Eric Fischl exhibit invites viewers to dive into the creative process

“I don’t think making art is quite the same as sausage,” say the painter Eric Fischl.

An exhibition of his work at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, “Dive Deep: Eric Fischl and the Process of Painting,” opens Friday. It highlights the messy, cut-and-paste, exploratory, blind-alley process of creating a work of art.

“We’re all fascinated by the creative process,” said Fischl. “A large part of modernism is bringing the audience into precisely that, by pulling back the illusion of the work of art.”

Fischl came to prominence in the 1980s with subversive suburban paintings, often depicting teenage sexuality and masturbation. In 2002, he created a bronze sculpture remembering the victims of 9/11 for the Rockefeller Center in New York City, but it upset viewers so much that it was removed.

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The paintings at PAFA depict crowded beach scenes and quiet domestic dramas. They are accompanied by sketches, photographs, and clay models that led up to the final work.

Fischl often takes snapshots, surreptitiously, of strangers in unguarded moments. On the topless and nude beaches of, for example, St. Tropez, they are naked, literally and figuratively.

“It’s a great laboratory for the figure because there are a lot of bodies there and in places like southern France they are naked or partially naked,” said Fischl during a visit to the PAFA galleries as the exhibition was being installed. “It’s a social body language, which, to me, animates the narrative.”

One nameless, unknown woman in particular animates several of Fischl’s works at PAFA. Her topless, reclined pose with her back to the viewer is re-created in many different settings and contexts. Fischl doesn’t know who she is, doesn’t know her name, and doesn’t care to know. The bodies he collects with a pocket camera become raw material to be reworked over and over until he arrives at a composition.

“I’m telling myself stories,” said Fischl. “Not because I know where the story is going but because I think it’s interesting. What is this person doing? This person is standing there, turning a certain way.

“Are they turning towards something or away from something. What is it that they would turn away from? I start building that way,” he says.

Bringing art to the people

Fischl’s most ambitious experiment in American art was a thwarted attempt to create a traveling art caravan.

“America: Now and Here” was to be a multimillion-dollar caravan of tractor-trailers that would unpack as portable museum galleries, like a fine-art carnival bringing contemporary painting poetry, music, and film to places where it doesn’t normally go.

It was designed to reconnect Americans with art.

“Art is so not a part of Americans’ lives,” said Fischl. “There’s very little contact with the kind of experiences that art provides, which are keeping us tender, keeping us empathetic, keeping us connected, keeping us hopeful, keeping us vibrant. Let’s see if we can get it outside of this capsule that the art world has created for itself. My experience so far is, no, we can’t.”

Originally scheduled for the fall, “Now and Here” was designed to temper an otherwise divisive election year. The traveling art caravan was brought down by the expense of renovating trailers into climate-controlled galleries. Fischl says the idea is on indefinite hiatus.

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