Eric Fischl has an abiding diplomacy with Canada. The famed New York painter met his long-term partner April Gornik while teaching at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in the 1970s, and has shown in and visited the country regularly ever since.
Fischl visited Ottawa a few weeks ago to give a talk at the National Gallery of Canada as part of Contemporary Conversations—the NGC series co-presented by the US Embassy Ottawa and the US Department of State’s Office of Art in Embassies. The occasion was marked by the exhibition, at both the NGC and the residence of the US ambassador to Canada, of various versions of Fischl’s Tumbling Woman, a sculpture he first made in 2002 in response to the events of 9/11. The Rodin-esque work was controversial at the time, when Fischl was accused of insensitivity and narcissism for depicting, with high aestheticism, a figure who appeared to be falling to the ground, her body contorting at the moment of impact.
Fischl spoke with David Balzer on the evening of the lecture—also the evening before the 14th anniversary of 9/11—about the resonance of Tumbling Woman, humanism in contemporary art, recession and more.
David Balzer: How has the Tumbling Woman work, which you made soon after 9/11, settled with you through the years? You were one of the first major American figures to make a creative piece in response to what was happening, and many people didn’t know how to feel about it—if it was right to make art, too soon, how to process, etc.
Eric Fischl: I was surprised by that. I really thought that more artists would jump right in and do it. I came to find that a lot of artists felt it would be perceived as opportunistic. I didn’t understand that. A lot of artists felt like they were suffering personally, but didn’t think their art had anything to do with that kind of experience, or that they had to change their art to deal with it. Then a lot of artists, over time, would talk about how they were almost embarrassed—“Oh my palette has changed. I’m working in darker colours. The shapes I’m working with feel more fragmented.”
DB: In your memoir, Bad Boy, you talk about going to CalArts and your relationship with the conceptualist moment at the time—your struggle to figure out what was going to happen to your work if it wasn’t going to be conceptual or abstract. Can you relate this to the figurative work you made around 9/11, given that you’ve just discussed the more oblique, formal way that other artists approached the catastrophe?
EF: My formative years in school, and then for several years after that, were a period of absorbing the prejudices towards painting and figuration. If you had to paint, it was much better to paint abstractly than to paint figuratively, because figurative work was thought to be the domain of photography and film. Why would you want to compete with that? But the process of transition to figuration was something that wasn’t ultimately a formalist choice; it was content-driven.
It took me a while to get rid of the crap I had picked up in the general discussion of the art world, to let that go and just say, “No, I paint people. I paint people who are doing things, and sometimes they are doing things they shouldn’t be doing. But they’re doing them. Let’s deal with it.”
DB: So was there a similar motivation in your decision to make the 9/11 works?
EF: I really felt that, given the trauma and tragedy of 9/11 as it was unfolding, artists would be needed. Art brings order to chaos. It gives it voice; it gives it a language. There are ways that it brings us together in a shared experience where trauma or tragedy is present. There’s a historical imperative. Art monumentalizes. It seemed obvious to me that that was what I should do.
There was a moment where you saw people falling or jumping, and it was immediately censored. And then, no bodies. They were pulverized; they were gone. It so quickly became a disappearance. How do you get closure on disappearance? The language people were using to describe the trauma centered on two things. One, they made everybody a hero. People who were just doing their jobs became heroes. That kind of took away from the rest of us—you’re either a hero or you’re not important to the event.
The other thing was that people started talking about the architecture. The loss of the buildings, the violation. “How dare they take our giant building to world commerce down. Should we save the footprint and have an exact footprint of the absence of the building? Should we shoot lights up to imitate the buildings?”
But 3,000 people were killed. We should think about the people.
DB: Returning to my first question, how do you feel about the decision, 14 years later? Do you have any regrets? Do you feel differently looking at the works now than you did then?
EF: When I made the initial Tumbling Woman, I only thought of it as a one-off. When it was removed and sort of pushed out of the public and into the art world, then not only was I hurt at the rejection, and specifically the kinds of accusations levelled against me that seemed so off base for what I was trying to do, I angrily decided, well, screw it. I’ll make it an edition. Because it became a collectible, all of a sudden collectors saw it as something that could be special.
