Nicole J. Caruth is a freelance writer and curator living in New York. She is a frequent contributor to the Art21 blog. ArtPrize hired Nicole to chronicle the 2009, 2010, and this year’s events. Nicole’s thoughts and opinions are her own and in no way represent an endorsement or objection from ArtPrize toward an individual artist or venue.

Eric Fischl is one of the most influential figurative painters of our time. He came to prominence in the 1980s for his depictions of suburban American life. Last week, the New York City-based artist visited Grand Rapids to participate in the ArtPrize Speaker Series. What follows is my brief conversation with the artist at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Art, one stop on his afternoon tour.

Nicole Caruth: From a painter’s perspective, what are your thoughts on the works you’ve seen at ArtPrize?

Eric Fischl: My impressions of the paintings that I’ve seen so far — and obviously I’ve seen only a small portion of the show — is that they’re essentially weak. It’s sort of the weakest aspect, although I’m standing in front of this mural by [The Screwed Arts] collective that’s dynamic and powerful and has great imagination to it. So I would say actually this is sort of the strongest painting type work that I’ve seen.

NC: Chris LaPorte, the grand prize winner of ArtPrize 2010, studied at the New York Academy of Art, where you are the senior critic, and the school is known for taking very formal, academic approaches to art making. From my perspective, a large portion of the general public is drawn to and connects with this style of work. Do you have thoughts about why that may be?

EF: From the public point of view, it’s obvious in that it’s so totally recognizable and expresses skill. So they can identify a quality and at the same time it satisfies their sense of reality. What mystifies me more is why artists want to go there, and its one of the reasons that I actually was teaching at the Academy as a figurative painter myself, and also a narrative painter.

What compels me is whether one can learn fundamental skills like anatomy, perspective, and things like that, and still break away from the style that prejudices that kind of work so you can make something fresh out of that. Or is it something where a deep knowledge of anatomy is going to ensure an academic understanding of form? It’s an interesting challenge to see if you can blend contemporary content with sort of fundamental skills that are steeped in history. It’s a tough one. I was not trained as a figurative artist, so I had to learn it all myself. I mean, that was at a time when you shouldn’t be painting at all. Painting was totally dead. So if you had to paint, at least you should be an abstract painter, because figure painting was way dead.

We were just talking about the paintings at The Spot, for example, and a lot of them are along the same lines as what you see at the New York Academy. They’re trying, they’re so earnest, you know, and it’s something where the degree of realism is not in sync with the emotional content of the work. There’s a beautiful still life painting there, a kind of traditional still life with these unbelievably rendered flowers. And then some of the flower stems are cut, and there’s fire coming out of them, sending that kind of rocket feeling. And it’s like, why? It’s almost like a throw off joke … the artist must have taken a very long time to so carefully render the thing. What is the essential distrust that the realism isn’t enough? I don’t know.

NC: There’s a distinction that’s sometimes made here between the so-called serious painter and the “Sunday painter.” I’m curious to know if you ever make those distinctions yourself?

EF: Yeah, absolutely. I certainly draw the distinction between high art and low art and between amateurism and professionalism. There’s a combination of a depth of commitment and skill and then there’s a dividing point where some artists possess talent that goes beyond skill, that’s immeasurable. You can’t instill or teach that. You can just nurture it.

NC: And based on what you’ve seen at ArtPrize so far, do you think the scale tips in one direction or the other?

EF: I have a sense that there’s a certain kind of degree of object making that doesn’t transmit a high energy and feels like more of received idea. You see it often in painting because nowadays people look at imagery on iPhones and they look at reproductions. You get this sense that paintings can be any size, because they don’t have a sense of internal scale, internal necessity. You get a feeling that the surface doesn’t matter because they look at a flatness generalized by technological transmission, so that what you get are artists who don’t actually understand because they haven’t been able to fully invest, maybe because they haven’t experienced themselves the profound and complicated energy that an object can actually have. And so, you have, in some cases, more sort of a sense of a picture or something like that. And, a lot of the installation pieces, I don’t think they’re curious in and of themselves. They don’t necessarily make the space they’re occupying dynamic. So I’m not having a big somatic experience here. I’m not gripped…That’s kind of what I’m thinking so far, but I haven’t seen everything.

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