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Bad Boys and Good Girls

The Artist’s Life —

Two provocative books about individual artist’s lives came out early this year —Bad Boy-My Life On and Off the Canvas (Crown Publishers, 2013) an autobiography of painter Eric Fischl written with Michael Stone, and The Woman Upstairs, (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), a novel by author Claire Messud. Since I read them in sequence, the question arose as to how one book based on facts, and another a work of fiction frames the experience of the contemporary artist.

Fischl, an ultra successful painter in the mid-1980’s opens his autobiographical account with a coke and alcohol fueled traffic incident in New York after the opening of his retrospective at the Whitney to commemorate five years of unrelenting good fortune, using the scrape to describe how out of control his life had become. From there we flashback to his childhood, a fairly typical aspiring postwar middle class existence, but dominated by his mother’s “ferocious” alcoholism described in hellish detail. A leitmotif throughout much of the book, this dysfunctional family experience serves as a kind of victimhood by which Fischl creates sympathy for his personality and handily provides content for future paintings. By the time he leaves Arizona State University in the late 60?s, he has been instilled and inspired with what he describes as a “heroic sense of painting, the idea that art at its best was a magical, transformative experience.” He continues dispensing such pieces of artistic wisdom for the next 300 pages in what often reads as manufactured hindsight perspicacity. Nevertheless, the book has earned wide praise for its honest communication of some of the real frustrations in making art: the lack of ideas, the problems of resolution, a mind filled with “crackling noise.”

His fortunate acceptance in 1970 at the year old California Institute for the Arts (CalArts) with its radical innovative/experimental vision driven by professors such as John Baldessari, Allan Kaprow, and Judy Chicago, provided an exhilarating and exciting opportunity. “Deadly serious …Its goal was to get us to think like artists” and “battle for survival, especially if you were a painter.” Apparently this battlefield where students were destroyed in brutal crits, and the “healthy kind of competition” toughened him up enough to see the futility for him in the requisite formalist painting of the 70’s, and there he explored more “authentic” ways to express his love of narrative imagery. He graduated “fraught with doubt”,  feeling unconfident and disillusioned as a painter, many of his paintings shredded in despair and rage, but at least with a kernel of purpose and a highly honed sense of rugged individualism. He writes of that period,“Painters don’t choose to be painters. They just choose to be better painters.”

Much less influential on him were the effects of CalArts as a hothouse of feminism, identity politics and Marxist theory. His wholesale rejection of the political struggles that were so important to the era feels profound, and little is said about how he came to terms with those issues. (He much later expresses sympathy for the AIDS epidemic and how art related to it was beautiful and moving). He conveniently adopts the lingo when it serves his purposes such as describing himself as a “marginalized”, non-formalist painter at CalArts. That position brings into focus the disconnect between an art world that could embrace such critical theories in the most notable art at the time, but leave largely intact the patriarchal structures and the the old myths required to be a highly successful artist. Although sometimes Fischl comes off as Jackson Pollack improved by therapy—less destructive and able to at least articulate his feelings—his is a very familiar hero’s tale/male narrative of adversity overcome by talent, hard work and ambition. He states, “The abstract expressionists were heroic in their scale and ambition. I loved that…..I wanted to earn the right to sit at the table with my artistic heroes.”  Apparently that also means summoning up plenty of sexual metaphors, as he describes the process of creating a painting as …”touching something, stroking it, jostling it, caressing it..” Even Picasso would have demurred.

After a brief period trying out the art scene in Chicago post CalArts, one of his former CalArts professors offered him a job at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design where teaching painting—but not knowing quite how at first—affirmed his belief in the medium.  Abandoning abstraction and embracing figuration and realist narrative painting he writes, “I realize now that my journey was inevitable. Feelings lodged in my subconscious were driving my work toward a form of expressiveness that was raw and graphic and troubling…avatars of my buried past….a stew of contradictory impulses and ideas.”

