What follows are excerpts from a dialogue between artist Eric Fischl and Terrie Sultan, Director of the Parrish Museum in Southampton, that took place on the Avram stage at Stony Brook Southampton during the 2012 Southampton Writers Conference. We reproduce them here for their pertinence to the craft of narrative composition.
TS: I looked at your painting Bad Boy and I immediately thought of John Updike. There’s a whole narrative story behind this painting and I wonder what it is. And I wonder, ‘Where did Eric get his idea? What story did that narrative come from?’ So where does your inspiration come from?
EF: It took me a while to find my process. And my discovery of how I think creatively came when I discovered glassine paper, because it accepts oil paint very easily, so it’s a pleasure to schmear. Its transparency enabled me to project my imagination onto the wall. So what I would do is put a chair on a piece of paper and I would sit in my studio and I’d stare at that chair and I’d say, ‘Okay so there’s a chair here? Is there anybody sitting in the chair? Are they standing in the chair, are they walking by the chair? Are they the only one there? Is there somebody else there?’ And every time I had a thought I would get another piece of paper and I would project it in my imagination. It showed me that I create things through association. And I don’t question the impetus. I just simply go with it. It either works or doesn’t. Things that are germane to the way I’m feeling stay. Things that I’m fantasizing about tend to fall away.
That process of working led me to make paintings. In order to be a great artist you had to really tackle painting, which meant you had to handle color and you had to handle surface, and form. So I moved to the canvas. Now this painting, which is my most famous slash notorious painting—Bad Boy, to which you referenced—is a painting that I started knowing only that I wanted to paint a bowl of fruit. So, go figure.
TS: Well, it’s quite prominently there.
EF: It’s very much there. I asked myself, ‘Where is it?’ Well, it’s on a table. On something, right? So I put that in. And then: ‘Okay the table is in some room.
What room could that be in, etc.?’ And I was sort of thumbing through a magazine and saw this bamboo curtain, you know, light streaming through. I thought, cool, stripes. That might be fun to paint. So I put that in. There was something about the color of the wall and it reminded me of Arizona, where I lived for some time and it reminded me of these adobe houses where in the heat of the day it’s still cool inside. And then I was thinking siesta. And I thought, ‘Okay. I got into this idea of a post-coital siesta moment,’ you know. And so I put these two adult figures in. And it didn’t work. I couldn’t get the guy in there. So, he leaves. And I roll her over and so she’s the way she is now. But I kept thinking there’s somebody else in this room. And I thought, ‘Maybe it’s a little baby.’ So I painted a little baby next to her head. And that didn’t work. So then I thought, ‘Maybe it’s like a 5-year-old kid or something.’ So I painted this kid on the edge of the bed sort of putting his finger through the blinds, looking. Eventually it turned out to be this sort of 10, 11-year- old boy standing there watching. At some point I thought, ‘What is he doing?’ Then I thought, ‘Oh, I get it. He’s stealing something.’ And so I put his hand in the purse. And that was the painting.
TS: So the narratives that you make up are just coming straight from your own experiences? Or just what you would imagine? Even as you were speaking at the very beginning about how you had a chair and then you had a boy. It almost sounded like a poem.
EF: I wish. I’d give up everything to be a poet.
I have a little bit of dyslexia, so reading is a long process. I grew up in the suburbs in an environment where you went to the museums only for school trips and mostly I was informed by TV and film. And film, obviously, is one of our great narrative mediums, visual mediums. It certainly took the lion’s share of territory that painting used to occupy. And photography took the rest. Those were the first things that informed me so I think there is a natural relationship that I have to try and tell things through story.
TS: You mentioned point of view, too, because there are various ways to enter into a narrative. So you’re the creator of this narrative, but you’re keeping your audience in mind as well?
EF: I’m hoping that the painting that ultimately gets done leaves plenty of room for someone else to interpret it. What I do is, I try to create a space that is alive. So people automatically say, ‘Wait, what’s going on here?’
TS: So that’s the most important question? What’s going on?
EF: What’s going on, yeah. Which is, for me, the question.
