change in sync with your attitude toward love and relationships?
Eric Fischl: It did with time. The early relationship with April, for example, we were both young artists, really, trying to find our voices, trying to understand who we were. I was dealing with the wounds of the past as opposed to the present with her so it wasn’t apparent then other than the stability of our relationship gave me the courage to look into these other –
Alec Baldwin: How was she different?
Eric Fischl: Well, you know, she’s incredibly bright, incredibly disciplined and she’s somebody that can multi-task in an emotional way.
Alec Baldwin: Do you have children?
Eric Fischl: No.
Alec Baldwin: Do you think that that was partly because of what your childhood –
Eric Fischl: Yeah, I think both April and I had very traumatic things that – past that made that seem dangerous.
Alec Baldwin: Do you regret not having done that?
Eric Fischl: It would—
Female: ‘Cause you have a very warm, humanistic – your personality. You have a very easy going –
Eric Fischl: No, I had – there was a point at which I felt I could handle having kids, but April wasn’t there yet. And the one thing I wasn’t going to do was insist that we do it my way because I knew what the –
Alec Baldwin: She was only going to indulge you so far.
Eric Fischl: Yeah. Or it was going to break her down in a way that I couldn’t bear. So, you know, it passed.
Alec Baldwin: In the book, your father – he went that route that a lot of dads go, which he just wants to give you the safe advice. His parental duty was to say to you, ‘Let’s be reasonable now.’ And he told you get a business. Did your father live to see you become a great success?
Eric Fischl: He did. Yeah. My mother didn’t. My father did. He actually didn’t understand what success was in art anyway. He’d kinda given up by then, right? So in –
Alec Baldwin: On what? Understanding you?
Eric Fischl: On me. Yeah, exactly.
Alec Baldwin: So you had a very, very kind of icy relationship with her.
Eric Fischl: It was volatile and complicated, but, you know, he really didn’t know anything about art so he didn’t really know anything about what success in art was. And back then success and fortune were not connected to each other in the art world. You could be highly successful, you know, shown in museums around the world and still be doing a teaching job or driving a taxi or something to do it.
So he was perplexed that I would even be in a field in which there wasn’t a monetary reward, necessarily, right? But at some point, he started to see my name in print. And that was something that he understood as success.
All of a sudden a local newspaper or an art magazine or something, there’s his son, right? And then he really flipped from sort of disengagement to the proud parent who – we’d go into a grocery store and at the checkout counter, he’d go, ‘You know who this is? My son. This is the artist.’
Alec Baldwin: He’d take the clipping out of his wallet.
Eric Fischl: [Laughter] Yeah, exactly.
Alec Baldwin: ‘This is from The New York Times. My little E-R-I-C F-I-S-C-H-L’ – no E-L.
Eric Fischl: No E. No E. Well, you know he –
Eric Fischl: He became an artist at the end of his life as well. He discovered collage and it took him a while after he retired to – he tried other things and then all of a sudden, he found himself, sitting in his office at home, cutting pictures out and gluing them together. You know, he was not a schooled artist but he had an eye and he had a kind of liveliness to these collages that he made that were very expressive.
And by the time he died, I’d realized that he and I could never talk to each other. We just kept missing, you know? But we understood each other visually, and so he would send me his collages and I knew exactly what he was thinking about, where he was at, how he was feeling. He was really communicating through these visual images.
And he showed me that he was – had been using my paintings to understand what had happened in our lives with my mother and the whole family dynamic. And so we, actually, were both visual people who understood what that meant to communicate visually to each other. So it was deeply rewarding to me ultimately, but it took me a while to understand it.
Alec Baldwin: Did he ever talk to you about your paintings and his view of your paintings?
Eric Fischl: Well, at first, he didn’t – he talked to me about success. He could in – be enthusiastic for this show and that show, et cetera, et cetera, but there was this thing that happened. It was, I think – you know, really blew my mind, which was that I had done a painting, called A Woman Possessed, and it was a painting of a woman outside this suburban home, drunk, passed out in the driveway, surrounded by these dogs that were like beasts from hell.
Some were sniffing her, some were growling at the son, who had just come home from school, the schoolbooks are on the ground, his bicycle’s flipped over, he’d hopped off his bike. So this boy is trying to pull her away from these dogs and – her demon dogs. I showed the painting in Toronto and the critic described it in the most beautiful terms.
