Eric Fischl Under the Weight of Tradition

by James Romaine

Eric Fischl The Sheer Weight of History, 1982 Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery, New York CityEric Fischl’s art evokes, for some, flashbacks of the 1980s, when his paintings of middle-class American disenchantment displayed in all of its physical and spiritual nudity were part of a return to painting, along with the art of Julian Schnabel, David Salle, and others grouped together as the American flank of the Neo-Expressionist movement. That resurgence of interest in figurative painting, after the dominance of abstraction, conceptual art, and appropriation, was a mixed blessing. Although this comeback put to rest the suggestion that painting the human figure had become irrelevant, the scarcity of art schools still teaching figure drawing left many artists lacking the training to execute their designs satisfactorily. Fischl’s oeuvre chronicles one artist’s struggle to develop the tools of his art by engaging in a deeper dialogue with the figurative art of the past.
Fischl studied at the California Institute of the Arts (Cal Arts) where, he remarks, the figure painting classes consisted mainly of students painting on each other while the models sat bored in the corner. Fischl notes:

[A]rtists of my generation…were not given the equipment, because it was generally believed to be irrelevant. Drawing, eye-hand coordination, art history—really fundamental stuff—were considered unnecessary. Paying too much attention to history would just clog your mind, make you imitative instead of avant-garde. In fact, it’s incredibly disrespectful of the importance of history that we train people to be amateurs. I deeply resent the kind of flattery that replaced discipline. We were made to feel from day one that we were artists, fully sprung from the womb an artist. What experience has shown me is that it takes your life to become an artist. 1

Since he was essentially self-taught as a renderer of the human form, Fischl’s early figures are often admittedly clumsy in their drawing, but they represent the difficulty many artists have faced in recovering the figure in their art. 

Fischl’s engagement of the figure exemplifies a problem, common to many contemporary artists, of how to balance the trends of the present against models from the past. Fischl’s early response to this question is suggested by his work The Sheer Weight of History (1982). This painting, of a young boy sucking his thumb while sitting underneath a marble table supporting a sculpture of a hermaphrodite in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, may represent the sense of inferiority that some American artists have felt toward Europe, but it also suggests a more general sense of being lost among the monuments of the past and an anxiety about how best to engage the history of art. Fischl emerged during a period, perhaps ongoing, when history was merely a collection of things to be looted without regard to their context, function, or meaning, and tradition was not held in high esteem; instead there was a constant pursuit of the new. The intrinsic problem with the new is that it quickly becomes old. Many of the hot artists of the 1980s are already being forgotten; in a Faustian wager to create names for themselves, they traded endurance for hype. 

In an essay entitled “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T.S. Eliot questioned our understanding of originality by noting

our tendency to insist, when we praise a poet, upon those aspects of his work in which he least resembles anyone else… We dwell with satisfaction upon the poet’s difference from his predecessors, especially his immediate predecessors; we endeavor to find something that can be isolated in order to be enjoyed. 2

Eliot’s 1919 observation could just as well have been made about the appetite for innovation that is evident in today’s art world. He cautioned: “if we approach a poet without prejudice we shall find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.”3 Eliot’s wisdom runs counter to the notion of the avant-garde that prevailed at places such as Cal Arts. Reflecting on his painting classes in art school, Fischl said that

the worst thing you could say about a painting then was that another artist was in it. In fact I quit bringing my paintings to the critiques because once when I did, [my teachers] must have named thirty artists that were in my painting. I was devastated. They would name the most obscure artists they could think of, just to blow each other’s minds and, of course, to humiliate the students.4

This atmosphere “made painters feel slightly necrophiliac.” 5

While he encouraged poets/artists to feed on the past, Eliot was no revisionist. The author of The Waste Land, one of the more emblematic pieces of writing of the twentieth century, was as much in touch with his own age as he was committed to the type of standards that only history provides. He wrote:

[I]f the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its success, “tradition” should positively be discouraged… Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labor. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense… [A] sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in timie, and his contemporaneity. 6

Eliot’s definition of tradition was a complex and nuanced understanding of how the past and the present meet in the work of the poet/artist, who will open the work to the influence of what is truly timeless about both the past and the present. He noted: “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.” 7 But the relationship between the living and the dead artist is not one-sided. Eliot wrote:

[W]hat happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form the ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them… so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new.8

The benefits of engaging tradition apply both ways; the contemporary artist is rooted in tradition, and the art of the past is kept alive by its use. Eliot concluded: “the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past. And the poet who is aware of this will be aware of great difficulties and responsibilities.” 9