This painting—The Travel of Romance–—started out as a single event. When I finished it I was sitting there and I noticed that I stared at her because she was so luminous and so internalized, and she was just this self-contained thing, and glowing in this space. And I was drawn to it and noticing that I lost him. Then I look at him and his animation, and his muscularity, and the abstractness of whatever it was he was doing, and she disappeared. And I am thinking, ‘How can it be that you have two people this close together and you can’t put them in the same space at the same moment?’ So I thought, ‘Let me pursue this.’ In the back of this painting there’s an indication of a suitcase. So I started thinking about travel. Maybe she came here and he lives here. Maybe it’s that there is always an erotic component to travel, to the fantasy of travel. Maybe she’s gone off and she is going to have an affair with someone local. But then I thought, ‘Well, because I can’t get them in the same space at the same time, maybe one is a fantasy of the other.’ So, ‘Who is real?’ is what I was thinking to myself in this first painting. So I did four more paintings. Then, I’m looking at these things and I’m seeing something else that I wasn’t aware of until it was over—this drama is happening within a relatively narrow set of time and space—but when I look at the body language, I realize that I painted a much greater time. Which is to say that it starts in the fetal position, then crawls, then stands, then bends, and finally returns to that almost fetal position that she was in at the beginning.
TS: Do you work with live models?
TS: So when you make photo collages do you stage them with actual people? Are you pulling them from images in magazines?
EF: The great thing about painting, I think it’s true of the arts, but the great thing about painting is that you don’t have to put consciousness into conscious people. You can put consciousness into inanimate objects like in a chair which assumes a kind of witness role. There’s magic—this is what I love about painting.
TS: But the characters—as you say, you don’t have to put consciousness into a conscious being, so, again, like a writer, you’ll start a narrative, and your humans basically take on a life of their own. Like with Bad Boy, you tried lots of characters in that room until…
EF: Until the one was right for it, yeah. I did a series I was invited to do in Germany. In Krefeld, Germany. They own a Mies van der Rohe house, two houses, actually. When they asked me to do it they asked what I would do. I said, it was a house, people lived in this house. So what I proposed I would do is I would furnish the house, hire some actors, take a bunch of photographs of them in different rooms in the house, and then I’d go home and I’d make paintings. And this series, which has five rooms, what became a question fairly quickly was whose house is this? Is it her house? Is it his house? Are they married? Is this an affair? How do I know who these people are? So from room to room I would try to look for the answer to that. The more I painted the less I got in terms of answering that question. And by the time I was done I still didn’t know.
TS: But you created a relatively deep mystery that you could play with. How did you feel it worked when you finally got the paintings back into the space?
EF: The answer wasn’t whether they were married, not married, affair, or not affair. The answer was that this relationship doesn’t work. Not because of me, but it doesn’t actually work. They’re all wrong for each other. I’d never worked with actors before so I went to my friends. People like Marsha Norman, people who’ve worked with actors, and asked them, ‘How do you make actors go? Can you talk to them?’ I got great advice back. One was, ‘Oh, give them problems. They love to solve problems.’ So I was like, ‘What’s a problem?’ ‘Simple things like she wants a hundred bucks but won’t tell him why.’ So I did. I made up little problems and I set them off. And as I said, I’m taking still photographs, so I’m not thinking I have to capture the narrative, I have to get the dialogue, etc. What I’m looking for is real body language, which is the reason I hired actors as opposed to models. I was surprised very quickly by two things. One is that if I gave them a problem they couldn’t get their teeth into the whole thing was dead. There was zero body language. And the other was that if I gave them something they could really get their teeth into it was so riveting I would forget to photograph. I was just completely into the moment, which surprised me because I didn’t think it was necessary to know that, or feel that, because all I was doing was taking still photographs. My wife, April, was convinced the guy was a porno actor.
TS: She may have had a point.
EF: Who knows? The other thing is that because I prepared all this off the web and when I was looking at headshots and I wasn’t paying attention to details. When they showed up he was this big strapping German guy, and she was about this tall. And I’m looking at this going ‘Oh, this going to be really interesting. How am I going to get that to work?’ On the final day of shooting, we’re now in the bedroom. Over the course of these four or five days she’d tried to express to him in no uncertain terms she’s completely uninterested. But she’s a professional actress so she’s going through all this stuff. So I constructed a scene with zero going on and it was bad.