He understood it as a painting that revealed the profound pain of love, of loving someone, right? And it was a painting – it was the only painting in this show. It was a one painting show and he wrote extensively about it and so proud son sends it to my father and unbeknownst to me, my father sends the review off to my siblings, right? And my younger sister, Laurie, writes back a letter to him. She’s furious.
Why is he trying to make her remember this painful time, you know? And he shared these letters to me. I didn’t know they were having – the whole communication came to me. But he shared to me her response and then his response to her, in which he revealed that he had been actually using my paintings the whole time to understand emotionally what had been happening in our lives and stuff and that he was just trying to heal something, trying to bring her into it as well and into a healing process –
Alec Baldwin: And to acknowledge his awareness.
Eric Fischl: Yeah, which took me completely by surprise that he had been seeing the work as deeply as he had, you know, revealed –
Alec Baldwin: As you intended it to be seen.
Eric Fischl: Which is what I intended and hope for, yeah.
Alec Baldwin: He might have been last on the list of people to have gotten it.
Eric Fischl: Yeah, exactly. Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: Did he find his April and marry someone that was reliable for him emotionally?
Eric Fischl: No. I mean, he married somebody that was absolutely reliable, loved him, stable – yes, in that sense, but she was such a polar opposite of my mother. I was surprised ‘cause I thought my father would just find some little bit more manageable version of my mother. The things he loved in my mother, her creativity, her—
Alec Baldwin: Triumphed over her alcoholism with demons.
Eric Fischl: Yeah, but instead, he wasn’t attached to that part of her.
Alec Baldwin: Coming up in part 2 of our conversation, Eric Fischl talks about the challenges of becoming a first-time art teacher.
Eric Fischl: I was only a couple years older than them to begin with—
Alec Baldwin: Sure, you’re a young teacher.
Eric Fischl: And I had never been taught techniques.
Alec Baldwin: And, the benefits. That’s where he met his current wife, April. This is Alec Baldwin.
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Alec Baldwin: This is Alec Baldwin and you're listening to Here’s The Thing. My guest today is Eric Fischl. For years, he and his wife worked out of their downtown Manhattan studio, but he says the city doesn’t feed him like it once did. Now he feels a greater connection to nature. Back in the early ‘80s, however, it was the perfect place to develop his craft.
Eric Fischl: SoHo was percolating. I mean, it was a real village of artists. All of the –
Alec Baldwin: It wasn’t lower Madison Avenue like it is now.
Eric Fischl: No, it was – it was not a mall, it was a village and, you know, kinda thing where you would see people you knew on the streets everyday. You’d sit and talk. You’d break bread; hang out at art bars and stuff like that.
It was great and there was a kind of exciting tension between the older artists and us, young kids, who had come there to make a difference. And there was a rivalry and a healthy competitive thing going on. We wanted to kill them and they wanted to ignore us.
Alec Baldwin: By them, who do you mean, particularly?
Eric Fischl: Well, there was a generation of artists – half a generation of five, ten years older –
Alec Baldwin: For example.
Eric Fischl: that were doing sort of minimalist work. For example, people like Don Judd or Carl Andre or Sol LeWitt. There were conceptual artists like Larry Weiner or Joseph Kosuth or – to name a couple that – doing a whole different kind of thing. Painting had become a disregarded medium, so part of my generation was trying to see if we could reassert some kind of authority and authenticity to painting.
And the kind of painting that the minimalists had done had brought painting to its ultimate conclusion, which was to essentially have a kind of nothing there. A lot of artists felt it was a dead medium and then there were other artists like myself who was absolutely, ‘No, painting’s real and you just have to find the truth. Find the things that matter and convey them convincingly.’ There wasn’t yet the limos. There wasn’t yet the kind of rock star status. All those things were to come.
Alec Baldwin: When?
Eric Fischl: Probably by ’85? It started to –
Alec Baldwin: And how did you – and how you describe that? When it came, it came how? People weren’t collecting – you talk about painting was an overlooked medium, art form. We read about the art world where dead masters continue to sell paintings for tens, if not, hundreds of millions of dollars. And at that time in the late ‘70s and ‘80s is that what the art-collecting world was confined to? Were the masters of art and everything contemporary was just overlooked?
Eric Fischl: No, what it was was there was a –
Alec Baldwin: Warhol wasn’t Warhol then, was he?
