Eric Fischl’s new cycle of paintings depicting contemporary art fairs may seem a giddy leap from the subdued suburban eroticism of his seminal works. But while these latest canvases exchange the everyday settings of old for the sparkling carousel of the international art circuit, they are as acutely anthropological as anything he has created before. Their cluttered vistas—fictional amalgams based on photographs taken at different fairs—are almost dismayingly real.
Fischl dispassionately records more than he transmutes or satirizes. And perhaps his subject would be hard to satirize with subtlety, filled as it is with nuance and inhibition of peculiarly insipid and fugitive sorts. Scenes of cagey perusal and purse-lipped peacockery play out against the exuberant, somehow damning backdrop of art. (Fischl remarked in a recent interview that his human subjects “are being regarded and judged by the work” surrounding them.)
In Art Fair: Booth #4 The Price (2013), buyers and sellers surround a globular Ken Price sculpture, consulting cell phones or staring into space, while behind them a giant Joan Semmel canvas showing two nude figures lying in bed looms unobserved. Fischl’s scene is one of finely studied nonchalance, and his “near enough” brushwork is apt here in its very insouciance. The characters’ rivalry and expectation are held in urbane check as they ponder the price (rather than the Price). Theirs is what René Giraud called “mimetic desire”—a desire that mimics and feeds off that of other people, with the supposedly coveted object relegated to secondary importance. The carnal desire evoked by the Semmel picture, all sprawling flesh and stroking fingers, offers a telling counterpoint.
The paintings’ mood is one of deadpan narrative figuration, albeit without much narrative. An unavoidable irony lies in the fact that Fischl’s style is of a variety so rarely seen at fairs—too candid and unassuming, perhaps, yet facilitating a marvelously dry documentation of the events themselves. Art Fair: Booth #1 Oldenburg’s Sneakers (2013) depicts the preening deference of commerce to wealth: men in suits stand dutifully around as two wandering women wonder whether to buy. And we wonder, in turn, what Oldenburg-who puffed up the everyday only so as to deflate it—would have made of the whole ritual of poised politesse.
In Art Fair: Booth #27 Ridiculous Sublime (2014), Fischl’s trick of collapsing and condensing space (the floor lurches upward at an impossible diagonal) achieves a kind of hall-of-mirrors effect that nicely captures the visual clamor of art fairs. A female-leggy and busty atop a plinth-divides the canvas along the center; whether this is an inanimate statue or a living “sculpture” is unclear. Nearby, a woman regards an abstract canvas in a pose (arms folded, legs mid-stride) that radiates a mixture of curiosity and ennui. The question of what, precisely, is ridiculous and what sublime lingers unanswerably in the air.
The confusion in this and several paintings between sculpted bodies and actual ones recalls that found in Johann Zoffany’s fantastical Tribuna of the Uffizi (1772-78), where we find the greatest paintings and marble statues of the Western world admired by the dilettanti of the day. Fischl is the 21st-century heir to that tradition, but a lackadaisical heir. His art-fair paintings bear dispiriting witness to an ultra-refined social performance in which narcissism and rivalry are sublimated into a delicate, mannered set of relations. Figurative painting is perhaps the only medium up to such a task: the visceral has rarely lurked so insistently beneath a slick veneer.