‘Bad Boy’ painter Eric Fischl talks art with his highest-profile collector — comedian Steve Martin — at The Broad Stage
This kind of thing doesn’t happen very often.
On Monday, one of the most celebrated and controversial artists of a generation visits The Broad Stage for a very public conversation about his subversive paintings with one of Hollywood’s great comic minds.
As it turns out, Eric Fischl is one of comedian Steve Martin’s biggest fans, and Martin is one of Fischl’s most prominent collectors.
Psychologically and sexually-charged, Fischl’s dark glimpses of suburbia in paintings such as 1981’s “Bad Boy,” in which a young boy reaches into his mother’s purse while spying on her sprawled naked, and 1979’s “Sleepwalker,” a nocturnal scene of an adolescent boy masturbating in a kid’s pool, made Fischl an enfant terrible of painting; the shock value backed up by his deft, California Institute of the Arts-honed use of strokes and colors.
Fischl, 66, is among the artists who kept representational painting alive even as the Kostabis and Koons of the art world pushed fine arts further down the conceptual/postmodern/“what constitutes art?” rabbit hole.
In 2001, the New York-based artist once again sparked controversy with his post-9/11 statue “Tumbling Woman,” which for many recalled the horrors of people jumping out of the World Trade Center.
Martin, who counts several Fischl paintings among his extensive collection of modern art, has also found his way into Fischl’s DVD collection.
“For writing, acting, genius concept and range, ‘The Jerk,’ ‘All of Me,’ ‘Bowfinger,’ ‘Roxanne,’ ‘L.A. Story’ and ‘Shopgirl’ epitomize his brilliance,” Fischl said. “Steve has and continues to be an enormous inspiration. He is, for sure, the most multi-talented man I know, and his insatiable curiosity for new forms for his expression stand alone in my experience as awe-inspiring. He is truly a great artist.”
Where are you currently in your artistic journey?
At the moment I am working on a series of paintings based on recreated scenes from art fairs. The sheer number of art fairs has to be one of the strangest and most disappointing manifestations of our new art world. It is as strange as speed-dating, Twitter or Instagram. Consumption with no digestion. No real nourishment. Low-cal and supplemental. We would be fooling ourselves to think this is healthy.
How, then, would you say the fine arts landscape has changed since you broke through in the early 1980s?
I would say that in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, none of us saw this coming. We all made art with a deep sense of social and political purpose and truly believed —naively believed — that art could change the world. Unfortunately, the various strategies of appropriation, willful bad painting, and absurdity spilling over into cynicism bled artwork of its moral high ground. This allowed a collecting audience to view art as a currency of exchange that could be parlayed for things of greater value: money and social position.
Did the public rejection of “Tumbling Woman” impact the direction of your art?
The rejection of “Tumbling Woman” was a real eye-opener for me. It highlighted with great clarity just how wide the gulf between art and society is today. It has become an even more urgent reason for me to try and find ways of educating, expanding audiences and demystifying the creative process.
Some examples of what I am referring to are the “America Now and Here” project I initiated to try and engage a broader American public in a national conversation about America, which used the arts to begin the conversation. This was a traveling exhibition designed to fit on trailers and taken around the country to small towns, mid-size cities and inner cities. My  memoir “Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas” was another attempt to bring the reader into a more intimate space by allowing them to see how I create works.
Do you feel that your mother’s alcoholism and eventual suicide was your biggest push toward exploring dark psychological spaces and subversive themes?
It was surviving the secrecy and denial surrounding my mother’s illness that gave me the courage to expose it. Trauma is certainly something that can be channeled in a healthy way through creative expression, creative outlets. But it was not the sole reason that my work took the path that it did. I am a natural-born storyteller. I see and understand experiences through the way I retell them. I also am deeply affected (perhaps oversensitive) by the feelings of others. I watch people constantly and constantly measure the psychological and emotional space between me and them. That measurement is how the narrative is triggered. Along the way I have been encouraged and inspired by a wide range of artists, both contemporaries and historical figures. You do not make art in a void.
“The Un-Private Collection: Eric Fischl and Steve Martin” begins at 8 p.m. Monday at The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. Tickets are sold out, but there will be a rush line at the theater and the talk will be streamed live at thebroad.org, with online audiences able to participate using the Twitter hashtag #FischlMartin.