Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

Eric Fischl at Mary Boone

October 31 to December 19, 2009
541 West 24th Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, 212 752 2929

Eric Fischl, Corrida in Ronda #6 2008. Oil on linen, 84 by 120 inches. Courtesy of Mary Boone Gallery, New York
Eric Fischl, Corrida in Ronda #6 2008. Oil on linen, 84 by 120 inches. Courtesy of Mary Boone Gallery, New York

Macho masterpiece intentions are baked into the very setting of Eric Fischl’s paintings of the Corrida Goyesca.  By all rights these life-and-death-size duels in the sun between bullfighters and bulls should be awful, stripped of the mystery and mediation that until now had been the artist’s stock-in-trade.  No longer is the narrative a salacious, question-begging blur which relentlessly exploits a sweet seam of collector-class reflexivity.  No layering of time, place, and causation neutralizes the camera’s primacy in these transcriptions of decisive moments.  And Fischl’s signature befuddled technique can’t so easily masquerade as a dexterous X-ray of the corpse of painting, or else as a heartfelt rummaging for form, or both.  In the shadeless corrido, ineptitude, no matter how studied or brooding, will get you killed.

Throughout his career, Fischl has kept “bad” and “good” painting in the air like a pair of translucent beachballs. At the 1983 Whitney Biennial, the grotesque concatenating of fleshy white Americans on a Caribbean beach with desperate Haitians washing up in Florida seemed valid, if not mesmerizing, but what did it have to do with a tortured non-chalance about painting the figure? Fischl quickly abandoned politics and returned to his true subject, the noir boudoir of the suburban mind. But Fischl’s drive to paint well proved genuine. In the intervening 25 years Fischl has taught himself a great deal about anatomy, drama, light, color, atmosphere, surface, and attack

But was improving his skills a good thing?  Recent forays into sexy Roman statuary, tourist exoticism, and Bauhaus fashion shoots had threatened to leave Fischl exposed as a credulous consumer of his own 50-page bibliography.  And now, here was Fischl declaring himself a matador to the wounded beast of great painting, nicely setting himself up for a critical goring.

Thinking I’d be there to bury, I found much to praise.  An elegant frieze of poised, form-fitted buttocks in Corrido in Rondo No. 6 (all 2008) arpeggiates a velvety chord of tonic silhouettes across the dominant pink glare of background sand.  The four victorious killers are dynamic and buoyant, yet solidly constructed, suggesting a stripped-to-essentials version of Manet’s stripped-to-essentials version of Veronese — a thousand times more crude but effective all the same.  The matadors in these paintings are not young, and the marvelously chewed face of the veteran leader of this quadrillo hints at confederacy with a jaded Leon Golub colonel.

Eric Fischl Corrida in Ronda #2 2008. Oil on linen, 84 by 120 inches. Courtesy of Mary Boone Gallery, New York (cover DECEMBER 2009: detail)
Eric Fischl, Corrida in Ronda #2 2008. Oil on linen, 84 by 120 inches. Courtesy of Mary Boone Gallery, New York

Corrido in Rondo No. 3 is an unapologetic paean to Goya’s great Jekyll-and-Hyde synthesis of the canny and the brutal.  Here the bull looms across the middle ground, held in tension by the graphic competence of his profile against a hint of architecture.  Following the master, Fischl squares the circular ring and sets up receding scrims of texture and temperature that vibrate with spatial conflict.  Most of the bulls in the show are downed, with scumbled blotches of cadmium oozing from their wounds, but this one still patrols dangerously, contained solely by visual guile.  The decorous sheen of the matador’s cape waves the bull from washed-out, steely light into foreground shadow, onward to exhaustion in his doomed chase of illusions.  Goya himself is said to have designed the vivid costumes, and while Fischl’s palette is almost Neapolitan, the clear, smart rhythms of warm and cool distribution are all Goyesca business.

The pirouetting matador of No. 3 bends backwards with perfect balance.  As with most of these paintings, Fischl makes use of a ritually balletic postcard moment in order to ardently convince us, perhaps for the first time in his career, of a figure’s groundedness and weight.  But one telling exception is made with Corrido in Rondo No. 4. Here the airborne, twisting feet of the matador flop like a rag doll’s; he seems caught in a moment of indecision as to whether to turn his back on the bull’s resting brawn and upraised horns.  Fischl’s disdain to attach the feet to the body seems like a holdover from a former strategem: subversive postural disorganization derived from the capricious snapshot, the wicked cool of Bacon, and urgent clumsiness.  There will be viewers who prefer this otherwise impeccable painting for the very reason of its refusal to play to bourgeois taste.  Of course, that refusal has long constituted its own status quo, and Fischl appears now to have taken up the mantle of classical rigor over – or at least alongside – aging, punk, post-modernist non/sense.  80 percent of Fischl’s massive success has always consisted in just showing up.  By no means is this as negligible a feat as it sounds, but with theCorrido paintings currently on view, the remaining 20 percent can and should be held to account as well.