There were a lot of weird bodies in the audience at Eric Fischl's sold-out lecture at EMP last week. In my row alone, there was a guy with a huge nose, a woman with no chin, and a guy with a burned neck.
Fischl looked like he had just been waterskiing: enviable tan, messy silver hair, rumpled cotton suit. He looked very comfortable, totally in command, and as he talked he ran his fingers through his hair, shifted his weight side to side, licked his lips, and gestured using both hands, as when he put one out in front of the other while saying, "At the same time, it goes a tremendous distance."
He was talking about the difference between photography (which goes this distance, showing us literal physical life in a given instant, but which is "terrifying because you don't know how it feels") and painting ("You walk away from a painting with a shared experience on a deep level, and the painting becomes a socially unifying object, in the way that it shares not just the image but the experience"). Fischl said, "What painting does that the photograph doesn't do is it takes you through the construction of the moment. You see him building the scene." The "him" at this point was Edvard Munch, whose 1896 oil painting The Sick Child was projected onto a huge screen above Fischl's head, next to one of Nicholas Nixon's terrifying 1987 photos of AIDS sufferer Thomas Moran.
The thrust of Fischl's talk wasn't photography versus painting—that digression that didn't make sense until the end—but art's relationship to "the body and the difficulty we have coming to terms with the body." Fischl is famous for painting bodies. Naked bodies. Bodies in coitus. Bodies with bright stripes on them, "created by unseen Venetian blinds" that make the subjects "seem like animals in a cage," to quote the program's description of Krefeld Project, Bedroom #6 (Surviving the Fall Meant Using You for Handholds), the painting of Fischl's that hangs in EMP's DoubleTake exhibit, next to a Degas. Fischl began with Van Gogh's vulnerable self-portraits (art about the human body) and ended with modernism (art about itself). Then he flashed a photo of the World Trade Center.
There were "odd reactions" to 9/11, he said. Artists ignored it. Artists thought it would be pretentious to make art about it. In this respect, did modernism fail us? "Three thousand people died and there were no bodies, we saw very few bodies." Everyone immediately "turned from the loss of life to the loss of architecture, as a way of expressing the loss of life." What about those lives? What about those bodies? Fischl showed a slide of his 2002 sculpture Tumbling Woman, a life-sized bronze woman falling from one of the towers—a pained blur of panic and grief. She was first shown outside at Rockefeller Plaza, but was removed "because people were shocked." People accused Fischl of cashing in on the tragedy, of trying to be controversial. "I maintain that they were freaked out because they saw a body."