Eric Fischl: He wasn’t in terms of financially, he wasn’t. His paintings were selling pretty cheaply but a collector base entered that had made money very quickly in the dot com world. And then moved into sort of buying art and speculating on it. There was a sense that the object was to find the next genius, right?
So what you did was you started to speculate on young artists, buying a lot of it cheap, hoping that one of them was going to turn out to be Picasso or something like that. There were all these stories that a collector buying a Jasper Johns painting for $250.00 and selling it for $11 million.
Alec Baldwin: John’s giving it to you to pay his rent or one of those stories.
Eric Fischl: Yeah. Exactly. That kind of thing. So there was this whole kind of vogue among collectors to just go in and put money into young artists.
Alec Baldwin: Speculatively.
Eric Fischl: Yeah. And it was a way for them to deal with their money anyway ‘cause they had no—
Alec Baldwin: And it changed the art world.
Eric Fischl: No, it’s hedge funders instead of—
Alec Baldwin: I have a guy who’s a friend of mine, who’s an artist. And one guy will say to me, ‘Hey, man.’ And he says it without an ounce of cynicism, ‘Go online and look at Kevin Johnson.’ I’ll make up a name. ‘Go see Kevin Johnson.’ And Kevin Johnson has just a white canvas; it’s just white. He’s, like, ‘No, no. You don’t get it, man. This guy – his white. This is what’s happening right now. Everyone’s just diggin’ on Kevin Johnsons. This isn’t white. It’s Kevin Johnson’s white.’
Eric Fischl: It’s Kevin Johnson’s white.
Alec Baldwin: ‘It’s Kevin Johnson’s white. Everyone’s just jonesing for this white. You're going to buy this now for $150,000.00 and in about 5 years from now, you're going to sell it for $500,000.00, maybe $1 million. Everyone’s going nuts for Kevin Johnson.’
And I look at paintings and I thought to myself, ‘Oh, that’s just a game I didn’t want to play.’ But people are playing that game constantly.
Eric Fischl: Yeah, I don’t understand why people don’t have a space in their life where they don’t do what they normally do, you know? Like, if you're a hedge funder or some financial guy, why do you have to turn everything into a transaction?
Alec Baldwin: Monetizing.
Eric Fischl: Why do you have to monetize? Why isn’t there this one place where you do something just for yourself?
Alec Baldwin: But how do you feel knowing that you're going to do a painting and that painting is done. Eric Fischl says, ‘I’m done. I put the last tinge of bronze on the cleavage of the woman’s left breast ‘cause the sun – see I’ve got the cigarette ash the length I want it. I’ve got the man’s smile. I’ve got all of the Fischl-esque tableau. I’m done.’
And you sit there and say, ‘Now this painting may wind up like in an apartment at 15th Central Park West. Some guy’s just going to punt it to another guy, and another guy, and’ – you just don’t even have any feeling about that? You just accept that? Or does it piss you off?
Eric Fischl: Yeah, well, it completely pisses me off. It’s the kind of thing that if I actually let it get into my studio, it’ll destroy what – why I make art.
Alec Baldwin: You block that out.
Eric Fischl: So it’s – and obviously, it gets increasingly harder and harder to do that. I mean, I do these works on paper, that oil on paper. They’re sketches. They’re a great pleasure for me to do. Some of them lead to paintings, some of them don’t, but it’s an activity that I do. And there was a time when they would be sold for like $5,000.00 and then $10,000.00.
I, at some point, on the secondary market, they were selling for $100,000.00. I would sell it to – in a show for $5,000.00. Six months later, they’re in an auction someplace for $100,000.00, right? So you go back into the studio and you're – I’m making my sketches and stuff like that. And I’m looking at it, I’m thinking, ‘Well, why not do a couple more?’ It’s, like, all of a sudden, they’re starting to turn into currency and – which is a totally different sort of way of thinking about it.
Alec Baldwin: And how much – and how hard is it for you to resist ‘cause I was joking with the friend of mine last night over dinner, and I said what it must be like in your world where you’re completely self-determining, where you're completely self-generating – I get amazed. I sit there and say, ‘God. Eric Fischl’s the kinda guy where if he and April are, like, laying there in bed on Sunday’ – I mean, I have a very silly improv comedy view of it –
‘April Gornik and Eric Fischl are lying in bed on a Sunday, reading The New York Times, and she turns to you and goes, ‘Eric, I’d so love to go heli-skiing.’’ You're reading the paper. It’s November. ‘I’d so love to go heli-skiing in British Columbia in January.’ And you're like, ‘Sure, baby, let’s go’ – and you go out and you paint a painting. And that’s the heli-skiing trip.
