The artist rose to fame with his depictions of suburban malaise in the 1970s.
Artists often pursue new directions, take unexpected turns and investigate new material. It’s part of staying nimble, of responding to current concerns and contributing to contemporary debates surrounding the viability of different art forms today. With its newest big solo-artist exhibit, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) puts forth the premise that superstar figurative painter Eric Fischl’s work has undergone such a change in the decades since he first became famous in the 1970s for painting tense scenes of suburban malaise. But there’s a difference between change in an artist’s detail-level techniques and change in the final product seen by viewers—and, in fact, the remarkable thing about Dive Deep: Eric Fischl and the Process of Painting is that despite its claim to the contrary, Fischl’s paintings haven’t changed much at all in the last 20 years. Not in terms of engaging the artistic dialogue of today, and not even really in terms of his process.
To be fair, the claim for change is modest. “I had an idea to do a project with Eric and focus on process because his process of composing work has changed over the years,” says Harry Philbrick, director of PAFA and Dive Deep co-curator, during a press walkthrough. The changes the exhibition proposes are as follows: Fischl used to draw studies but then switched to photographing people mostly unawares (“Eric takes pictures all the time,” Philbrick says); he used to collage these photographs by hand, but now he uses the computer (“Eric uses Photoshop”); he’s begun sculpting models from photographs out of clay before painting them (“There’s a whole back and forth between the image and the sculpture”). But these changes are mostly negligible. They elicit no noticeable difference in the final painting.
The show serves as a case in point: Fischl has created a steady stream of masterfully crafted paintings depicting luxury beaches and their bronzed denizens. Neither print nor digital photography, drawing nor sculpture has made a difference in the presentation of the privileged (mostly white) bodies that are Fischl’s earnest subject. He slathers their flesh on the canvas as they might slather themselves with sunscreen: loosely, lavishly and lingeringly. It’s seductive, but then again, that’s hardly surprising: These are mostly images borrowed from nude beaches. (He seems to have favored Saint Tropez).
The exhibition also includes photographs and paintings of interior scenes, etchings, monotypes and monoprints of beach scenes, and a compelling contact sheet of Fischl’s clay maquettes. Although the sheet is meant to serve only as documentation of Fischl’s process, the figures in each tiny frame take on the mystery of characters frozen in a filmstrip. For a second, their lumpen gray clay conjures the violent protagonists of politically dissident Czech animation artist Jan Svankmajer, who also came to fame in the 1980s. For a moment, Fischl’s models revolt, undercutting rather than shoring up the figures in his colorful paintings. But, of course, this effect is purely accidental.
In every other way, Dive Deep is a politically tone-deaf show: The opulence, the allegory, the adherence to tradition—it’s all a bit rich in lean times. But Philbrick is swift to justify the exhibition, in part, because of Fischl’s connection to PAFA’s famous student, Thomas Eakins (1844-1916). There were two times—a painting in 1996 and watercolors in 2001—in which Fischl borrowed poses directly from controversial photographs of a nude Eakins posing with a nude woman in his arms. Given Eakins’ connection to PAFA and now Fischl’s, Fischl’s early homage to Eakins seems prescient—as if he’d intuited the eventual exhibition of his paintings on Eakin’s home turf. It’s academically interesting, in a sort of archival ‘ah-ha!’ moment. And that’s precisely the point. “We are the academy,” Philbrick reminded us. “To have Eric is a wonderful confluence.”
If Dive Deep addresses current issues at all, then Philbrick seems to suggest that it does so in the context of the last great bastion of the academy. But while Fischl might stand in well for the academy, he also entrenches an unfortunate stereotype that PAFA has successfully challenged through other, more politically and aesthetically contemporary exhibitions over the last few years: that as the oldest art school in the country, it can be willfully oblivious to the present-day.
Through Sept. 30. $10-$15. Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Fisher Brooks Gallery, Hamilton Building, 128 N. Broad St. 215.972.7600. pafa.org