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Eric Fischl Photo

Eric Fischl

American Painter and Sculptor

Born: 1948 - New York, New York
Movements and Styles:
"I vowed that I would never let the unspeakable also be unshowable. I would paint what could not be said."
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Eric Fischl Signature
"Art never is exactly what you hoped it would be. It always falls short."
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Eric Fischl Signature
"Discovery and execution should happen simultaneously on the canvas. That's real painting. I love that idea. It makes painting seem so important, so existential. You go into the void with just your wits and you just struggle through this thing."
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Eric Fischl Signature

Summary of Eric Fischl

In the 1970s and 80s, Eric Fischl became Neo-Expressionism's noted bad boy with his psychologically charged depictions of American suburbia. His own dysfunctional childhood centered upon a mother who was desperately depressed and an alcoholic, which became a large influence on his paintings. Committed to "never let the unspeakable also be the unshowable" he offered a refreshingly unflinching glimpse of the underbelly in human relationships and everyday life, which lurked beneath society's manicured facade. His work invites us to reflect upon our own place within the worlds he portrays and to explore our hypocrisy, internal conflict and complacency. He asks that we never grow too comfortable. This keen critical analysis weaves from his earliest work through today in which he continues to welcome us to consider what's hidden beneath the exterior.


  • Many of Fischl's paintings portray moments in which potential disaster or the taboo can be felt lingering on the periphery. They evoke feelings of discomfort or human vulnerability within the viewer transforming the personal into the universal.
  • Fischl's work can be seen as a way in which the artist processes his own internal conflicts. In the early suburban pieces we see him probe the unseen dynamics of family. In later pieces, showing the leisurely seaside lifestyles of the elite, we see him exploring his own place within its privilege. In recent work, highlighting participants at major art fairs, we see him emphasize the divide between the beauty of art making and the commodification of art within the market.

Biography of Eric Fischl

Eric Fischl Photo

Eric Fischl was born in New York City in 1948 to a salesman father and an artist mother. During his ensuing upbringing on Long Island, he and his three siblings experienced a stereotypical childhood ensconced in the burgeoning facade of American suburbia. His home life was secretly peppered with the dysfunctional behavior of his mother, a tragic character who articulated her depression through bouts of erratic rage assuaged by a teeming alcoholism. When reflecting on his childhood, Fischl disclosed that his mother often walked around the house naked and was even arrested for running through the neighborhood in the nude. The family strove to keep her struggle private and succeeded for the most part. There is no doubt that this hidden chaos provided him with an anxiety that would express itself later upon canvas.

Progression of Art



Fischl called the separation between these two subjects a caesura, a metrical break in verse; the older woman and the young girl may be related, they may be the same person in different times, or they may have no relationship. Perhaps they share a room - notice the similar walls, floor, and lighting - but the overlapping canvases hint at an emotional hierarchy. The woman might be reflecting on the girl with envy, affection, or bemusement within her lounging posture of resignation. Note the girl's stiff posture in contrast to her ballerina costume, her inelegant foot position and forward lean; now look at the woman's graceful pose, the muscled calves and relaxed nudity. Both subjects are trapped within Fischl's framing and the limitations of their age: the woman is no longer nubile, the young girl lacks grace. Cynical portraits, perhaps, but when viewed straight on the duo become a singular piece. It's only when viewed from an angle that the break, the caesura, occurs.

Through this comparison, Fischl gives control to the viewer. Is he making us responsible for deciding how the subjects interrelate? His answer is unusually generous: all interpretations are valid, though only a few are consciously intended. Read left to right, Bayonne evokes the sorrow of memory, even as the girl seems to reject this label. With her outstretched hands and rooted pose, she pushes back, perhaps against her future self, perhaps against our projections of her yet to be realized life.

Oil on canvas



A young man stands in a plastic swimming pool in a suburban backyard, shoulders hunched, gaze fixed downward, penis in hand. A hint of prurience mingles with the conservative hues and totems of everyday America. The boy might be sleepwalking or just peeing in the kiddie pool.

Completed shortly before his career took off in New York, Sleepwalker typifies Fischl's blend of voyeurism and sexually-tinged banality. It is also a great example of the Neo-Expressionist style in which painters known as New Fauves, or "The Wild Ones," portrayed recognizable subjects with jarring intensity and vivid color. Although we don't know who this boy is, we are thrust upon his private moment, perhaps triggered into feelings of awkwardness, embarrassment, disgust or compassion for our common human foibles. Are we witnessing an unconscious foray in the middle of the night or a brash pubescent marking of territory as household rite of passage? Regardless we are reminded of the resonant human vulnerability that lurks within the perceived shelter of our own homes. Note the quadrupled circles - his head, his head's reflection, the round pool, and the round lawn - allusions to a spotlit subject on an accidental stage. The light, whether from moon or sun, is glaring. The pool is still. The lawn chairs bear silent witness, as do we.

Oil on canvas


Bad Boy

Slatted with gauzy light, a nude woman sprawls out across a bed. She appears unaware of the boy standing directly in front of her. The boy watches the woman as his hand slips into what is presumably her purse. The woman's pose is languid, post-orgasmic, and unashamed. The boy is seen in mid-theft but his pose suggests preternatural confidence, as though he's done this before. Perhaps she has, too.

