The current exhibition at the Parrish Museum in Water Mill features three iconographic figures of recent contemporary art, Eric Fischl, David Salle, and Ross Bleckner, presenting some of their most important works from the period that cemented their reputations as major figures in New York’s creative universe and beyond.
Arriving at a time when the art world was stricken with one of its periodic bouts with suspicions as to whether or not “painting was dead,” the three came to define the move within the art world towards representational expression after years of figuration playing second fiddle to abstraction’s domination of the international art scene.
Interestingly, whether the act of painting is dead is a recurring trope among artists and critics ever since it was first declared by the French painter Paul Delaroche in 1839 and has been debated periodically ever since from sources as disparate as Kenneth Clark, Jerry Saltz and Gerhardt Richter. Perhaps not so coincidentally, its demise is usually heralded whenever the intelligencia seems to be concerned about keeping one step ahead of the ever-changing cultural zeitgeist that, for good or ill, heavily influences and propels the commercial art market to new dizzying heights.
In the case of Fischl, Salle, and Bleckner, they all arrived in New York around 1978 at a point when declarations of painting’s passing coincided with the popular decline of both Pop Art and Minimalism following those movements heyday of the 1960’s and early 70’s. All having graduated from the California Institute of the Arts (whose then dean, the late Paul Brach, once sardonically described his duties to me as bestowing “licenses to commit art”), the three approached the canvas with markedly differing aesthetic priorities and methods. At the same time and of significantly more import, however, despite their superficial technical dissimilarities they shared the desire to return contemporary painting towards a more narrative driven framework than had been the case pretty much throughout the entire post-war period.
Titled Unfinished Business: Paintings from the 1970’s and 1980’s, the exhibition stresses the artists’ unique methodologies that established their stylistic development as well as the points of convergence in their works that tended to emphasize a focus on social and political issues through their reliance on conjuring an often entertainingly ambiguous narrative framework. Further, the curators of the exhibit also vividly accentuates the personal history and friendship between the three as having influenced and contributed to their own individual creative and aesthetic progressions (although, according to author Lynn Hirschberg from her article in Esquire Magazine from 1987 titled The Four Brushmen of the Apocalypse, this may not always have been entirely the case).
For Mr. Fischl, the context of his narrative framework has always been suburbia and suburban values as juxtapositional situations for his delving into the angst and contradictions in addressing prevalent cultural taboos. As it states in one of many biographical references, his “suburban upbringing provided him with a backdrop of alcoholism and a country club culture obsessed with image over content” which led him “to become focused on the rift between what was experienced and what could not be said.”
These themes are further heightened by a methodology of framing his images in a manner that is arrestingly cinematic, creating tensions and interplay between the figures and their situational placement that is reminiscent of nothing so much as a still frame from an unnamed film.
These elements are personified in Fischl’s Dog Days (oil on canvas, 1983) which, much as his seminal work Bad Boy from the same period, uses nudity and sexuality as a challenge to common perceptions of puritanism while establishing a psychologically equivocal storyline that often raises more questions than answers.
This mysterious, and sometimes ominous, opacity in theme is also dramatically apparent in both A Woman Possessed (oil on canvas, 1981) and Scarsdale (oil on canvas, 1986) while in A Visit to/ A Visit From/ The Island (oil on canvas, 1983), the artist turns his attention to a plotline that is almost social realist in its political framing of the issue of white privilege and obliviousness to the tribulations of the harsh realities often faced by locals in what are perceived by vacationers as a ‘tropical paradise’.
David Salle’s works, on the other hand, create a juxtapositional narrative through his use of both figurative and abstract imagery, a combination made even more impactful by the artist’s use of dyptichs and tryptichs to break up the compositional flow. Mixing influences such as Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, figuration, Cubism, and Minimalism, Salle is able to present the works as ‘mirrors’ that reflect both the wonders and horrors of contemporary mass media culture thereby creating in his paintings what Roberta Smith once called “a precarious balance of dystopian and decorative.”
Interestingly, even in their most painterly manifestations, the works nevertheless carry profound overtones of collage in the manner Salle gathers and plays his imagery off against each other. This atmosphere is intensified in works such as The Trucks Bring Things (oil and acrylic on canvas with light bulb and fabric, 1984) in which a functioning electric light serves as a focal point within the canvas even as the dramatic foreshortening of the painted image beside it dominates the compositional structure.
This use of collage materials to orchestrate the composition is also powerfully apparent in Poverty is No Disgrace (oil, acrylic, charcoal, and chair on canvas, 1982), a work that Mr. Salle once described in a lecture in East Hampton in the mid-1980’s that, in his words, “upped the ante on the art world.” To this day I’m still not quite sure what he meant by that but I always liked the painting regardless for the effortless manner it blends figurative and abstract imagery.
While Ross Bleckner is the most overtly ‘abstract’ painter of the three, his dedication throughout the 1980’s to issues of loss and memory offers what is often the least ambiguous painterly narrative. Centering on the emotional toll wrought by the AIDS epidemic, the works focus on solitary emblematic images often imbued with a glowing luminescence that can be read, by turns, as either highly reverential or deeply elegiac.
These overtones echo throughout works like Life of a Lonely Dragon (oil on canvas, 1981) and Flora and the Future (oil on linen, 1983) while other works conjure a dramatic measure of emotional power through the use of geometric imagery such as in The Spoilous (oil on canvas, 1981). The same is also true of Revolver (acrylic and oil on canvas, 1976) in which the central portion of the canvas is occupied by an elegantly ordered configuration which solitarily stands at attention like a lonely figure from a Bauhaus stage set.
The exhibition Unfinished Business: Paintings From the 1970’s and 1980’s by Ross Bleckner, Eric Fishl, and David Salle continues at the Parrish Museum in Water Mill through October 16. Go to www.parrishart.org for more information.