Fortunately for Fischl, a group of younger painters in New York had found success with reintroducing imagery into painting after the strictures of high Modernism. Decidedly non- theoretical, non-logical and intuitive, Fischl felt liberated by these artists and more connected to his imagination. Having met his future partner and wife April Gornik in Halifax, in classic male artist fashion, the insecurities and anxieties were quelled by her Lee Krasner-like calming presence and they traveled through Europe together seeing the great museum collections. With their relationship solidified and both developing strong work, they had the courage to leave academia and head for New York “to get on with their careers.”  There they reconnected with CalArts alums and friends like David Salle, Ross Bleckner and Mira Schor who were beginning to exhibit. “To me New York is where you come to be a professional…” he wrote. The CalArts crowd finds themselves fortuitously there when the art economy is taking off.  Quite suddenly and mysteriously we hear of his being selected by an influential curator to exhibit in Basel at the Kuntshalle. Mainstream collectors show up and buy. Fischl strategically begins to create work that will grab attention: “I deliberately chose my subject because it was taboo…testing the bounds of propriety both socially and artistically, trying to get people to notice my work.” He follows with voyeuristic scenes of a pubescent boy masturbating, and the book’s namesake painting Bad Boy of a young boy gazing on a mature woman’s nakedness while his hand behind him slips into an open purse, most likely spurred by memories of seeing his mother lounge naked around the house. Although filtered through the insights gained over the next 30 years, the discussions of the evolution of these highly charged, psychosexual paintings reveal the depth but also the doubts and anxieties in his artistic process.

With his peers now having big solo shows, there was no time to waste in what he called “making it”. Expressing a few doubts and anxieties, he finds “… at least now I knew I had no choice. I wanted to be considered a great artist [and] felt I had to live or die by who I am.”  True to this myth of do-or-die success, the competition had to be crushed and the spoils of battle rightfully seized.

The first New York solo show came in 1980 at age 32 at which point he describes his painting skills as“questionable.” (Just asking, but do you think he mentioned that to his dealer and collectors?) Sales were brisk and although he had stated two years back that “success with all its complications was still years away” now there were travel, lectures, debates and invitations to the Whitney and Venice Biennales. By 1984 he garnered his first solo show with the prestigious Mary Boone Gallery. He claims, “the contemporary painter was under constant pressure to produce work that was catchy, recognizable, and replicable—in short, to brand himself.  ….painters who conformed to the romantic vision of the traditional studio artist…reaped rewards beyond what anyone had thought possible a few years before.”

Fischl correctly assesses the commodity and celebrity driven art market of the 80?s, describing his burgeoning prices, high demand for his work, the luxurious lifestyle, the conflicts of success, and a few screw jobs all of which left him “feeling like a fraud.” After all, only a few pages back he had told us “The point of painting is to try to find the hidden truth.” He tries simplifying his life that had fallen into to alcohol and cocaine abuse. Trips to Europe and India with April provided a degree of leavening and pumped him with inspiration. A sharp decline in the art market upon their return, however, brought fewer sales and less glowing reviews for the India paintings. He began to feel depressed and estranged from the art world. Worse yet, he felt the new art fashion was for Pop-ish, cartoony work devoid of emotion, richly rewarding the vapid work of Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. Highly critical of these new artists, calling their art “shock art”,  Fischl appears to have developed amnesia regarding the nature of his early work that rewarded him near instant fame. In the mold of the embattled but undeterred hero, his response was to reload and try to make better paintings–and hang out with infectious celebrities like John McEnroe and Steve Martin.

He continues painting and self- improving by studying great historical artists such as the French painter of the bonne vie Pierre Bonnard and the melancholic American Edward Hopper. The long suffering April finally gets her due recognition and six figure sales. In the final chapter Summing Up he even describes an abandoned project for bringing contemporary art to the heartland after 9/11 and his dashed hopes for the humanistic gesture of showing art that connected to people’s ordinary lives.

It all wraps up as one might guess from a story that reinforces longstanding myths of the market that ultimately lavishes rewards on those with strong beliefs in themselves and the system. We hear of him retreating to his Sag Harbor “dream house”, happily “working, traveling, playing tennis, breaking bread with friends, making love to April.”  One can almost see Ralph Lauren grinning alongside him.

