Fischl on the body

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Fischl on the body

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“Bear with me on some of this,” said Eric Fischl before his recent talk on “The Death of Painting from van Gogh to Chris Burden.” “It’s pretty open-ended.”

Indeed, speaking as part of the Locks Foundation Distinguished Artists Series on April 11, the painter and sculptor posed many questions and floated between many topics, including the loss of the body in modern art and his own controversial response to Sept. 11.

He began with a simple juxtaposition, musing that though it hardly qualified as art when Vincent van Gogh sliced his ear off in the 1870s, it became art after he painted it in his 1889 work, “Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear.”

Less than 100 years later, when performance artist Chris Burden had himself shot in the arm for the piece, “Shoot,” the documentation of the experience was not considered art while the actual shooting was. “What happened?” asked Fischl.

Fischl went on to talk about modern art’s profound discomfort with the body, which, he said, “gets replicated with likenesses, with images, things that stand in for us.” Compared to the emaciated “Tall Figure” by surrealist sculptor Alberto Giacometti, the passionate sculpture of August Rodin tells us much more about flesh and blood human beings and “the dirty realities of life.”

Fischl also discussed his discomfort with the extreme performance art of Rudolf Schwarzkogler (who ultimately killed himself by leaping out a window) and the self-inflicted cuttings of Gina Pane. He dismissed Damien Hirst’s series of animals sliced in half and preserved in glass tanks of formaldehyde as a manifestation of the “literalness of death—as though those are the things that help us understand what death is.”

After Sept. 11, Fischl said he was stunned by how quickly the talk turned from the loss of bodies to the absence of the buildings themselves. “Everything had to do with architecture,” he said, “because we didn’t want to see the body.” In fact, many people didn’t want to see his form of “the body”—his bronze sculpture, “Tumbling Woman,” which depicts a body at the moment of impact with the ground after leaping from one of the towers. The piece was displayed in the main Rockefeller Center concourse on the one-year anniversary of the attacks and pulled from the site just one week later after many complaints.

“We’ve come to the point where we cannot empathize and therefore we can tolerate Abu Ghraib,” said Fischl. “We’re a democratic country that tortures people—and we’re mute.”

Originally published on April 27, 2006