The Private, the Personal, and the Public in the Art of Eric Fischl


Eric Fischl. Photo: Ralph Gibson  

When Marc Mayer and Eric Fischl sit down for a discussion at the National Gallery of Canada on September 10, it won’t be the first time they’ve crossed paths. 

Mayer, the National Gallery of Canada’s Director and CEO, first met Fischl — an internationally acclaimed American artist — in the late 1980s. As Mayer previously told NGC Magazine, he was then working at New York’s 49th Parallel Centre for Contemporary Canadian Art and saw all of Fischl’s shows at the Mary Boone Gallery, just across the street. At the time, Fischl was one of the key figures in the revival of figurative painting, and Mayer witnessed his rise firsthand. 

“He is someone I admire,” said Mayer in an interview with NGC Magazine. “When Fischl was breaking into the scene as a young figurative painter, he was making art about being a teenaged boy, the adolescent rites of passage, and remembering them with his unique blend of nostalgia and disquiet. At least, that’s how I read those pictures at the time, my own adolescence still fresh in my memory.”

As Fischl progressed through the different stages of his life, he continued to explore the rituals and milestones of middle-class American life through his art — particularly in paintings that are frank and sometimes disturbing. “His work still makes me a bit uncomfortable,” adds Mayer, “not only because of their Freudian subject matter, but also because of the deliberately awkward way they’re painted. Beauty doesn’t seem to be what Fischl is after, not directly any way. Meaning is the point, and hopefully beauty can emerge from that. This is not the typical approach for painters.” 

It should come as no surprise, then, that Mayer is looking forward to interviewing Fischl at the NGC as part of Contemporary Conversations, a series of highly engaging public lectures organized in partnership with the Art in Embassies Program and the U.S. Embassy-Ottawa. Launched in February 2015, the series features four American contemporary artists whose work is part of the Art in Embassy exhibition at Lornado, the official residence of U.S. Ambassador to Canada, Bruce A. Heyman, and his wife, Vicki Heyman. To date, lecture-goers have heard from multidisciplinary artist Marie Watt, as well as fabric sculptor and performance artist Nick Cave — both of whom are celebrated artists whose work explores notions of history, identity and culture. 

Eric Fischl, Sleeve (1975), lithograph on wove paper, 53.7 x 91.8 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo © NGC

The work of Fischl — the third artist to participate in the series — is no exception. Hailed as one of the most influential artists of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Fischl was born in New York City in 1948. He grew up in the Long Island suburbs, and earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the legendary California Institute for the Arts — or CalArts, as it is commonly known — in 1972. An American artist with a Canadian connection, Fischl taught at the esteemed Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) in the 1970s, and had his first solo exhibition in Halifax in 1975 before returning to New York City in 1978. His work can be found in numerous private collections and public museums worldwide, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Centre Pompidou, and the National Gallery of Canada. One notable work in the Gallery’s collection is Sleeve, an almost painterly lithograph that the artist made while still living in Nova Scotia. 

Although he is often described as America’s foremost narrative painter, Fischl is an equally masterful draughtsman, printmaker and sculptor. Take, for example, his powerful and moving sculpture Tumbling Woman, a work Fischl first created in response to the events of 9/11. 

“I called [the sculpture] tumbling as opposed to falling because I wanted it to have a feeling of lateral motion . . . a feeling that we’re in motion heading somewhere and not in control,” says Fischl in the accompanying Contemporary Conversations exhibition catalogue. “I wanted to express that feeling of vulnerability that comes when we have lost our equilibrium: uprooted, no longer fixed. I also decided to make it a woman as opposed to a man because I think historically the woman still holds as a symbol for vulnerability, as well as for nurturing and caretaking within our cultural framework.”


Eric Fischl, Untitled (Tumbling Woman II) [2014], trial proof / cast acrylic, 71.1 x 129.5 x 68.6 cm. Courtesy of the artist, New York, and HEXTON / modern and contemporary, Chicago. Copyright 2014, Eric Fischl. All Rights Reserved.

Raising themes of private reflection, personal expression, and public memorial, it’s a work that is certain to foster thought-provoking and pertinent conversation. “I’d like to talk about 9/11 because Fischl wasn’t the only artist who struggled with trying to mark that event for future generations, and create a work that would resonate helpfully with the people who lived through it,” says Mayer, who was himself living in Lower Manhattan on 9/11. 

Since 2001, Fischl has depicted Tumbling Woman in a variety of media, including watercolour and glass. In conjunction with the Contemporary Conversations event, a life-sized, translucent, cast-acrylic version of the iconic sculpture will be on view at the National Gallery of Canada from September 4 to 14. 

“A master painter of the psyche, Eric Fischl’s work examines universal emotions and gives us a window into the soul,” says Vicki Heyman. “No matter your nationality or birthplace, everyone engages with emotion. I hope that Fischl’s conversation at the NGC will be an opportunity to launch a deeper dialogue into how our feelings affect us, and shape our interactions with each other and within our communities.” 

Eric Fischl, Tumbling Woman (2012), watercolour on paper, 101.6 x 152.4 cm. Courtesy of the artist, New York, and HEXTON / modern and contemporary, Chicago. Copyright Eric Fischl. All Rights Reserved.

Mrs. Heyman has been an instrumental part of the series to date. A long-time patron of the arts, along with her husband, and an art collector with a degree in Art History from Vanderbilt University, Mrs. Heyman was actively involved in the selection of artists for the series, and is committed to her role as ambassador for the arts. 

Her vision that the “artist’s voice” and the “artist’s presence” are integral to cultural diplomacy, connection and exchange is clearly resonating with Gallery visitors. If the success of the first two Contemporary Conversations is any indication, this third iteration of the series is not to be missed. 

As for what questions Mayer might ask Fischl, who is known to be an articulate and compelling speaker, the NGC’s director offers a few hints, suggesting that topics such as autobiography and artistic longevity may emerge throughout the course of the evening: “How close is he to his subject matter? To what does he ascribe his success? And has his perspective on life changed as his career has progressed?” 

You won’t want to miss what Eric Fischl has to say in response. 

Due to an incredible interest, this event with Eric Fischl is now at capacity. Please contact [email protected] before September 3 if you wish to sign up for the waiting list. The NGC will contact you between September 4 and 8 if additional space becomes available.
Prior to the lecture on September 10 at 6 pm, any available seats in the Auditorium will be allocated on a first-come, first-served basis to walk-ins at the NGC. Walk-ins may also watch a live broadcast of the event in the adjacent Lecture Hall. Please note that space in the Gallery’s Lecture Hall is limited.

Eric Fischl’s sculpture, Untitled (Tumbling Woman II) will be on view at the National Gallery from September 4 to 14, and then at the U.S. Embassy-Ottawa until October 23, 2015. 

For more information on this and upcoming events in the Contemporary Conversation series please click here.

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