Sunday, August 18, 2013

Tales of Two Artists: Alex Katz and Eric Fischl

By Carl Belz

Invented Symbols by Alex Katz. Charta/Colby College Museum of Art, 2012.
Bad Boy: My Life On And Off The Canvas by Eric Fischl and Michael Stone. Crown, 2012.  

How do we currently write current art’s history? How, given its elastic chronology and ever-widening geographic reach, its self-consciously elusive look, the multiple urges and identities and media it comprises? How, in the absence of a canon of artists around whom a history might be structured, its sources and development traced, its context established, its achievements described? How, in the face of its censure on quality distinctions, its scapegoating of formalism, its dismissal of originality and artistic intent? How, in other words, do we write art’s history within the broader context of postmodernism’s prevailing hegemony?

Our unwieldy culture and its academic strictures increasingly nudge us to write the history of current art not from the outside in but from the inside out, personally and informally, more often than not via the autobiography and the memoir, genres rooted in direct experience that is unique to the individual writer. In doing so, our voices may be unauthorized by institutional structures, but likewise are they unfettered by those structures and the conventions they embody. In the publications considered here those voices richly inform our understanding not of any classroom theory about art’s making but of its day-to-day studio practice – the actual source material upon which any history of painting during the second half of the 20th Century in New York City must ultimately be based.   
Alex Katz, Ted Berrigan, 1967, oil on linen, 48 x 48 inches (photo courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York).
A pair of distinctly separate generations overlap in bringing those years freshly before us. Born in 1927, Alex Katz grew up in an “off-the-boat” Russian-Jewish family in St. Albans, Queens in the 1940s. He first encountered art at the Woodrow Wilson Vocational High School where “you could do artwork for three or four hours a day, and they’d didn’t really care what you did” – pursued it seriously at Cooper Union after serving in the Navy, and then steadily brought his work and his career to early maturity during the 1950s within the legendary hothouse environment of low budget, artist-run galleries such as Tanager and Hansa on 10th Street in downtown Manhattan. 
Eric Fischl, Sleepwalker, 1979, oil on canvas, 69 x 105 inches.
Fast forward 20 years to Eric Fischl, born in 1948. His childhood was spent in Port Washington – ”a leafy suburb on the north shore of Long Island” – and he grew up in the 1960s living “on the cusp of privilege” that was “designed to paper over our family disfunction.” He stumbled through private school in Maryland, “escaped” for a year to Waynesburg College near Pittsburgh that ended in failure, and first tried art at a community college in Phoenix – his family had moved there in 1967 – ”because – well, nobody fails art.” He painted for a year at Arizona State but developed his art in earnest during the 1970s, first at the California Institute of the Arts, his own generation’s hothouse environment, where he earned his BFA; in Chicago, where he was impressed by the countercultural Hairy Who; and then at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, where he taught for four years before moving to New York in 1978. 

Observations about art making and the art world anchor both of these autobiographies, though in neither are they presented in equal measure. For Alex Katz the art world is effectively a community identified not first of all by dealers and critics and collectors but by fellow artists working in genres ranging from painting and poetry to music and dance. While he’s circulated widely in that world – and enjoyed wide appreciation within it – art itself is what matters most in the story he offers here. Art as embodied in the modernist tradition, art as art, self-aware and self-defining, art that grasps experience in moments of an ongoing present, art that’s autonomous and impersonal, its existence justified simply by its being before us. In particular, what Katz was already after in his studio in the 1950s was not to tell stories or express himself but to be “an image-maker,” to craft large-scale realist pictures that memorably grasped the look of experience in the here and now, pictures that were clear and sharp, “that made sense as art and as decoration” and would be “strong enough to hang in Times Square.” He got that opportunity in 1977 when he was asked to design a billboard displaying a frieze of women’s heads, each 20 feet high, that was executed from his drawings by a sign painter. “One person recognized his ex-wife in the billboard from a plane circling over New York, waiting to land. We all thought that was pretty sensational...It was one of the great experiences of my life.” 
Alex Katz Times Square Mural, 1977.
Eric Fischl inventories the dead ends he ran into while exploring modernist abstraction during the 1970s before realizing that his real passion lay with the self-expressive, narrative-based “phychosexual suburban paintings” that he began making at the end of the decade and that catapulted him to art world attention at the beginning of the 1980s. While describing at length the genesis of those paintings and their deeply personal meaning for him, the thrust of his narration following their  spectacular reception shifts inexorably from art making to the art world, in particular the over-the-top SoHo art world of the 1980s. A world that was like a force of nature which Fischl compares to surfing: “That’s what the eighties were like, at least at the beginning: that feeling of being swept up and carried by something so much bigger and more powerful than yourself, something you’d worked so hard to catch, and now you’ve caught it and you’re in it.” A world that was also a mass media gold mine: “Going into those dailies and weeklies, the culture of art became populist. We were being written about and photographed on the same pages as movie stars, fashion designers, and rock stars, and by the eighties we had become rock stars ourselves.” Nonetheless, a world that was not without irony: “The truth is I felt like a fraud. I felt I didn’t deserve the recognition I was getting. And part of me wanted even more. And of course the greater the hype surrounding my work, the more distanced I felt from myself.” 
Eric Fischl, Bad Boy, 1981, oil on canvas, 66 x 96 inches.
While both narratives extend beyond the artists’ seminal decades and into the present, their respective emphases on art making and the art world reflect how in each case art discourse was then conducted. Art writing in the 1950s and 60s was based primarily on style, on formal innovations and developments, as it had been since Fauvism and Cubism established modernism as synonymous with the 20th Century. And so it continued with Abstract Expressionism, with the styles of Pollock and de Kooning and their colleagues, when the art world’s critical mass shifted from Paris to New York following World War II. At its best the writing cut through the romanticized artspeak of the time and focused clearly and directly upon formal elements that could be pointed to, described in terms of their interaction and visual effect, and assessed for their originality and significance within the context of modernism’s larger history. Art in that context was perceived as standing on its own and possessing meaning in and of itself, requiring no reference to the artists who made it, other than singling them out for their achievement. By the close of the 60s, however, events both within and outside the art world were shifting art discourse decisively away from that model and bringing it under fire, increasingly associating modernist autonomy with art for art’s sake, with mere decoration, and with engaging formal problems that had little or nothing to do with lived experience.

