An interview with Eric Fischl
October 28, 2011
ASPEN – Frederic Church used to put his paintings on barges and send them down river so people could see his art. In this same tradition and spirit of “journey art” in America, Eric Fischl, one of the most influential figurative painters of the late 20th and early 21st century, has conceptualized a traveling, multi-disciplinary project called “America: Now and Here” that hits the road in a series of six 18-wheelers.
Four of the trucks will unfold and link together to create a 3,300-square-foot gallery space featuring paintings and photographs by artists like Ed Ruscha, David Salle and Gregory Crewdson, while two others will act as a covered pavilion and a screening area to show short films by documentary filmmakers, plays by writers like Edward Albee and Marsha Norman; and music by artists like Lou Reed and Roseanne Cash.
But it’s not solely a showcase for the celebrated artists of our time. It’s an invitation for artists and cultural groups of other cities and towns to address what Fischl sees as an identity crisis in American culture.
Last week, the project collaborated with the Aspen Art Museum’s Roaring Fork Open. “The artists appreciated having a theme to address with their work,” said Executive Director Heidi Jacobson. “Consequently the whole show is so much more cohesive than in past years.”
On Nov. 4, the “America: Now and Here” truck, emblazoned with text from artist Barbara Kruger, parks in Chicago. For the next two years, “America: Now and Here” will tour the country giving voice to every artist it meets.
Hilary Stunda recently spoke with Fischl for the Aspen Times Weekly.
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Hilary Stunda: After the inaugural show in Kansas City last May, what has been the overall feeling about it ?
Eric Fischl: There’s a sense among the artists that it was an incredibly stimulating experience. Not just for the visual artists but all the artists, poets, playwrights. There was a new and bigger sense of community. One of the positive things the show did was break down some of the cliques that naturally form in any community. The Mid-Atlantic Arts Alliance in Kansas City said people had never seen anything like it. The people who came to the show were different kinds of people that go to the galleries. They thought America: Now and Here was reaching a broader public. And of course, that’s our ambition.
HS: Do you think it unleashed latent talent?
EF: It’s not even latent. Talent is everywhere. There’s a difference between creating and making art. Creativity is something everyone possesses. Art is a discipline that few people can tolerate the rigors of, so they don’t pursue it. But creativity is everywhere. Everybody has that potential.
HS: After you came up with the initial concept for “America: Now and Here,” how long did it take for the other artists to jump on board?
EF: It evolved. Once I had the concept, I reached out to artists I know. This is not a curated show in the strict sense of the word. It’s really a shout out where I ask artists that I know if they could create a work about America; something they want us to think about, feel, experience. It started with visual art because that’s my first instinct. Not every artist I reached out to said yes. But the lion’s share that I reached out to, said yes, right away. A little while later, talking to playwright friends of mine like Marsha Norman and Jon Robin Baitz, they came up with the idea of getting playwrights to make 3-minute dialogues that can be performed.
HS: I particularly love the renga – the poem that stretched from east to west coast, linking 54 poets. It makes me yearn for the visual renga – a giant, traveling, unfolding mural that ends up on the mall in Washington, D.C.
EF: Yeah. If you can think of a way of doing it … Sort of like the AIDS tapestry.
HS: After two years on the road, what ripple effect do you hope to see?
EF: I have no idea about the end result. The most significant thing is that we’re getting all artists to think about the same thing at the same time. That hasn’t been done. That’s what’s so amazing. For however long it lasts, it’s about getting all the creative forces to focus on one thing – to see if we can help change the conversation; help the way people are relating to one another.
HS: Often, in retrospect, you can see more clearly the interweaving of the subconscious; the familiar undercurrents.
EF: That’s absolutely true. We’re going to find that we shared the same frustrations, the same anxieties, the same wishes; the same dreams that have been collectively a part of us for awhile. To show that this is something we’re all experiencing and not something that is divided along ethnic, political or religious lines has never been pulled together.
HS: You’re culling together the collective American myth and making some sense out it.
EF: (chuckle) I was simply the first person to think to ask!
HS: Has this project prompted you to move into new creative terrain?
EF: I don’t think so. I’ve always focussed on people’s relationships to themselves, to each other, to their environment, to America, to the myths and fantasies that this country is about. I feel very much like an American artist in that way. It fits right into my whole program.
HS: If you had to chose a word that describes how you feel about being an American today, what would you say?
EF: I’m forever an optimist about a people and about America. But I also believe, in these times, that truth ultimately rights the ship. When times are hard you don’t help by creating diversion. You help by being brave enough to speak openly and honestly about the feelings you have. What you find is that people have those same feelings. It’s shared. You’re not isolated. Once you can accept that that’s where you are, then you can figure out how to move forward.
HS: If only our Presidential candidates could be linked to artists to address this new dialogue about America …
EF: I tried. I went to the White House. I talked to people under Obama about “America: Now and Here” to see if we could get them involved. They loved the idea. But it went no further than that. Art is something that scares politicians because they think it will embarrass them in some way. They look at the list of artists involved and Andrea Serrano’s name jumps out. They go, “Oh God, I’ll be running for re-election and someone will say, that’s the guy that did Piss Christ and you’re backing him.”
So, they don’t want it. It’s better to not get the government involved with this project. Just go ahead and do it and demonstrate through grassroots that it’s something that everybody wants, needs and can do. America is trying to save the world. The one place they’re not looking to save is themselves. That’s why this is important. We need to take a breather from trying to save Africa, China, the Middle East. Look at us, we need this kind of stuff too.