So he got up and he went to the bathroom, or someplace, to have a cigarette. The bed had this netting over it. It was this modernist Swedish thing that made this mosquito netting look like an igloo. So I told her, ‘You’re a wild animal. Whatever you do, don’t let him in the bed.’ And we pulled the netting down. And she recoiled to the far reaches at the back of the bed amongst the pillows and she sat there, and it was fantastic. She just turned into this animal. And she was just sitting there and sitting there. And he comes back in and she’s naked. And he says, ‘Whoa.’ And he takes his clothes off, and he walks over to the bed, and he starts to lift the netting. And she comes flying across the bed and smashes him in the face. And he reels back. Anyway…
TS: You had some opinions about the supremacy now of photography and filmic media over painting. And yet you are very definitively a painter but you’re using photography to get to where you want to go.
EF: Right. First of all photography, painting, and film do three very different things in terms of how the experience enters your being. A photograph slices life so thinly that everything is in motion. And everything is off balance. And if you want to create a visual narrative you have to have motion. And that’s what triggers the narrative. I never question it when my eye lands on somebody doing whatever they’re doing. There’s a point at which, I’ve realized, I’m sort of in reverie looking at this thing. And hopefully I have my camera and I take a picture of it. And then the painting is trying to find out why. You see somebody who’s kind of turning and you say, ‘Are they turning because they just heard somebody come in the door? Are they turning because somebody said something that they didn’t like? Are they bored? Or did they just have a painful thought and they kind of turned from themselves?’ So all of those things are within that little gesture that just happened. And then as I get interested in the possibilities: ‘So if it’s somebody having a painful memory, what’s the light look like?’ Do you burn them out with the light as a way of getting the obliteration of a hard and difficult thought? Do you put them into the umber as a way to the shadow world of our memory? And it starts to define itself as to how this could be.
Another series I did, called Scenes from Late Paradise, is a collage beach thing. All these characters start in the upper left corner. It’s a group of people and some are walking this way and some are walking that way. In the upper left collage there’s a figure in there of a slightly overweight man in a striped green and white bathing suit, sort of in the middle ground. He’s just part of the crowd. ‘Is that the main character in this scene?’ As you begin to follow the sequence you begin to see him emerge. He gets smaller, he gets larger, he walks through stuff, the crowd fans out, etc. And the painting ultimately is just him. And again, if you asked me at the start, ‘Is he your guy?’ I would have laughed. And of course that’s the fun for me.
TS: How it’s going to turn out?
EF: The series is titled Scenes from Late Paradise. What the hell does that mean? Does paradise have a time to it? Is it coming to the end of something? Over the course of these five paintings things start to happen that begin to unravel the comfort and beauty and the pleasure of the place. And then this is the last scene in which clearly now the sea is roiling, and a major event, storm wise, is happening, and he seems to be walking into it. He seems oblivious to it. And if you saw all the paintings all together you’d see it starts off with everybody going this way, and he’s going that way.
TS: So he’s marching to the tune of his own…
EF: Yeah. God save him….April, my wife, says it best when she talks about painting making itself vulnerable to interpretation. That’s where you’re trying to get to. I’m trying to get to a middle ground that puts this experience that I’ve created between you and me, as a way of sharing that thing. But I’m not holding you to my interpretation of what it means or how I got there. What I’m trying to do as an artist is find the precise tension between a meaningful moment and the next nanosecond where it loses the tension and becomes meaningless.
So much of our daily lives are meaningless. They’re just quotidian, they fill time and whatnot. But there are these moments that we have which inform our lives in the most profound way. And they come from a split second. They come from something that triggers something. It’s unpredictable, but it happens, and those are the ones that become part of your memory base; they become part of your character. So how do you find where that is? If you’re trying to be dramatic, how far before the defining moment do you go before you tell the whole thing and ruin it? Or how far after? Those are two pregnant moments in narrative development.