Eric Fischl: And that’s the heli-skiing trip. Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: I mean, you can just go do a painting. You're Eric Fischl and run it out the door, whether you like it or – how hard is it for you to resist that?
Eric Fischl: I used to have this fantasy that when my muse left me, I would still be able to make product, right? That I wouldn’t be making art anymore, but I’d be making things that look like art. And that that was okay, right? And so there were times in my process where I got stuck. The inspiration was gone and I was sure that it now, my muse, my inspiration had left, right?
A total blockage kinda thing. And what I found to my horror was that it didn’t just leave my head. It left my hand. And that I actually couldn’t paint anymore. I couldn’t draw. I couldn’t make something look like something. It literally left every part of me.
Alec Baldwin: I feel the same way. I couldn’t talk. [Inaudible]
Eric Fischl: And that was terrifying, right? That’s your worst nightmare. And, so, I have that memory, which keeps me somewhat focused on staying true to my ultimate goal.
Alec Baldwin: So you're there and you're in that space and the muse isn’t there for you. And you’ve decided not to engage, preferably, if you don’t – so what’s the longest period that you went that you didn’t paint?
Eric Fischl: It’s not so much that I didn’t paint. I kept trying, like a bulldog. I just keep trying to go through it. It’s just that it’s dead, dead, dead. So I tried to keep in mind that there’s two audiences. And there’s only one audience that’s worth playing to. And it’s an audience of voices that are in your head that are made-up heroes, artists I admire –
Alec Baldwin: Such as?
Eric Fischl: Well, there’s historical figures. The greatest arms sculptor, Michelangelo, say, the greatest sort of anger painter, Max Beckmann. They have very particular things for me that I admire that I either emulate or can’t do and wish I could and et cetera, et cetera, but they’re clarifying. And there’s the mother voice, the father voice, the gym teacher voice, the whatever. And –
Alec Baldwin: A chorus.
Eric Fischl: Yeah. And they’re all in there, sort of, saying what I can and can’t do. What I should and shouldn’t do, et cetera. So I’m, like, each painting is proving to these voices that this was the right move, that I was going to do something that they would admire, something that would finally shut them up, you know, whatever.
Anyway, this is an audience of – that stands outside of time. It’s constant and it has a quality, a standard to it, that I understand. I can tell when I’m – my paintings are falling short of that performance, that it didn’t reach where I needed it to go because I knew that I was falling short of this person I admire, this person that I hate.
Alec Baldwin: In so far as your own paintings through your success or monetized or just collected by pure collectors or hang in institutions, have you, yourself, collected others paintings? Have you used your success? Whose art hangs in your home? Have you collected art?
Eric Fischl: I have. I don’t consider myself a collector at all. What I did was at a certain point, I wanted to acknowledge my peers. So I wanted to collect something of each of the people that I admire who have inspired me, supported me, whatever, help me form my thoughts. So I have examples of their work.
That’s why I’m not a collector it’s ‘cause I don’t have the connoisseurship in terms of going after the best David Salle painting, and the best Cindy Sherman, and the best Anselm Kiefer, you know, things like that. What I have is examples of their work that somebody looking over my shoulder would say, ‘Oh, this was your time and these were your people and stuff.’
Alec Baldwin: And what about your own work? Have you finished a painting and you said, ‘That’s for me.’
Eric Fischl: Yeah, yeah.
Alec Baldwin: So your own work hangs.
Eric Fischl: The older I get, the more I do that. Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: ‘I’ll keep this one.’
Eric Fischl: Early on, I couldn’t afford it. And let some of my best work go.
Alec Baldwin: Fly out the window.
Eric Fischl: Yeah, exactly. Now I’m a little bit more precious about that and part of it is the love doesn’t come back in the way you need it to come back. The exchange is not – it doesn’t really work in the way you want it to, which is to say, I make a painting out of love, right? And a profound love, which includes respect, admiration, desire, need, all of the things that go into being a human, wanting to communicate to another human, and connect to another human. I call that love.