Eric Fischl Once Where We Looked To Put Down Our Dead, 1996 Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery, New York City  Fischl’s art demonstrates that he has become increasingly aware of these difficulties and responsibilities. Having sown his artistic wild oats in the 1980s, Fischl began to reorient his art in the 1990s. In mid-career, Fischl has discovered the importance of being rooted in a tradition, and his more recent work replaces shock with subtlety. A turning point in his oeuvre is a group of works that reflect Fischl’s experiences in Rome, where he was invited to teach at the American Academy. Mourning the recent death of his father, Fischl arrived in the eternal city in a contemplative mood and was deeply moved by Christian art and architecture. He noted, in a 1996 Art in America interview: 

There are moments when you are looking at a work that is hundreds of years old and it’s talking to you. You feel connected to the artist; he is transmitting a kind of truth, and it works today the way it worked then…. I don’t see how you can separate [the art and the faith it expresses]. I look at historical, religious art—Giotto, Fra Angelico, Michelangelo—and I don’t separate the artist’s beliefs and the power of faith from what I am looking at. I don’t know how to attach myself to the doctrines they portray, because I’m not a believer in that way, but as for the life of faith….I believe it as a truth, I see real drama.10

Rome’s impact began to become visible in Fischl’s placement of figures, use of deeper shadows and more skillful coloring. He saw things in Rome that his own work, to this point, had been lacking. Recognizing this as a problem that was both spiritual and artistic, Fischl explained:

…even though I grew up as a Protestant, my friends were either Catholic or Jewish, and I was deeply envious of both. They seemed to have a culture and cohesiveness, a set of rituals and iconography that were very powerful to them. In the church I grew up in, they tried to play down the idea that this thing that you are looking for is of such power that you should be afraid of it, as well as respectful and desirous of it….What I loved in Rome was that the artists were at the service of that feeling. They were asked to create a dynamic environment that completely illustrated that aspiration, the fears and the catharsis of this belief. So I was envious I felt deeply that I was not rooted, which the church artists had things ready to do. I had to make up everything that could give meaning to my work as an artist.11

Fischl captured this sense of searching for narratives and rituals that would reach beyond the individual experience and suggest a sense of the transcendent in Once Where We Looked To Put Down Our Dead (1996), one of several paintings of Roman church interiors. A man carries a woman, both are naked; apparently dead, she is draped in his arms as he looks for a place to lay her to rest. As a statement about a search for more secure grounding, Once Where We Looked can be read in terms of Fischl’s attempt to root his work in a tradition of Christianity and art, which have been intertwined in the West for 2,000 years. Though it is set in Rome, Once Where We Lookedis also rooted in a tradition much closer to home, the art of Thomas Eakins. The central figures of Once Where We Lookedbear a remarkable similarity to an 1883–85 photograph of Eakins, himself nude and carrying a nude model, from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The examination of Fischl’s art in relationship to Eakins—as well as Winslow Homer and Edward Hopper—is a separate study, but Once Where We Looked… shows that Fischl was looking at the photograph of Eakins to help him both with the technical aspects of rendering the human figure and with clues to using the figure expressively.

Thomas Eakins “Nude, holding nude female in his  arms, looking at camera,” 1883–85 Photo © The Pennsylvania  Academy of the Fine Arts, PhiladelphiaSome of the best evidence of Fischl’s engagement with tradition is in his work as a sculptor. Initially, he turned to sculpture for help in conceiving figures in three dimensions before painting them. However, Fischl found that sculpture opened up expressive potential that painting had not. In 1996–97, he produced a group of single –figure sculptures that outdo many of his paintings in their subtle attention ot the medium and depth of insight into the human condition. Discussing his sculpted figures, Fischl said: 

First let me say that I make a distinction between pose and posture. A body posed is not really about abstraction. It is about formalism and not about emotions or psychology. Posture is quite different. The posture one’s body assumes carries with it all the memories of its experiences. These memories bend, twist, stiffen and overemphasize. Posture, like sculpture itself, is indelible. It is this sense that the way one carries oneself is the result of an epic struggle between internal forces reacting to external forces that I find so compelling in the works of artists like Michelangelo, Rodin, and Giacometti. It is a quality I strive for in my work.12

Fischl’s references, from Michelangelo to Rodin and Giacometti, set a trajectory of influences that he has sought to incorporate into his own work. Evidence of their influence can be seen in work’s such as Fischl’s The Weight (1996), a slightly larger-than-life-sized figure of a woman who appears to be bent over with an invisble weight on her shoulder. Whether this burden is external or internal is up to the viewer’s imagination, but the “epic struggle” that Fischl mentioned is clearly acting on and through her.

