In 2012, the 1980s art star and East End denizen Eric Fischl took his camera to Art Basel Miami Beach on a quasi-anthropological mission. His purpose was to capture images of the culture of the art fair, catching his “characters” (as he calls them) in their unnatural habitat.

Later forays into the tents of Art Southampton and Frieze New York on Randall’s Island furnished a trove of images featuring disaffected socialites oblivious to the paintings and sculpture around them. These studies are the basis for 10 large and perturbing paintings presented in his first New York exhibition with Skarstedt Gallery on the Upper East Side (after previously being represented by Mary Boone). 

There are two ways to approach the show. As a bitter commentary on the ethos of the art market, the thesis—art conspicuously ignored by shallow if fashionable fairgoers—offers caustic wit. At the same time, it is a perennial pleasure to see Fischl’s interpretations of the figure, and the most gratifying painterly moments in this exhibition for this viewer are those that can be traced to the life drawing class.

The artist also displays a Sargent-esque attention to fashion. The highlights of the meticulous attention to fabric and cut always seem to come in one color in these works: black. The steady application of a rich, matte black across expanses of foreground depicting the Armani suits and Chanel dresses, in such paintings as The Disconnect and Her, serves the mimetic purpose of fixing the exact tone and silhouette of the original on the canvas. Fischl pays attention to the code of haute couture at the fairs, no matter where they are held: “Same crowd, different clothes. Always the same experience,” he told The Guardian in October 2014.

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"Her" by Eric Fischl, 2016. Oil on linen, 90 x 68 inches. Courtesy Skarstedt Gallery.

"Her" by Eric Fischl, 2016. Oil on linen, 90 x 68 inches. Courtesy Skarstedt Gallery.

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These awkwardly arranged, glum figures mired in the ennui of the fairs are unlike Fischl’s earlier group portraits of attractive and happy celebrities in various stages of undress on the sunny beaches of St. Bart’s or the Hamptons, in which luminaries from the arts (Bryan Hunt, Fischl’s wife April Gornik, Cindy Sherman and others of that charmed circle), literature (E.L. Doctorow) and entertainment (Steve Martin, Martin Short) can be identified.

In the art fair series, the apparently convincing portraits—the bearded, flat-topped dealer, the deal-hungry collector, the disaffected gallerista—are not always based on a specific person. Fischl has archly disguised some of the players as types, the anonymous elite peopling the candid “atmosphere” shots taken at VIP previews and posted the next day by Patrick McMullan.

They are awkwardly deployed across the maze-like booths, contending with the figures in the paintings as well, as in What Doesn’t…Go Away…Miss? The characters have absolutely zero interaction with one another or the art, in this case nudes in the mode of Matisse.

Fischl’s main gripe is with an audience that will not pay attention to the art on the walls, including his own. In The Disconnect, he parodies his Girl with Doll (1987), swiftly reconstituted using a Matisse aqua for the ocean background and a flash of gold behind the tanned limbs of the nubile adolescent whose charms are lost on all who pass by.

She is set against the sweeping black and white brush stroke of a Lichtenstein sculpture and a barking dog by Haring in red. This is not the Haring red, as Fischl fiddles with the tones. All these works of art are entirely lost on a pair of well-dressed collectors intent upon a smartphone in one case, and something in another booth across the aisle in the case of the other. The sharp cuff and collar of a white shirt tinged in pale blue fixes the viewer’s gaze as an accent against the rippling black expanse of his shoulders and the whiter white of the Lichtenstein just beyond.

The burlesque figure in grisaille in Watch, like an Ashcan hoochie coochie girl crossed with one of Lisa Yuskavage’s well-endowed blondes, is a foil to the Tom Wesselmann style blonde with her candy-red lips and other attractions, before which an apprehensive real blonde, in the requisite black dress (this time streaked with some blue) seems to be worried that nobody is stopping by.

The same grisaille painting recurs in the background of She Says, “Can I Help You?” He Says, “It Can’t be Helped,” reminding me of the way Richard Diebenkorn depicted his own nudes on the wall of his studio in a 1963 painting.

When he interprets other artists, Fischl plays with the expected palette as well as the signature gestures, especially of Pop. The motif of smoke wafts through People Puff Poof, with a monk-like Brooklyn bohemian who (finally!) seems to be the one attendee to have found a work of art to examine.

In this case, the work is yet another Lichtenstein brushstroke sculpture (is Fischl suggesting that these pieces are too common at the fairs?) before a Wesselmann style smoking woman’s mouth. These are set against a background better suited to a Francis Bacon (the pumpkin orange Bacon used) while in the background a tall blonde checks her phone. Her hair blends with the green of the background and the color of her phone and she has some of the incorporeal vagueness of Fischl’s watercolors.

