The painter Eric Fischl, part of the generation of New York City artists that exploded in the eighties, became a star for his figurative canvases rife with tense, psychosexual imagery. His aptly titled new memoir, Bad Boy (Random House, $26), traces his life from his mother's alcoholism and suicide to his education at CalArts alongside fellow trailblazers David Salle and Ross Bleckner, and from the glory days of SoHo to his mature work. Here, the 65-year-old legend opens up about looking back.
Is it necessary to have some formative trauma to work through, as you did, to make great work?
On some level, every artist has suffered. Every good artist has really suffered—and has found a way with dealing with that. I don't think I've ever met an artist who says, "Oh, yeah, I've been happy all my life."
You express a lot of disappointment with the artists who followed you. How much of that is generational sour grapes?
One generational difference is that we had such trouble with authority and they don't. They're all nice. My first reflex is, I don't trust this at all. And it seems there's, like, four ideas and all the world is doing them. All these younger artists are doing the teardrop shape. They're doing it in Brazil, in Mexico, in Beijing, in India. Some are weaving it, some are crocheting it, some are casting it in shiny materials. What does the teardrop shape mean? Does it have any emotional necessity, or is it just a shape?
Does your generation bear any responsibility for the commercialization of the art world that led to this?
Yes, absolutely. We allowed it to happen, not knowing. Art criticism got reduced to sound bites and pictures, and artists started to show up on the same pages as rock stars. Artists like myself were selling paintings and having wait lists, and there was that sense of being red-hot. Also, the art scene changed from bars to restaurants, and the restaurants were upscale. So a lifestyle was shifting too. I think we all kind of were approaching it like it was the same thing, without noticing how fundamentally different it was.
You say fairly nice things about Larry Gagosian in your book, but he's so often held up as a symbol of all that's wrong with the art world.
I think he's a very astute businessman. I'm in awe of him in a lot of ways—the expansiveness of his vision and ambition. Now I think that because he has so many galleries in so many places, it reveals that there aren't that many good artists. Most of what he shows is sort of okay. But it's not particularly good, and it's certainly not great.
You used to spar with Julian Schnabel. Is all forgiven?
The one nice thing about being in it this long is you look around and realize these people you were very competitive with are still standing, and you're still standing, and it's been 40 years, and you're like, okay. That is actually a good thing. And I think the eighties would have been incredibly boring without him. He set a tone that challenged us.
When you come into New York City today, do you recognize it?
I lament SoHo's demise. That was such a great experience, in terms of feeling connected to a community. It was like a town within a city. Chelsea doesn't do it for me that way. The art world in Chelsea is like going to warehouses to see cold storage.
Who do you see when you look at the man you painted in Self-Portrait: An Unfinished Work [pictured]?
I'll put it to you the way my friend Ralph Gibson did. He said, "I'm glad to see you're just as hard on yourself as everyone else."