Thursday, March 10th, 2005

Eric Fischl at Mary Boone, Marlene Dumas at Zwirner & Wirth

Eric Fischl at Mary Boone through until April 23 (541 W. 24th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 212-752-2929)

Marlene Dumas at Zwirner & Wirth until April 23 (32 E. 69th Street, between Madison and Park Avenues, 212-517-8677)


Eric Fischl Bedroom Scene #7 (After the Tantrum, Unholy News) 2004 oil on linen, 65 x 98 inches Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery
Eric Fischl, Bedroom Scene #7 (After the Tantrum, Unholy News) 2004 oil on linen, 65 x 98 inches Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery

In March 2002 Eric Fischl was let loose in Mies van der Rohe’s Ester’s Haus in Krefeld, Germany. After decorating the 1928 villa, which belongs to the city’s art museum in contemporary style, he had a pair of actors play out domestic scenarios that he photographed. From the thousands of shots that ensued Mr. Fischl culled a book, “The Krefeld Project,” (2002) and used others as his source material for two painting exhibitions, the second of which is at Mary Boone.

This turn to directing, albeit to produce still rather than moving images, conforms to the cinematic impulse of Mr. Fischl’s generation: Artist-moviemakers among his peers include Robert Longo, David Salle, Cindy Sherman, and of course Julian Schnabel. Mr. Fischl crept behind the camera later than these 1980s artists, amongst whom he was always the most Old Masterly, committed in earnest to traditional practices and technique. But it could be argued that he was also the most cinematic, all along.

Mr. Fischl’s images implied narrative in a linear, temporal way. When a boy steals from the pocketbook of a mother, sprawled in drunken revelry on her bed, a story lies behind and consequences ahead. Such images worked to the extent that they could orchestrate past, present and future. Indeed, it was this storytelling capacity as much as the slippery paintwork and suburban sexuality that confirmed Mr. Fischl’s credentials as a “Bad” artist.

The six new “Bedroom Scenes” from 2004 at Mary Boone imply rather than impose narrative, leaving the viewer to determine a sequence of events — to decide, even, if they represent a single scenario. They might, after all, be scenes from a marriage. (They can claim Hogarth’s Marriage à la Mode engravings, 1745, and Degas’s “The Interior,” 1869, as forebears alike.) How happy, or otherwise, are relations between this couple is up for grabs, though the titles are more directed than the images themselves.

The protagonists are a portly though sturdy man of middle age and an althletic, somewhat masculine and slightly younger woman; their domestic situation implies that they are people of substance. We catch them in various states of dress and undress, communication and distance. When dolled up in evening dress they could be on their way in from or out to a social gathering. He is not the kind of painter who ensures that you know which.

Generally, their intercourse seems fraught, connections frayed. One canvas, subtitled “The Earth Rolls Over You,” depicts sex, but we sense a fumbling moment of non-penetration. In another, “After the Tantrum, Unholy News,” with a broken vase and other props strewn around as witness, the woman, kneeling, points up to the seated man in a Renaissance pose, while he nonchalantly sniffs his sock (though he could be dabbing a cut or wiping away a tear — it isn’t clear.)

The figures are realized, in other words, in languages out of sorts within a single picture. She is classically composed, all rhetoric and gesture, while he is arbitrarily caught, the way a camera slices into a moment to give us an ambiguous transitional smudge. It is as if these disparate painterly strategies signify marital incompatibility.

In the early paintings with which he secured his reputation, Mr. Fischl can be said to have “art directed” within the medium itself. He has confirmed in interview what seems to be the case from the paintings themselves, that scenarios worked themselves out upon the canvas. Now that he works from his own stage managed photographs and has separated out the processes of image-formation and facture, the paintings are increasingly, and inevitably, slick, polished, cold machines.

That could just be what he is after. The photographic source is compelling for an artist intent on those terrible twins of modern realism, alienation and instantaneity. But the ambiguities that arise are surface ambiguities that have to do with the dislocation of different modes of representation (celluloid and paint) rather than psychological ones. They have more to do with lack of clarity than double entendre.

Certainly the one has the potential to be a metaphor for the other. The problem for Mr. Fischl is that ambiguity becomes a mere device that can be dropped in at will — like “painterliness” itself, warmed up just where you expect it, for streaks of light on muscley flesh. In the Old Master tradition he wants to tap, ambiguity in all its richness arose from observational crises. For them, awkwardness was a sign of vitality.  For Mr. Fischl, ambiguity on demand is a symptom of enervatednes.  But then, as a true realist chronicler of bourgeois ennui, this might be his point.


Marlene Dumas Couples 1994  oil on canvas, 39 x 118 inches Courtesy Zwirner & Wirth
Marlene Dumas, Couples 1994 oil on canvas, 39 x 118 inches Courtesy Zwirner & Wirth

Like Mr. Fischl, Marlene Dumas knows how to make herself at home in other people’s bedrooms. Born in 1953, this South-African artist who has made her career in Holland, is five years younger than Mr. Fischl.  A selection of her raunchy, winsome work dating back to the mid-1980s at Zwirner & Wirth makes a fine case for her as a contemporary master of louche nostalgia. She depicts bodies with an angst-free urgency at once perfunctory and precise, bolshy and endearing. She recalls moderns like Münch and the less known but quite marvelous Nordic expressionist, Helene Schjerfbeck, as well as more contemporary figures like Beuys (his watercolors) and Ms. Dumas’ junior, the Belgian Luc Tuymans.

Her nonchalant yet gestural style — at once washed out and voluptuous,— actually resembles Mr. Fischl’s work in the late 1980s when, working out of Emil Nolde, he turned to monotype printmaking. The slick, squidgy eroticism of those sequential images, arguably his most likeable if intellectually his least ambitious works, coupled with their “blaxploitation,” and knowingly subversive appropriation of primitivism made him a kind of painterly cousin to Ms. Dumas.

Her work has an altogether more innocent rapport with both racial and representational otherness than his. In images like “Couples” (1994) — a frieze of the same voluptuous redhead embracing her black lover — the private desire and social stance aren’t too difficult to decode. In a funny way, the old-fashionedness of her expressionist style and liberal sentiment alike gives her work a period edge not unakin to her fellow South African, William Kentridge, another master of the wistful collision of the personal and the political.

A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, March 10, 2005