Bad Boy offers a scene of daytime noir in which the harlot and the scamp are dramatically lit, the sheets are rumpled, and a screw is followed by a theft. But Fischl's Freudian puns nudge the observant viewer like an elbow to the ribs with the phallic bananas in the fruit bowl and the boy's hand in the woman's purse. Even the shape of the purse's opening conjures her sex. The Old English pusa means purse, slang for vagina, leading to our modern-day pussy. Fischl offers a wink amid the weirdness, just enough to lower our guard. The scene suggests a triple-manipulation: the boy gets what he needs, the woman gets what she wanted, and we get a narrative suitable for the cover of a pulp mystery. Although a lesser artist would have closed the woman's legs, Fischl's daring establishes himself as a master of clinical hedonism.

Oil on canvas


A Visit to / A Visit From / The Island

Created from the combination of two canvases, this painting juxtaposes two polar scenes in comparable settings. On the left, a family enjoys a sunny day by the sea. The foreshortened figure of a nude woman reclines on a raft while a child snorkels beneath her. A man walks jauntily through the turquoise water and a child stands facing the viewer. The mood is stridently different in the companion scene. A group of black men and women frantically cross the shore as dark waves crash upon it. Poorly clothed figures, reminiscent of the reclining woman, lie motionless on the sand. A woman pulls at the unresponsive arm of one such figure.

In this diptych, Fischl confronts the irony of island resorts, locations sought out by vacationing families while simultaneously fled by native groups. Within his career, Fischl completed several paintings of nude scenes sea or poolside. Often of wealthy families, these works portray more than mere studies of the recreational human form and the dynamics of that stratum. Paired with the secondary image, which Fischl based on photographs of Haitian refugees arriving on the Florida coast, the message becomes more biting. The relaxing family seems completely oblivious to a more universal strife that could very well have occurred on that very same beach.

Oil on Canvas - Whitney Museum of American Art


Ten Breaths: Tumbling Woman II

Following the events of 9/11, Fischl sculpted "Tumbling Woman" for the Rockefeller Center as a tribute to the lives lost. The bronze sculpture depicts a nude life size woman in free fall, her legs twisted perpendicular to her compacted torso as her neck comes into contact with the ground. Despite the massive death toll, there were very few bodies following the terrorist attack and the media censored such images. Yet Fischl, in his commitment to "never let the unspeakable also be unshowable," created this work as an embodiment of human vulnerability both on that infamous day and in general. It confidently reiterates his underlying artistic intention of bringing the dark currents of everyday life out into the open; a distinct signature of his work within the Neo-Expressionist genre, in which artists pointedly break the veil of intellectual distance and invite the viewer into a more forced intimacy.

Despite, and perhaps provoked by his intentions, "Tumbling Woman" met with severe hostility from a wounded public. Fischl was accused of exploiting the sensitive emotions surrounding 9/11 to bolster his then dwindling art career. Not long after its debut, the sculpture was covered and then subsequently removed. Despite the general public's rejection of the work, copies of the sculpture can be found in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the New York Academy of Art. It remains an important iconic reminder of a dark day in our history, one in which our collective internal fears were turned inside out to tumble freely, exposed.

Bronze - Smithsonian American Art Museum


The Clemente Family

In this oil painting, Fischl captures an unorthodox portrait of Francesco Clemente, an artist friend, and his family. The family members are widely dispersed within a dark room, pierced in sections by harsh light that may come from an opening door. Whiteness engulfs the faces of Clemente's wife and one of his daughters, yet Clemente sits alone on the edge of the canvas and his two sons stand in the shadows of the back corner. This separation of brightness and shadow carves a sense of striking emotional disconnect between the family members augmented by the awkward spatial composition of the room.

Fischl's fascination with family dynamics and relationships remains a central theme of his oeuvre. In this particular case he utilizes the composition to communicate the dynamics he observes: the strong centrally located matron, the reluctantly present sons, and the complacent daughters. Like many of Fischl's social realistic portraits, he invites the viewer into the role of photographer even while his lush brushstrokes and slightly skewed perspectives remind us of the inherent liberties of painting. Fischl never poses his subjects but rather notes their behavior and the manner in which they interact truthfully and without artificiality.

Oil on linen - Smithsonian American Art Museum


Art Fair: Booth #17 Instructions

From Fischl's most recent series, this painting captures the interface between three art fair attendees. Although a significant departure from his sexually charged suburban scenes, this series still focuses upon the behavioral humanity of its subjects in contrast to their environment. Fischl creates these scenes from photos that he takes of people at fairs, but they are not intended to be portraits. They instead are meant to capture stereotypes: the wealthy art collector, the posh gallerist, the glamour-seeking intern, the art party socialite, and others. With notepad and smart phones in hand, the three figures converse, presumably about the art that surrounds them yet without looking at the art at all, more enthralled by being part of the "scene." In an ironic role reversal, the artworks remain in the background, witnessing the interaction of the attendees, as opposed to being observed by them.

As a member of the generation of artists that experienced the effect of the economic boom of the 1980s upon the art world, Fischl simultaneously witnessed and participated in the transformation of the New York City art scene. Following the publication of his autobiography, Fischl began to scrutinize this shift and the resulting state of the art world. The resulting series, documents the commercialization and dehumanization of art (here, the art is mere commodity).

Oil on linen - Victoria Miro Gallery

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Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols

"Eric Fischl Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols
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First published on 22 Jun 2016. Updated and modified regularly
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