The titles lamentably veer between ham-handed gravitas (False Gods) and flippancy, including Rift/Raft. The latter title is reminiscent of the poet Wallace Stevens losing his nerve and backtracking from the verge of philosophy with an oddball phrase or pun.

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"False Gods" by Eric Fischl, 2015. Oil on linen, 56 x 76 inches. Courtesy Skarstedt Gallery.

"False Gods" by Eric Fischl, 2015. Oil on linen, 56 x 76 inches. Courtesy Skarstedt Gallery.

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"Rift/Raft" by Eric Fischl, 2016. Oil on linen, 98 x 220 inches. Courtesy Skarstedt Gallery.

"Rift/Raft" by Eric Fischl, 2016. Oil on linen, 98 x 220 inches. Courtesy Skarstedt Gallery.

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One problem with this kind of humor is that it can undermine the sincerity of the heavier intellectual lifting that Fischl is not afraid of attempting, which the paintings as well as his writing attest.

In False Gods, a figure slumped in a wheelchair offers a Lucian Freud moment with the mottled skin tones of his bald head. The figure’s head is crowned with a positively disgusting bit of twisted impasto that protrudes from the canvas just as a growth might project from the surface of the skin.

The dramatic and political climax of the exhibition, Rift/Raft, retains the thematic link to the fairs (the left side of the diptych), yet the panel on the right marks a significant psychological departure from the other paintings in the show. The anguished postures and expressions of the figures on the right, stripped from front-page images of the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe as well as so many other sources, are a world away from the spoiled, zoned-out fair denizens on the left side.

The huge work recalls an earlier double-barreled painting by Fischl on another immigration crisis (Haitian refugees), A Visit to/A Visit From/The Island (1983). In the earlier essay in political commentary, the relative weights of the two sides of the equation were more balanced. In Rift/Raft, the anaesthetized art fair scene suddenly seems puddle-deep by contrast with the excruciating urgency of the refugees struggling from the waves (there are 11 million Syrian refugees, and thousands of children have died).

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"Eric Fischl: Rift Raft” at Skarstedt Gallery. Featuring "Rift/Raft" by Eric Fischl, 2016. Oil on linen, 98 x 220 inches.

"Eric Fischl: Rift Raft” at Skarstedt Gallery. Featuring "Rift/Raft" by Eric Fischl, 2016. Oil on linen, 98 x 220 inches.

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Tim Adams, who profiled Fischl in The Guardian, is the author of the superb (if too short) catalogue essay. He asserts that Fischl is expressing anger on both sides of the diptych: “Some of this frustration—an anger at the commodified insularity of the ‘art world’—seems to break through in the most dramatic painting in the current show. Rift/Raft dramatizes the gulf between the concerns of those disconnected buyers and the very real conflicts in the world beyond.” Either that, or the tendentious correlation is obscenely stretched. The question is one of sincerity.

The glowering diptych is a reminder of how Fischl made his name as one of the most controversial social commentators in the ’80s. Readers of Fischl’s excellent memoir Bad Boy, a page turner with superb art historical insights, will know that he is a child of the Long Island suburbs (Port Washington). He went to art school in Phoenix College and earned his BFA from the California Institute of the Arts in 1972.

After a stint in Chicago, where he worked as a museum guard at the Museum of Contemporary Art, he started teaching painting at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, where he met his future wife, April Gornik. Success came soon after his first New York solo show at the Edward Thorp Gallery in 1979. Now his work is in premier museums from MoMA, the Met and the Whitney to the Pompidou in Paris, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and the Louisiana Museum of Art in Denmark.

The aesthetic incentive to linger before the paintings on an individual basis is not so much the earnest statement on the shallowness of the art market as it is the more substantive if familiar interaction between Fischl and the “Old Masters” of Modernism, from Matisse and Picasso through Lichtenstein and Wesselmann, among others.

The epitome of this type of “art about art” is extended to three tiers in Her, as Fischl expressively meditates on Lichtenstein tightly interpreting a brushy Picasso in his Pop idiom in the same booth space that has coyly reinterpreted a real Picasso.

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BASIC FACTS: “Eric Fischl: Rift Raft” is on view May 3 to June 25, 2016 at the Skarstedt Gallery, 20 East 79th Street, New York, NY 10075. Eric Fischl in Conversation with Rachel Corbett will take place on Thursday, June 9, 2016 at 6:30 p.m. at the gallery. www.Skarstedt.com

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Copyright 2016 Hamptons Art Hub LLC. All rights reserved.

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