Ironically given the title, Bad Boy is commendable for its soul baring candor, after-the-fact glimpses into male fragility and vulnerability (when one is hyper successful there is no real downside in later showing one’s soft side) and more than a few worthwhile philosophical meanderings  and homilies about art and self expression. For certain he has shifted the myth from the Pollack/Rothko tragic self destructive one to the all American success story. It most often reads, however, like a tale of the 1% of contemporary artists. While a few artists may draw inspiration for their careers from its pages, the great majority of artists today are dealing with a playing field vastly different from the one encountered by Fischl a short 30 years ago: the monumental survival mode needed to make art with low paying jobs, prohibitive studio rents, families to care for, unsupportive partners and communities, lack of healthcare, student debt, rising income inequality, etc. Many eek out an existence through barely attainable grants and teaching jobs, a gallery and institutional system that is ageist, investment protecting, and dictated by wealthy collectors and those lusting after them. New, less Darwinian narratives of what sustains their creativity go begging, for many are certainly as talented and intelligent as Fischl but with less access to the powerful engines of the art world. More relevant, expansive, and meaningful definitions of artistic success might result.

By comparing Fischl’s early paintings, the ones he called “crude and revealing”, to recent offerings we might see another side to his striving. Gone are the adolescent angst we saw in Bad Boy, the smoldering intimations of racism and class privilege we saw in the depictions of St. Tropez nude sunbathers, and uncomfortable sexual desires expressed in other iconic works. We now, for example, get a large scale painting of the still handsome Fischl posed before of a backdrop of his smiling, sunglass sporting middle aged friends on a sunny beach somewhere in paradise. His front center self portrait conveys a man apart, absorbed in his own thoughts. We could perhaps interpret this as the artist, without dark glasses, as an out of place seer among the less perceptive. Or is he wondering if he became better painter, a “great artist”, in the midst of all this? Those wedded to simplistic tales of triumphant heroic ambition will think so, but having read his memoir, I see it as a portrait of an artist who is losing his sight.

A very different kind of artistic success narrative from Fischl’s does emerge in Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs. Nora Eldridge, a single elementary school teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts, begins her story rhetorically: “How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.” Nora’s a good girl she explains, holding her mother’s hand as she was dying, and speaking to her father each day. “It was supposed to say “Great Artist” on my tombstone but if I died right now it would say “such a good teacher/daughter/friend” instead; and what I really want to shout, and want on big letters on that grave, too, is FUCK YOU ALL.”

Nora recognizes her life of forsaking art for a safer existence is like being stuck in the “Fun House”, a recurring metaphor throughout the book based on a recollection of a creepy childhood amusement ride with trick exits, distorting mirrors and disappointing turns. It represents a life sidelined by decisions that seemed right at the time yet play out like a cruel carrot and stick game of the classic American dream of successful self actualization. Referring to the unfulfilled promises of feminism and a culture that seems to have sabotaged it, she invects about “we who have to cede and swerve and step aside, unacknowledged and unadmired and unthanked.” She has become figuratively “The Woman Upstairs”— invisible but still wanting her life to count for something, to “fly.”

Into her life comes an enchanting, near magical eight year old boy, Reza Shahid whose Lebanese father Skandar is a visiting professor at Harvard and mother Sirena is a striving mid-career Italian installation artist. Almost as if she had given birth herself, Nora effectively enlists Reza’s captivating presence to reflect on and repurpose her life’s path.

After Reza is beat up by some bullies at school Nora’s empathy for the boy brings her into closer contact with the family and immediately their influence—their exotic “foreignness”—is felt. She muses about what life in Paris, Rome or Madrid would have been like, but at thirty-seven she knows she will probably not be a millionaire or have her own children; at the same time  her more frequent encounters with Sirena are driving her inexorably towards something exciting and unpredictable. Swayed by Sirena’s descriptions of her installations based on demythologizing fairytales, Nora agrees to share a cavernous old warehouse studio space and help in the making of an epic artwork entitled “Wonderland” after Alice’s adventures. Not stopping to ask questions, knowing that Sirena’s motives could be mercenary, she feels this is also a chance to finally entertain her artistic muse not seen since her precocious high school years.

Nora quickly becomes consumed with creating her own intricately staged, exquisite tiny tableaus of the lives and spaces of Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, painter  Alice Neel, and Warhol groupie Edie Sedgwick.  Woven into Nora’s descriptions of the process and inner dialogue behind her own artworks are searing examinations of the loneliness, isolation, and insanity these female artists experienced. The intense connection she feels to her tragic subjects coalesces into fear of the darkened studio—perhaps a metaphor for the frightening unknown ahead with its possibilities of the death of her artistic impulse—so much she would have to leave and reassure herself with the blandness outside.