And so I make a painting out of love. And I’m seeking love in return. I want that to come back in that way, right? So somebody gives you money, right, which on one hand, you think, ‘Well, that’s an expression of love. They want to possess your work.’ So they’re expressing love, but money doesn’t feel like love because is a neutral currency. Now I have to change that money into something that tells me how much love I just got back, right?
Alec Baldwin: How do you do that?
Eric Fischl: Exactly. That’s where the issue is.
Alec Baldwin: How do you it?
Eric Fischl: How do you do that?
Alec Baldwin: Have you done it?
Eric Fischl: Well, so you buy a car or you buy a house. You buy –
Alec Baldwin: Add on to your house.
Eric Fischl: Yeah, exactly. Things that you want slash need. You do that. And then there’s a point in which you don’t need those things anymore. You’ve got all your toys and stuff.
Alec Baldwin: Your mortgage is paid.
Eric Fischl: Exactly. But now you have excess, right? So is that excess love –
Alec Baldwin: ______.
Eric Fischl: or is that just [Laughter]
Alec Baldwin: But my question or you is do you find that when the muse goes away, when you lapse into a period of product versus art, when the artist, and that’s a very real condition, struggles, I found people where it affects them in many ways.
It affects their appetite, their sexual appetite, their physical healthy, their emotional health, their sleep – I mean, it really, really, really damages them and hurts them. Have you gone through periods of that where you were really, really – thought you were losing it?
Eric Fischl: Yeah. Absolutely.
Alec Baldwin: What’d you do to get out of it?
Eric Fischl: I –
Alec Baldwin: Painted your way out of it?
Eric Fischl: Ultimately painted the way out of it, but relied a lot on April to keep me above the water and stuff.
Alec Baldwin: So you bring me to where – the one our last two questions is. Let’s go to Halifax and you meet April. And where are you at your life when you meet April and what happened?
Eric Fischl: I’m 27 years old or something like that. I’m teaching at this art school that actually is a sort of very advanced thinking place that, like, CalArts where I went to school, Nova Scotia College of Art and Design was also sort of based on the most radical art of the moment, anti-painting. So they hired me as a young untested painter, teacher, simply ‘cause they’d fired somebody mid-semester, needed someone right away.
They could care less about painting so they took a risk on this guy based on what my former teacher had recommended. I get this job. I’m in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I go up there with my wife at the time, spend three months teaching there. She’s lapsing into a deep depression ‘cause she’s rootless and being ignored and I’m –
Alec Baldwin: Following you basically.
Eric Fischl: Yeah and following me and I’m not sensitive enough to it, what that sacrifice was. We move back to Chicago in the summer and I get rehired and she announces she doesn’t want to go back. And our marriage is over. And that following year, I meet April. I didn’t plan on falling in love. I just planned on having sex and –
Alec Baldwin: Shame on you, Eric.
Eric Fischl: [Laughter] I know.
Alec Baldwin: Shame on you.
Eric Fischl: [Laughter] Call me shallow.
Alec Baldwin: Shallow. So shallow.
Eric Fischl: Anyway, one thing led to another and what it was was I was actually going through a very complicated set of emotions for – I had never mourned the death of my mother. I had just broken up with – split with my wife, kind of thing. I was now falling in love, not wanting to, with April. My work was going through a transition where I was giving up the artist I thought I was going to be, for the artist I ultimately became and that period of doubt threw me into a kind of series of anxiety attacks, panic modes, where I really began to have some serious psychological issues. I was dissociating and ended up on anti-psychotic medicine and stuff like that to stabilize me. Meanwhile, I’m teaching.
Alec Baldwin: [Laughter] Meanwhile, you're up showing these young impressionable minds the world through your eyes.
Eric Fischl: Exactly.
Alec Baldwin: Let me show you the world through my Klonopin-soaked eyes.
Eric Fischl: The thing is that I was only a couple years older than them to be begin with.
Alec Baldwin: Sure. You're a young teacher.
Eric Fischl: And I had never been taught technique, so I’m teaching painting and I’m teaching–
Alec Baldwin: Were you doing the orgy thing like your teacher were doing at CalArts or did that day come and gone?
Eric Fischl: That day had come and gone.
Alec Baldwin: Okay, great. I’m glad to hear that, so go ahead.
