Making my way through “Meditations on Melancholia,” Eric Fischl’s latest exhibition at Skarstedt, I remembered that there are still people who get a kick out of seeing the word “American” somewhere in an artwork’s title. Rarely can so much be gotten so cheaply—the four syllables supply shallow depth, insta-gravitas. Would moviegoers have shelled out a third of a billion dollars for something called Sniper? Would Beauty have won five Oscars? Decades later, would there be quite so much chatter about Gothic? Graffiti? Gigolo?
The painting that reminded me of this is called American Hula (2020), and its title may or may not be a joke—it’s hard to tell with Fischl. Raised in the 1950s in white-bread Long Island, he hit his stride in the ’80s painting the milieu he knew best: swimming pools, emerald lawns, pale flesh prematurely aged by bourbon and sexual angst and who knows what else. Judging from any single canvas, Fischl’s feelings toward this subject matter might be mistaken for derision. With repetition, it inches closer to awe. The figure in American Hula towers over the horizon in bulgy, muscular nakedness. But he also happens to be hula-hooping—the silly red toy slashes across the middle of the canvas like graffiti on a gravestone. If, per the old Scott Fitzgerald saw, the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at once, Fischl gets full marks.
Fischl’s late style is a risky combination of the overdetermined and the underdeveloped, the insisted upon and the gestured at. It felt right in this odd, excellent show. In interviews, Fischl suggested that the show’s title was a nod to Melancholia, the Lars von Trier film which ends (and begins!) with the destruction of the world. For these new paintings, he’s replaced pools and lawns with fields of illegible blue, so that his figures, once cozily imprisoned, are now unmoored. In Late America 2 (2020), a woman squeezes a child to her gut. The skies are black, the ocean nibbles at the land, we can’t see what the child looks like because it’s wrapped in an upside-down American flag—even without the title’s help, we’d know the end was nigh.
Rereading my description of this painting, I can see that I’ve made it sound terrible, but part of the fun in Fischl’s recent work is seeing how far he can get with a terrible premise, how much life he can squeeze out of cold, dead allegory. On some level, he seems to understand this. Look at that title again—how “late” can Late America 2 be if it’s the newest installment in a series? (It’s worth bearing in mind that the first Late America, another queasy work featuring a boy wrapped in the flag, was completed more than four years ago, just after the 2016 election.) I’m reminded of something the anthropologist David Graeber was fond of saying: “Capitalism dies a more beautiful death with each passing year.”
In an era when political topicality has become the rule for art, Fischl may be trying to get with the program, or else just pretending. Either way, he should keep it up—there aren’t many artists who paint flesh with the same furious invention. This show was a celebration of visual wonders: shimmering blues, velvety brushstrokes, bodies that seem to float and sink at the same time. Sometimes an artist has to pretend to be a politician in order to stay an aesthete. Here’s looking forward to Late America 3 in 2024.