The friendship with Sirena turns into a crush but it is as much a sexual reawakening as it is symbolic of her grateful rediscovery of Nora’s own talents, “like some extraordinary prolonged cranial orgasm.” Simultaneously her interest in the intellectual Skandar deepens through walks home at night and coffee together. The obedient caring daughter cancels visits to her father; her job becomes “a shadow of itself” as she spends more time in the studio, her life now intertwined and interdependent with her surrogate family. It becomes a “lid-lifting experience of the world.” In great part due to Sirena’s infectious energy, spirit and impressive ideas, Nora helps in the construction of “Wonderland”, remarking that Sirena’s obsessive drive to complete the artwork fits the definition of an artist in the world as a “ruthless person”, unlike Nora’s temperament.  Never having imagined she would be an artist wrangling for advancement up the gallery and museum food chains, she idealizes Sirena and finds it “suddenly seemed possible for me, too, because it was possible for her”. Nora’s work and intellect concurrently blooms: “I was in my life, in life. I was alive.” She finds herself impulsively dressing like Edie Sedgwick, dancing around the studio half drunk in her underwear beyond “the treadmill of the ordinary”. With Sirena gone to Paris, in a moment of inebriated abandon, Nora revels in Sirena’s nearly finished installation, taking countless Polaroids of herself in a liberating auto erotic frenzy.

By now Sirena’s career is taking off with New York gallery representation. Shooting for an ambitious video of the dazzling “Wonderland” installation complete with wandering school children and nude female bodies wraps up and Sirena leaves for Europe to edit and promote it. Meanwhile, a brief sexual tryst between Nora and Skandar ends with the realization that she means little to him and signifies a certain interruption to her fantasies. Shortly after, the entire family—her “three Shahid loves”– moves back to Paris.

Two years later Nora finds herself at Sirena’s opening for her wildly successful “Wonderland” installation and videos at “the new feminist wing of the Brooklyn Museum.” Sirena’s character fulfills the heroine’s role, as she perseveres undaunted through the demands of motherhood. Nora’s life, on the other hand has become the counter narrative to Sirena’s. The studio is vacated, the dioramas unfinished under a dust sheet in her second bedroom; no gallery representation, Saatchi collectors, or Artforum reviews signify that she is a real artist like Sirena. Emboldened by her time with the Shahids, however, she takes the long desired trip to Europe. Despite little contact with the family she is determined to reconnect with them in Paris, managing to see Sirena there briefly. With no helpful information from Sirena about where to see her highly acclaimed work, Nora pokes around Paris and discovers a gallery with Sirena’s videos on view. She is mystified by them but deems them good, until she sees the last video of herself in her most private moment masturbating in the “Wonderland” installation—”famous at last”—the cameras having been set up to film all participants at anytime in the installation. It’s an unforgiveable betrayal perpetrated for Sirena’s advancement: “Is this, then what it took to be something, to be someone?” She writes of the lies and “false promises of art and love.”

Nora embraces the colossal, liberating anger, now more deeply understanding what Dickenson, Woolf and Neel experienced as artists and feeling a kinship with  these artists whom she used as the subjects of her own art—not unlike Sirena’s exploitation of her. In the process, though, like Woolf’s Room of Her Own, Nora’s “room upstairs” has become “the room inside your mind where you are most unconcernedly yourself, [free from]…. the many layers of masquerade by which you protect that skinless core.”

Rich in metaphor, foreshadowing, symbolism and engrossing, imaginative dialogue, The Woman Upstairs intimately glimpses into some of the immense challenges and psychological conditions encountered by artists of diverse personalities and circumstances in realizing their art. It explores how feminism enabled some women to finally enjoy success but within narrowly defined, mostly competitive male-oriented approaches. Unlike Fischl who ends his memoir replete with all the outward signs of success and awash in contentment from masterfully using the system, Messud delivers a more realistic outcome to years of artistic struggle and asks us to reconsider what constitutes artistic achievement; she exposes the darkest side of artistic ambition and ends with uncertainty, disquietude, anger and a far less discernible victory. Her artist emerges as a kind of anti-heroine whose greatest success is the unlocking of her imagination and the development of a more vibrant interior and experiential life, an embodiment of art itself. Like the most profound art, Nora prompts us to examine our entrenched assumptions in order to discover new ways of seeing.

(All quotes in these reviews are from the respective authors)

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