Eric Fischl: To some extent I was definitely going through several women in the student body, but not all at the same moment.
Alec Baldwin: It was a sacrifice you made.
Eric Fischl: Yeah. It was a small isolated community. Winters are harsh up there.
Alec Baldwin: It’s Gilligan’s Island. And when the Skipper runs into Ginger and Mary Ann, we can only talk about the weather for so many times in the tidal charts. So go ahead. The Skipper runs into Ginger and Mary Ann.
Eric Fischl: And ultimately ran into April and she stuck with me through this time, which was really difficult, in a kind of way I just couldn’t imagine there being anybody else, so we did. And now she was a student who started out doing very conceptual art. I actually – the way I tried to impress on her, to make her look at me, was –
I found her working on a project she was doing, something that had – she was gluing pieces of wood to a piece of paper and then writing some obscure philosophical text around it and it was – I’d just went up her and said, ‘The idea of gluing wood onto paper just seemed a redundancy that was so stupid. I can’t imagine why anyone would do it,’ thinking that she’d want to have dinner with me, having said that. And she just told me to go fuck myself and that was that. And then for the next six months, I tried to make nice to –
Alec Baldwin: To recover.
Eric Fischl: To recover.
Alec Baldwin: From your offense.
Eric Fischl: And, yeah, so I don’t know what made me think and insult would be the way to open the door.
Alec Baldwin: Did she ever return the favor?
Eric Fischl: It did work, I guess.
Alec Baldwin: Did she ever return the favor? Did she ever walk into—
Eric Fischl: The insult favor?
Alec Baldwin: Did you ever walk into your studio and say, ‘What were you thinking?’
Eric Fischl: She’s actually my greatest, most clear seeing critic.
Alec Baldwin: Is she your most prevalent subject? Have you painted her more than any other person?
Eric Fischl: Yes.
Alec Baldwin: You have.
Eric Fischl: Yes. I painted her a lot. I painted her in disguised ways and I’ve painted her in ways you can see it’s her.
Alec Baldwin: So now you are a very well known man. And your work is very popular. You and your wife are a very admired couple in a community that you live in. And I want to ask you (a) why do you live our here particularly? You could escape, like, a lot of great artists find they want real anonymity and peace, you could go live in Italy or anywhere you want to go. Why here?
And, also, let’s be honest, we live out here and there are certain social rhythms out here and certain patterns that repeat themselves almost metronomically all the time and do you find in a strange way, you’ve washed up on the shores of your own Port Washington Yacht Club in a way? I mean, is there kind of a rigor to the way you're living now that you didn’t bargain for?
Eric Fischl: Yeah, I think there was a moment a while back where I looked around and went, ‘Oh my, God. This is where I grew up.’ I’m in a different relationship to it but it’s definitely more of a suburban than an urban environment. And a suburban rhythm to it, but everybody needs a sense of community, needs a sense of place, where they belong, right? I grew up on Long Island. You grew up on Long Island.
I used to come out here in the summertime. It’s familiar territory, et cetera. It seems natural in a way to want to be here. And also it’s – there’s a scale to it that makes you think that you can make a difference. It seems like pretty much everywhere you go, we’re in a state of transformation or decay or something where it’s – what is it going to take?
Ten years before this place gets ruins – you go to someplace else, you're going to take another five years before that one does. So you think, ‘Okay, I’ll stay and fight it a little bit,’ and do that. Plus on some sort of basic level, you actually feel like you belong here. So you want it to –
Alec Baldwin: It’s mine.
Eric Fischl: To do it—
Alec Baldwin: It’s a part of it. It’s mine.
Eric Fischl: – some people’s and it’s mine.
Alec Baldwin: So was it safe to say – just to conclude this, if you will, that the opponomous bad boy of the title still has his doubts, still has his anxieties, still has his fears and issues and so forth. He just has learned to handle them differently?
Eric Fischl: I think that’s true. Yeah, absolutely. They don’t go away. I thought that the older you got, the easier it got. It turns out the opposite. [Laughter]
Alec Baldwin: We just learn how to manage it better.
Eric Fischl: Yeah manage it. Yeah. No, that’s true.
Alec Baldwin: Eric Fischl says he didn’t set out to write a memoir. His friend Michael Stone was writing about Cal Arts which then morphed into their book, Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas.
This is Alec Baldwin. Here’s The Thing comes from WNYC radio.