Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas by Eric Fischl and Michael Stone, Crown, 357 pages ($26). The name of the painting was “Sleepwalker.” The artist – Eric Fischl – describes his piece of narrative realism this way: “an adolescent boy standing naked in a plastic kiddie pool on a suburban lawn at night … Poised at an angle to the viewer so the action is partly obscured, he’s masturbating into the pool. I deliberately chose my subject because it was taboo. Like many of my peers, I was testing the bounds of propriety, both socially and artistically, trying to get people to notice my work. What’s more I didn’t trust my painting skills and felt I had to use shocking material to make the picture live.”
With a once-scandalous reputation like Fischl’s, there would have been no point to this memoir at all without candor. And you certainly have to credit passages like the above with that. Nor is it unusual.
About the most famous of Fischl’s bids to attract the art world’s scandalized attention “Bad Boy” – which gives his memoir its name – Fischl describes it this way: “ ‘Bad Boy’ rendered a moment, fraught and mysterious, in the relationship between an eleven-year old boy and a mature woman, possibly the boy’s mother but perhaps his older sister or a stranger. … ‘Bad Boy’ extended the larger themes running through my work – family dysfunction, the narcissism, the careless inattention with which parents blind themselves to their children’s needs and impulses, the suburban commodity culture that blurs the line between sexual and buying power, between genuine emotion and the superficial look of things.”
The established artist three decades later is a very different figure, of course. But there would have been no point to this book if “America’s foremost narrative painter” (as the book’s publicity has it) hadn’t addressed head on his ’80s reputation. The book begins in 1986 with “Jack Daniel’s (sic), wine, Armagnac chased down with lines of cocaine” and ends with him explaining why he once “couldn’t make happy pictures” but now (when, by the way, he’s a friend of Steve Martin and Mike Nichols), he can. A book about contemporary art that may tell vastly more than it intends. – Jeff Simon