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Bread glued to a windowpane. That’s the unusual object that prompted Eric Fischl to enroll in a community college art class. Created by the young Fischl’s furniture store coworker in the 1960s, it’s an unexpected catalyst for a life as an art “star.” But that encounter is one of the pivotal moments the now 65-year-old American artist recounts in his candid autobiography, Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas.
Co-authored with Michael Stone, the book bears the title of Fischl’s most notorious painting, 1981’s Bad Boy. In it, an adolescent boy in a sun-striated room gazes at a naked woman, splayed out on a rumpled bed, and simultaneously steals from her purse.
Fischl’s autobiography provides an intimate look at the artist’s inner world, revealing that the source of much of his creativity is people and events from his life. We learn that A Woman Possessed, another 1981 painting in which a teenaged boy tries to drag an unconscious drunk woman into their suburban home, is a thinly-disguised portrait of Fischl’s mother.
But Fischl—whose works are included in the National Gallery of Canada’s collection—also lifts the veil on the strange, sometimes surreal machinations of the external art world. He relates how his exhibition of Bad Boy in particular transformed him from just another up-and-comer with “one New York solo show on my résumé and a day job crating art,” to an artist whose earnings topped $1 million by 1985.
Someone who witnessed Fischl’s rise first-hand is the NGC’s Director, Marc Mayer. In the late 1980s, Mayer worked at New York’s 49th Parallel Centre for Contemporary Canadian Art and saw all of Fischl’s shows at the Mary Boone Gallery, located just across the street. “He was one of the key figures in the revival of figurative painting,” says Mayer. At that time, Fischl’s explorations of growing up in the suburbs and sexual awakening were new, unique and “erotic in a way that was surprising in the art world,” he adds.
In Bad Boy, Fischl’s description of the high-octane New York art scene is especially vivid: star-studded openings, a glamorous social life, and friendships and rivalries with fellow artists, such as David Salle and Fischl’s chief nemesis, Julian Schnabel. They appear in the autobiography alongside family members, friends and supporters as “other voices,” first-person vignettes that provide alternate perspectives on the artist and his work.
Yet despite his success—or because of it—Fischl writes that he still felt like a fraud. He acknowledges his insecurities about his skills and style, and his dread of becoming a “midcareer painter.” And he doesn’t refrain from chronicling his struggles with alcohol or treks to Hell’s Kitchen to buy cocaine—addictions he eventually overcame.
However, it’s Fischl’s account of his evolution as an artist that is most compelling. He explains how his years teaching at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in the 1970s were perhaps the key period in his development as an artist, marking his transition from abstraction to a realist narrative style of painting. Indeed, Fischl’s creative process seems akin to that of any novelist. In describing the experience of working with two actors he hired for the Krefeld Project, a 2002 series of paintings, Fischl says: “I started each painting with the same basic questions: Whose house is it? Are they married? Who are they? Is it an affair?”
Insightful and honest about art and a life spent creating it, Bad Boy shows that Fischl has a gift for storytelling through images and words.
Robyn Jeffrey is a writer and editor based in Wakefield, Quebec.
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