Eric Fischl: The Figure as Still Life

Eric Fischl’s “Summer Dog Days,” from 1995, is on view at Guild Hall.

    Is there any more prominent and trenchant depicter of the not-so-secret life of contemporary haut bourgeoisie than Eric Fischl? Aside from his latest bullfighter paintings, which have held a prominent place in all the right art fairs in the past few years, it has been awhile since I have seen the artist in any type of concentration, and certainly not in his more familiar milieu.
    In Guild Hall’s exhibition “Eric Fischl: Beach Life,” a collection of paintings from the mid-1980s to 2010, the view is still askew, with a focus on island getaways and settings inspired by the South Fork. The subjects remain familiar, even as they are relocated from suburban interiors into a recreational mode.
    Mr. Fischl has been compared to Edgar Degas. Perhaps it is the influence of his bullfighters, but I see more evidence of Edouard Manet with touches of Edward Hopper, particularly in his interior scenes.
    But here we have people cavorting and relaxing on the water. The sunbathers allow for casual and plausible nudity, the windsurfers less so. What has always given his paintings their charge, however, is that unexpected or absurd insertion of deshabille into the more mundane aspects of existence. It is that frisson that draws us in and forces the viewer to realize that what is apparent is not necessarily all that remains to be seen there.
    Mr. Fischl has said his artwork explores such themes as the relationships between men and women, intimacy, privacy, and boundaries. This is why seeing the figures he paints as subjects can seem beside the point. They appear to be more like ciphers, a visual code for the vulnerability of the human form and psyche. What is remarkable about his work is that the dehumanization of his figures can make them that much more affecting.
    In paintings such as “The Raft,” “Costa del Sol,” “Beautiful Day,” and “Four Women,” the casual nudity is unselfconscious, but the gaze of the viewer on them still feels awkward, voyeuristic, and impossible to mitigate. He makes it even more challenging by reducing the setting to wide swaths of green, sand, or blue, with little detail. Faces are blurred, too, and the focus shifts to where it must: the bodies, molded by tone summarily, as in modeling clay.
    Contrast these images with paintings like “The Gang,” and “Stephanie and Lily Margaret,” recognizable portraits of friends and subjects with actual identities, as in Stephanie Seymour and her daughter Lily Margaret Brant. These are people with facial features, more defined musculature and skin tones and, yes, clothes.
    There is no doubt that in some of these sun-swept and exotic locales there are beaches that welcome the nudity that Mr. Fischl depicts, but it is also clear that these are just as likely to be part of his imagination. And as that one veil lifts, the veiled and generalized forms gain more meaning, become more dreamlike, stand-ins for that vulnerability and mortality of the flesh. It’s the figure as still life or vanitas.
    Sometimes this can be seen literally, as in a diptych painting from 1983, “A Visit To/A Visit From/The Island.” The pale, upper-class bodies on the left relax in turquoise water and brilliant sun with a resort hotel beckoning in the distance. On the right, the presumed natives of the same island carry bodies from a roiling dark sea. This is an obvious metaphor for the struggles under colonialism that every Caribbean island nation has suffered, but also points to the general threat posed by water under any circumstances.
    The work implies that we are never as safe or alone as we think. If no one is watching, there might be still darker forces at work readying their power to mete an untimely end. (This idea was alluded to infamously in Mr. Fischl’s sculpture “Tumbling Woman,” made in response to the Sept. 11 tragedy and removed from Rockefeller Center because it reminded people too vividly of falling bodies from the World Trade Center building as it burned.)
The figuration of artists such as Mr. Fischl is once again taken for granted, as it was in the days of Manet and Hopper, but it was not always so. Choosing the figure, as his wife, the painter April Gornik, has chosen the landscape (and how interesting to note their avoidance of each other’s turf), was a radical move in New York art circles. In Mr. Fischl’s case, it helped that he left Long Island, where he grew up, and went to school at Cal Arts in Valencia, Calif., and ended up in Chicago for a while, absorbing movements outside of the mainstream.
How to focus on the figure without focusing on the figure was the challenge. For Mr. Fischl, his art seems to be a self-conscious act of making the painting about the painter and his choices and proclivities. It is the post-modern twist that allows a figurative artist to achieve relevance and prominence in contemporary art circles. To a jaded audience far removed from the scandal of Manet’s famous paintings “Olympia” and “Dejeuner sur l’herbe,” what sensibilities are left to challenge?
    What makes the Fischl paintings uncomfortable is their darker implications as well as their depictions of sexualized figures in recognizably contemporary settings. It is still the same gambit as Manet’s — using contemporary figures to populate classical academic subject matter and taking the gloss of removed respectability away. And, surprise, it still works.
    Those staying in “the Hamptons” who stroll through the galleries of Guild Hall will, in all likelihood, recognize themselves in those images, not just physically, but in spirit as well. That complicity raises engagement with these works from mere confrontational titillation to a much more meaningful encounter.
    The exhibition is on view through Oct. 14.