The issues of pose and posture are also evident in a more recent sculpture of a near-life-sized figure entitled Tumbling Woman (2002), which represents an anonymous figure falling toward the earth. This work was motivated by a desire to memorialize people Fischl had seen on television jumping from the inferno of the burning towers of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. When Tumbling Woman was displayed at Rockefeller Center in midtown Manhattan to commemorate the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks, the work sparked a fierce debate over its appropriateness as a public memorial of the horrors of September 11th. One Rockefeller Center worker, Stephen Levine, commented: “it was a good thing to have here as a reminder of what happened.” But others were disturbed by it. Passerby Paul Labb declared: “I don’t think it dignifies their deaths. It’s not art…. It is very disrupting when you see it.”13 Andrea Peyser’s media crusade against Tumbling Woman in the New York Post led to the sculpture being covered with a sheet and removed.

The New York Sun defended Tumbling Woman, describing “the form of a woman in free fall, her legs in the air, her head and neck pulling her downward to the earth that will receive her,” and calling the work “memorably haunting.”14Sun reporter Rachel Donadio contacted Fischl, who described the sight of people falling as “the most complicated, infinitely complicated resonant image.”15 According to Fischl’s official statement, “the sculpture was not meant to hurt anybody. It was a sincere expression of deepest sympathy for the vulnerability of the human condition”16Tumbling Woman combines the gracefulness of Aristide Maillol’s floating figures with the muscular, expressive falling figures of August Rodin’s Gates of Hell. Tumbling Woman has a similar emotional tone to Rodin’s sober The Burghers of Calais. Among today’s admirers of Rodin’s work, only a very few know the story of personal sacrifice that The Burghers of Calais represents, but the complex set of emotions that the work evokes are still alive.

Eric Fischl, Tumbling Woman, 2001–02 Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery, New York City

One can only imagine how future viewers will respond to Tumbling Woman, or if they will connect it with the events of September 11th, but , through the example of the past, Fischl has created a work that engages each viewer directly in their present moment and speaks of a timeless “sympathy for the vulnerability of the human condition.” Although it received mixed reviews, Tumbling Woman demonstrates how far Fischl’s art has developed and the distance he has put between his work and that of some of his peers. Can anyone imagine a memorial to September 11th in the signature styles of Schnabel’s broken pottery or Salle’s appropriated media imagery?

In the aftermath of September 11th, many artists described feeling that their art was inadequate for what the moment required. There are many reasons for this feeling of inadequacy, but one of them is simply recognition that many contemporary artists are not rooted in anything timeless. Thus, when faced with a moment of real historical importance, they feel as lost as the boy in Fischl’s The Sheer Weight of History. Fischl’s Tumbling Woman demonstrates his respect for tradition as something alive, something that can be reached for as a guide in the confusion of the present. Fischl has said, “to me art isn’t simply the weight of all the objects that have ever been made; it’s also the weight of the content of the art, which was always about the relationship of man to woman, man to God. It’s about the eternal dialogue that manifests itself as art.”17

While many trendy artists of the 1980s have already faded away, Fischl’s art has enjoyed a renaissance. This is in no small part due to his engagement with what Eliot called “tradition.” Fischl has sought to train himself not only in the technical aspects of drawing and painting the human figure but also in how the figure has been used, in the history of both painting and sculpture, to represent the human condition. The basics of this condition are constant, and the relevance of Fischl’s art in the future will depend on how it touches what it is timeless. If he is successful, he may, to paraphrase Eliot, assert his immortality on artists in the future. 

Parts of this article were delivered at the 2003 Christians in the Visual Arts conference. I would like to thank Bruce Herman for bringing T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” to my attention. Many of the works discussed in this essay can be viewed at


1. Eric Fischl in “Fischl’s Italian Hours,” Frederic Tuten, Art in America (November, 1996), p. 79.
2. “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot, edited with an introduction by Frank Kermode (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975), pp. 37–38
3. Eliot, p. 38.
4. Fischl, p. 79.
5. Ibid.
6. Eliot, p. 38.
7. Ibid.
8. Eliot, p. 10, pp. 38–39.
9. Eliot, p. 39.
10. Fischl, p. 82.
11. Fischl, pp. 77–78
12. Eric Fischl, “ A Conversation About Sculpture with Eric Fischl and Ealan Wingate,” Eric Fischl: Sculpture (Gagosian Gallery, 1998), p. 4.
13. Associated Press story, posted, September 19, 2002.
14. The New York Sun (September 19, 2002).
15. Ibid.
16. Associated Press story, posted, September 19, 2002.
17. Eric Fischl in Eric Fischl: 1970–2000 (New York: Montacelli Press, 2000), p. 75.

American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2004, Volume 21, Number 1.