Fischl’s ambivalence and humanity

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Post by Dan Schimmel

Eric Fischl came to speak to a large Philadelphia audience yesterday. His talk, titled, ‘Death of Painting: Van Gogh to Burton,” followed by five days a lecture here by Jeff Koons. At first I thought the coincidence ironic but it turned out to be a bit of poetic justice.

Fischl’s ideas seemed loosely inspired John Berger’s book, The Shape of a Pocket (Vintage International). Fischl’s best arguments were the unexpected sets of images he used to flush out ideas about the value of painting. At times he muddled the issue with too much explanation but I guess there is a need to explain why painting is still of use to us. Fischl’s talk ended with projected images of the twin towers circa Sept. 11, 2001, after the planes hit.


Fischl projected these this and the next image side by side to address the issue of ‘empathy’ in art and also to address why, in Fischl’s opinion painting still holds court over other forms of visual media because it can sustain the gaze of the viewer through beauty, and, regardless of the subject matter, can ‘look back at the viewer’ with empathic eyes.

This image, Vincent Van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear,1889,oil on canvas, 60 x 49 cm, Courtauld Institute Galleries, London

The redeeming quality of any presentation is ambivalence, and Fischl is and has been an artist with no lack of that, both in his delivery and his art. To jump to the end of his lecture is in effect starting at the beginning: Art today doesn’t know how to look at us as human beings. Current trends in art, Fischl seems to claim, have slipped into a pothole of cynicism and frivolity.


Chris Burden, after his performance piece Shoot, 1971, in which he was shot in his left arm by an assistant from a distance of about five meters.

Showing the Twin Towers burning and calling attention to the amount of time our government gave us to mourn our dead and wounded before juicing up on testosterone and calling our poor people to arms, was Fischl’s way of posing this question: Will we ever learn how to be human?

It reminds me of a comment Willem de Kooning made when watching the moon landing on television in the 60’s. Not understanding what the excitement was about, De Kooning muttered, “We haven’t even figured out how to land on our own planet yet.”


Eric Fischl, The Old Man’s Boat, the Old Man’s Dog, 1982, oil on linen, 84″ x 84″

Fischl’s underlying ambivalence, as captured in this image, also underpins Fischl’s talk.

Charting the drying currents of empathy, Fischl used sets of old and new images to suggest that the trend in today’s art world is all about (literally and figuratively) the ‘money shot’: glib, ironic, cynical play with the new-outsider-disenfranchised-
youth-artists holding things up by threads of shredded heart strings.

What is special about painting, Fischl seemed to imply, is that it more than any other visual medium has the capacity to make mortality’s hollow echo beautiful and poetic through a plastic medium that encourages us to sit in front of it and take it in without closing down to ourselves. Fischl came to Philadelphia, armed with some provocative images to show us the extent to which we have closed down.


Dan Schimmel, AirFreshener, 2006, 82×70 inches, oil on canvas

–Artist Dan Schimmel is also director and curator of exhibitions at the Esther Klein Gallery

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