American painter and '80s star Eric Fischl offers a sharp critique of the art world's recent evolution in his memoir, "Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas." He elaborated in a conversation from his home in Sag Harbor, N.Y.
You write that so much of your life has been "a search for normal." What did you mean by that?
Whatever "normal" was, it was different from the situation I grew up in. It seemed like a better place, rather than feeling like an outsider or neglected or estranged. Normal would be a place where you felt integrated.
The first time I got the sense that you'd found it was at the very end of your book. Is this a recent accomplishment for you?
I think the process of aging and using art as a life process for learning, understanding, evolving, etc. ... it seemed like I had reached a point where I could take a lot of what I accomplished and I could let go of a lot of things, so maybe it would be recent, yeah.
When did you stop feeling like a fraud?
That's painting to painting, yeah. It depends on the day in my studio -- a good day or bad day in my studio. I think making art is something where you think you know, you also know you don't know and you hope -- all these things are in play all the time. I think it's what makes the excitement of creativity for the artist.
You write about how the art world became all about the art market after Wall Street soared in the '80s, and that the art market, which involved conflicts of interest, went on to determine intrinsic value. Can you talk about that?
It was almost like a perfect storm. There was a tremendous amount of money being made by people who were very young, were not broadly educated but were more mono-focused educated. They didn't have a broad sense of history, of culture. Then all of a sudden there's this infusion of money into the art world, where they're looking for things that are not deeply understood but are entertaining, and the lifestyle of it is entertaining. They're hedging their bets, so they're buying lots of different young artists. And it's getting younger and younger. In the '90s, collectors started to buy work directly out of studios in graduate schools by artists who hadn't even become professional artists, let alone mature.
And the impact that has on artists is enormous, because if you start selling work as a student, it's very hard to change, very hard to let go and progress and find your own true voice. So you see a lot of younger artists who've been selling work since they got out of school but have yet to do their second show, so to speak. They started speaking, not in art terms, but in business terms. People wanted to know how to be branded, they wanted to know about price points.
There's a kind of visual illiteracy that's crept in. That includes the artists as well as the collectors, who don't actually know what they're looking at. The reason is they see it in pictures first; they might see it on their iPhone, on their Mini, on their laptop or on a billboard somewhere, before they actually see the object itself. And when you have that experience, you think that a painting doesn't have to be a particular size and shape, it can be any size and shape. But the truth is that painting is all about scale; you use scale to create experience. A lot of artists have lost that ability. They don't even know that's something they should be doing.
I remember Charles Saatchi's "Sensation" show of his contemporary collection, which toured internationally in 1997. You make the point that it was a conflict of interest for Saatchi because by organizing the show, he raised the prices of work he owned. Was that commented on at the time?
It was dismissed, but it was commented on. It didn't ignite the fury of purists in the way that it should, and I think a lot of museums at that time understood what they were facing, which was the insupportable expense to do art shows and how they were going to have to find ways of financing it that may appear compromising. But it's continued since then.
Something else that's continued since then is the growing gap between rich and poor, with the rich getting richer and the middle class, which was your subject matter early in your career, diminishing. How is this influencing art?
It's an awkward situation for people who make objects because they're aware that they put them into a system that essentially only the rich see or buy. Museums have gotten to the point where they're so expensive to go to, you're also limiting access to people who don't have to buy the art, so they can't even get in to see it. And then there are a lot of younger artists who are rejecting the gallery system pretty much altogether. They're trying to engage communities directly and are doing nonobjective type of work, so they can't be commodified as easily. It remains to be seen whether that's going to be something that becomes a dominant form for art. My primary thing is to make a painting, not necessarily to make a painting to sell for gazillions of dollars, but just to make a painting. But somehow the market has made it such that nobody talks about talent anymore. It's almost politically incorrect to talk about an artist having talent, because then it's exclusive.
Whereas the price tag isn't?
It's weird. The price tag has replaced it, and it's certainly not a critical dialogue. It's just something that's a symbolic thing where it must mean the person who sells for the most money is the best artist. It's a total false kind of critical economy and very destructive to the culture as well. Artists don't really want to be marginalized. They believe that everybody should be able to appreciate the experience that an artist gives them, an experience that connects us to each other in a deep way. So an artist isn't satisfied that their work is bought for gazillions of dollars, put in a crate, put in a warehouse and kept there until auction, where it's sold for even that much more gazillions. It's a nightmare.