Contemporary Art is Controversial

August 30, 2013

I get a lot of comments about my post Late Night Musings on the Value of Art…

I open the blog with a review of the book $12 Million Stuffed Shark – The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art (2008) by Don Thompson.

Damien Hirst, shark in formaldehyde

Damien Hirst, shark in formaldehyde

The $12 million refers to the price for a dead shark in formaldehyde by the contemporary artist Damien Hirst (British, born 1965). He was considered the most important member of a group known as the Young British Artists who dominated the art scene in the UK in the 1990s. Critics are now very dismissive of Damien Hirst.

The image above is by Damien Hirst and titled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. All images are courtesy the Internet.

Contemporary art is always about controversy

Bad Boy by Eric Fischl, co written with Michael Stone

Bad Boy by Eric Fischl, co written with Michael Stone

I just finished a new book titled Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas, by Eric Fischl (co-written with Michael Stone, 2013).

It’s an excellent read. I recommend it to everyone who wants a glimpse inside the art world in the 1980s.

The book is a narrative in Eric Fischl’s voice about his childhood (1948-1965), growing up in a dysfunctional family with an alcoholic mother, and about his career in the hyper-charged and competitive NY art scene in the 1970s and 1980s. That art world was a world of fashion, fame, cocaine and booze.

The narrative is excellent. Fischl has a gift for conversation. The book includes images of his paintings and commentaries from artists, friends and collectors (including David Salle, Steve Martin and John McEnroe).

The first page of  the book is a bizarre recounting of a car chase, following Fischl’s opening night reception at the Whitney Museum of American Art for his retrospective (1986). He admits he was high on cocaine.

The story tracks back and tells us about his childhood, how he got accepted at CalArts (a very prestigeous and selective art school), the intense competition among the students at CalArts, and how he struggled, post graduation, to find his style and become an important contemporary artist. His resume is a stunning list.

Bad Boy (the book) is named after an infamous painting Fischl did titled Bad Boy (oil on canvas, 1981, 66×96 inches). The painting propelled Fischl to art-world stardom. I choose not to show the painting but you can see it online.

Fischl writes about his style and concept. He chose figurative painting with bold, brushy strokes. His subjects refer to his life and biographical details.

John Seed interviewed the artist in the Huffpost, Arts & Culture (August 30, 2013). Fischl told him: “Almost all of my early art dealt with the fallout from middle-class taboos, the messy, the ambivalent emotions couples felt, the inherent racism, the sexual tensions and the unhappiness roiling below the surface of our prim suburban lives. Meanwhile I was a suburban bad boy – cynical, sarcastic, contemptuous of all authority.”

I took notes when Fischl discussed the ways he approached his works. Fischl said he made split paintings (multiple panels) to explore the connections between time and memory and between physical and psychological space. He said he split the paintings to keep his creative juices flowing.  He added: “I have consciously tried to make work that took fragments and put them back together – impressions and bits of memories collaged into foreign lands or suburban settings, all with the purpose of making them appear seamless.

He said he was reliving his experiences as he was painting them, always at the point just before things fall apart.

Fischl describes his life with the artist April Gornik, who he married. The book includes comments by relatives, artist friends and collectors that are interesting additions to the book. They give their insight and compliment Fischl’s commentary.

The introduction says Fischl rebelled against conceptual and minimalist art that was in fashion in the time he started his career. He said his paintings became portraits that expressed angst and tension.

Eric Fischl, Self Portrait Unfinished Work, 2011

Eric Fischl, Self Portrait Unfinished Work, 2011

The large oil on canvas (above) is dated 2011 and titled Self Portrait – An Unfinished Painting. Many paintings by Fischl are large group portraits of friends at the beach.

Fischl wrote: My whole career I’ve been trying to make paintings that people can relate to, respond to emotionally and not stand in front of scratching their heads. He doesn’t love contemporary, non representational art.

He is sad that his work has been eclipsed by younger artists and new styles.

I gave the book 4 out of 5 stars as a review. It’s a really good book – I do recommend it – but I didn’t like the way it ended.

Delphine Barguidjian reviewed Bad Boy (see Scene, May 6, 2013). She asked Fischl: Do you think the art world has changed much since the 1980s? He responded: These days the institutions and galleries are less important, art fairs are more important. Short term, short hit, sensational aspect. That’s how people buy art nowadays – buy it fast and it doesn’t even leave their storage warehouse before they sell it off again.

Fischl said he was uncomfortable with the fragmentation and meaninglessness in contemporary art, and singles out Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst as examples.

Please add your comments if you’ve read the book and about whether or not you think Fischl’s art is (or was) controversial.

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2 Responses to “Contemporary Art is Controversial”

  1. Mary Derbes Says:

    So glad to see you back! Your posts are always interesting and thought-provoking. Now you’ve given me a new reading assignment.

    • nikkal Says:

      Hi Mary, I’m glad I’m back also (moved, reorganized studio and living space and neglected posting). Hope you get a chance to read about the Bad Boy. Thank you for the compliment about my posts.


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