So I made an edition that sold and I made a second edition of a smaller version of it, and over time that sold, too. I began to explore different kinds of patinas to give it a different feeling. At one time I patinated one an orange rust colour that it gave it a feel of Pompeii, of the bodies that were found, that they cast and brought up, in volcanic rock. So it had that sense of memory and devastation. And then I started playing around in glass, and we did a small version of the one in glass, and then blew it up into the version that’s here. Which isn’t glass, it’s acrylic, but its intention is ultimately to be cast as glass, which I feel is the most eloquent of all of the permutations.
It started with the big one. This one feels like it has the tragedy and the transcendence happen simultaneously, and the luminosity of it, and the fragility and the glow.
DB: For me, there’s a way in which that time, although in recent past, feels far away. I don’t know if it’s the same for you, but how do you think the contemporary artist’s relationship with politics have changed—evolved, devolved—since?
EF: I never saw it as a political work. It’s a humanist expression. I don’t actually care that much about political art. I care about trauma, tragedy; I care about the people who succeed and triumph over adversity, over oppression. I care about the experience and the narrative of the liberation, but do I care about art being political or not? There’s very little art that fits into an aesthetic that is compelling to me in that way.
I just got back from Venice, where the curating of the show at the Arsenale was very specifically political. I was walking through there feeling dead, thinking, How come I’m so dead to that empathy? It was old news presented in a language that seemed so dated. The artists hadn’t even found a new way of casting a drama that reignited our sense of caring, our sense of outrage. It failed utterly, as far as I was concerned, in that regard.
DB: Speaking of trauma, tragedy, disaster, these humanist concerns of yours, even just psychological intimacies, which have been such an ongoing part of your practice—how do you feel that these ideas are playing out now in contemporary art?
EF: In terms of the system—the gallery system, the auctions, art fairs, whatever—they don’t exist. These aren’t the works that are selling. What’s being sought after are decorative, playful, breathtakingly, beautifully rendered, shiny works that are more product-based than human-content based. There is no critical dialogue challenging that or presenting an alternative. It seems like the art world doesn’t have a stomach for it, they just want to have pleasant, nice things made nice. I find it incredibly disappointing and boring.
There’s an awful lot of art that is being done that deals with pre-adolescent childhood. It’s about playing with toys, imitating games, playing at sexuality, a fascination with scatological stuff. It’s like artists are regressing.
DB: It’s interesting to hear you say that, because you are so associated with that ’80s art world where the market just exploded. Does it seem increasingly surreal to you that you, a humanist, got picked up during that moment?
EF: No, I think authenticity, passion, outrage and political intention were absolutely a facet of the ’80s. And they had strategies for how you would change the system, whether through parody or irony, or a direct attack. There was a real thing going on there. None of us saw the market coming.
We had come out of school at a time when fame and fortune weren’t mentioned. We wanted to be part of the national, international, historical dialogue. We were ambitious, but we were willing to work two jobs, because we had role models who were doing that—Baldessari, Bruce Nauman, people like that. Warhol was barely selling work at that time. There were a lot of conceptual artists who were driving taxis.
DB: It’s been announced that Canada is officially in a recession. What do you think is the relationship between the inevitable paranoia about recessed markets and art-making, as someone who went through that whole ’80s and early-’90s art-market crash? The status of the artist and art-making in times of recession—people get concerned.
EF: Speaking personally, my work was, right before [the art market crash], the highest it had ever been in terms of sales. And I was in a situation where everything I was making was being sold.
D: And in fact things that you hadn’t made were being sold.
EF: That’s true. The  crash affected the art world around 1990. In that time my prices went from full to half, and then half again in 1990. Things obviously didn’t sell as fast. But in terms of the art world in general, it became smaller and smaller.
In the ’80s, everybody I knew was living off their art. It was like a boiling pot. Everybody was bubbling up to the top and things were happening. ’87 weeded people out. Artists who had been selling had to go find work, move out of the city, and the art world shrank. Some, like myself, continued to be sought after to a certain degree; there were other works that were coming in that were much more sought after, and then the explosion of money that came back in, which was much greater than anyone predicted, produced a whole new wave of art. The art world was getting thicker and thicker and the number of objects being consumed was greater and greater.
And then the second crash happened and everybody assumed it would be like the first but for some reason it wasn’t. It was the opposite. It just kept getting bigger and bigger. I think all of us are living in that sense that it can’t go on, that [another] crash will happen. And that some point it’s going to affect us.