Eric Fischl’s Beach Life at Guild Hall

While Eric Fischl came to prominence in the 1980s, his work remains pervasive as well as provocative even today. And consistent.  “Beach Life, “ the artist’s current show at East Hampton’s Guild Hall, conveys the recurring themes, subjects and styles that signify his worldview. The exhibit also defines his other series during the past three decades.
Fischl’s art has always been examined and deconstructed by various means, by himself (in lectures like his recent one at Guild Hall) and critics alike. Certainly a penchant for narrativity and Neo-Expressionism initially invoked Fischl’s individuality; his sensual subject matter made him famous.  This may be the time, therefore, to reexamine such salient traits regarding “Beach Life,” perhaps discovering a new way of appreciating Fischl’s work.

The matter of narrativity has always been a fascinating one. Fischl is quite explicit when describing how he developed his own sense of story telling. For example, if he drew a chair, he would ask himself questions about who had sat there and what he/she had been doing. More to the point, however, is his Postmodern influence. Simply put, Postmodernism is a synthesis of modern tastes and classical approaches and motifs: the movement responds to the political/social realities of contemporary times while still looking at the past for inspiration. Classical idealism is combined with contemporary “commonplace.”

Fischl’s subjects and situations conform to these tenets in this critic’s mind. Classical narrativity shows important events involving important people. It prompts a moral response from the spectator. Thus, Fischl’s relationships between males and females or a young boy and an older woman also enact an important event, a life-changing “stage” in his “characters’ ” lives. His subjects (“caught” in an common act, including sunbathing) are not prominent citizens like classical times, but could be considered salient, nonetheless, because they are members of the privileged upper middle class.

Another intriguing aspect of Fischl’s narrativity is what he labels a “frozen moment:” figures “caught” in an action. But what exactly does “caught” mean? Fischl realizes that his images are not like a series of cinematic shots put together in a structured way. His paintings can, therefore, be experienced as the entire film captured in one single image.

Taking such a notion to its conclusion, the viewer doesn’t know if the “drama” being played out in Fischl’s work is the “beginning, middle or end” of a particular event. Considering a simple example, we do not know if the figure is taking her top off or putting it on in “Beautiful Day.” In “The Beginning and The End,” we also don’t know at what point in time we are witnessing the action between the two men.

Regardless of Fischl’s narrativity and other recurring elements (like style), one theme has evolved through the years which is often missed: the disconnection between his figures. In a nutshell, his subjects rarely look at each other. In fact, they are obviously avoiding both each other and the circumstances. A girl on the beach looks away from a man glaring at her; his back is to the viewer so he is looking away from us as well.

Fischl’s figures on the beach are looking in different directions as well. Moreover, a face is sometimes hidden by a big hat or long hair. No matter. Fischl’s characters don’t communicate with anyone.  And yet there may be a reason for that. We, the audience, can’t help but be engaged by this phenomenon. We can’t help but ponder what the subjects are looking at, what they are thinking.  By so doing, we become one with Fischl. Perhaps he is asking the same questions.

There’s one exception in the show to this disconnection. People in “The Gang” are a group of Fischl’s friends posing for a shot; they look straight ahead, all facing the same way. Are they looking at us? We wonder. Yet there are other questions to ask: Why are a few of the individuals almost hidden from view?  We wonder again.

Eric Fischl’s “Beach Life” will be on view at East Hampton’s Guild Hall (158 Main Street) until Oct. 14. 631-324-0806,

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