The new art history that emerged during the 1970s and 80s aimed to correct those shortcomings by focusing not on the formal concerns of individual artworks but on a more inclusive picture of the art making process, on the times and places where particular artworks were made, on the social and political and economic conditions that prevailed then and there, on the media arts that were then popular, and on the backgrounds and lifestyles and personal relationships of the artists who made them – that is, on the contexts in which the artworks were created and exhibited and collected. No longer confined to a timeless Olympian status, the artworks became embedded in the fabric of everyday culture, which was just where Pop Art had positioned them in the process of blurring distinctions between high and low art during the 1960s. And thus, at its best, did the new art history likewise democratize art and make it more accessible. What came to undermine its effectiveness in doing so, however, was the tendency to equate context with content, as if referencing a context – a family relationship, a course taken in art school, a love affair – wouldn’t  just inform the meaning of an artwork but could actually account for it. The quest for accessibility brought art making and artworks closer to our grasp, but it also risked reducing them, leaving us with no appreciation about how hard artists work in order to make art making look easy, and at the same time allowing art objects themselves to seem merely like ordinary, day-to-day things.

Their differences in emphasizing art making and/or the art world notwithstanding, neither Alex Katz nor Eric Fischl possesses a reductive vision of his enterprise. Katz no more engages in solving academic formal problems than Fischl glosses his figures’ psychic identities. On the contrary, the evidence of their respective narratives suggests that each artist conceives of art as capacious and embracing, its practice bountiful in yielding objects that are unique in being identified with meaning. Which makes me think that our concerns about the inadequacies of modernism and postmodernism, about the discourse then and the discourse now, may perhaps say more about those of us who wield the quills than those of us who wield the brushes, more about ourselves than about the artists who make the art in which we currently find insight and delectation – makes me think maybe we should attend a little more closely to their visual and verbal voices when we write their current history.          


Martin Mugar said...

Thanks Carl for delving into the work of these two artists. Hearing about Fischl brought back memories of the 80's when the New Expressionism lashed out at formalism and minimalism.I was teaching at UNC-Greensboro through that decade and the department was anxious to relate to that movement by bringing down artists such as Robert Longo to talk and exhibit.
That agonic battle between the purists and the expressionists that the press( those with the quills to borrow your felicitous adjective)loved to write about may not have been shared by the artists who were used by the art writers and curators to make points.I guess that is your point.But for the person looking at what was going on in New York from the outside in at that time the categories of modern and post modern were essential to getting a handle of what was going on.In the end the artist has no control over that dialectic and whether they like it or not they get tagged by the dialogue.In fact Fischl makes more sense and has more heft seen as part of that dialectic than purely on his own artistic merits.

Carl Belz said...

Thanks for the comment, Martin. Yes, what art writers and curators have had to say about art-making during the post-minimal decades starting in the 70s is very much a concern in my essay. I was hoping to maybe nudge the discourse toward an acknowledgment of the kind of stake artists have in their job of work. I've grown weary of the facile dismissal of artistic intent, likewise the assumption that exhibitions are more about their curators than the artworks they comprise.

Martin Mugar said...

I remember a discussion I had with Don Lent,former head of the art department at Bates College and yale MFA from the early 60's.He talked about being intrigued by Cubism as a grad student and his interest in exploring the language of cubism in his art.HIs classmates were already plugging into the big issues of the day trying to find a spot on the band wagon and were not going to be sidetracked by something as passe as cubism.