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Go Figure

Sure, famed artist Eric Fischl has a searingly honest new autobiography. But, even more important (for our purposes), he also has—in the person of intrepid Beach scribe Harry Hurt III—a somewhat clueless new intern.

Eric Fischl poses with a work in progress.

Fischl and Hurt III in the artist’s Sag Harbor studio.

The tools of the trade.

Fischl’s candid autobiography, Bad Boy.

The painter’s palette.

 Fischl directs Hurt III to “attack the paper” with his brush.

Fischl and Hurt III contemplate their work.

I’m kneeling on the floor of Eric Fischl’s studio in Sag Harbor, watching the master prepare to make a painting of a naked girl, which I’m eventually supposed to emulate. He directs my attention to his 18-inch-tall sculpture maquette of a Sudanese teenager with a taut-muscled, steatopygic physique. The maquette is based on a photograph by Leni Riefenstahl, the controversial Nazi-era German filmmaker and artist.

“I love her attenuated, out-of-proportion look, with those extra-long arms and a body growing into adulthood,” Fischl says of our model. “When the mating season comes, the men in the tribe paint themselves up with shapes and colors, but they’re not allowed to look at the women. The women taunt them with all kinds of wild dancing. When a woman finally chooses her man, she throws a leg over his shoulder.”

I’m thinking that the Sudanese mating dance sounds like a ritualized version of some of the 1980s-era sex- and drug-fueled scenes in Fischl’s brutally candid new autobiography, Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas. I’m also thinking that this is about as good as it gets for a rookie wannabe artist like me.
Along with his friendly rivals David Salle and Julian Schnabel, my 65-year-old instructor is one of the premier painters of his generation, acclaimed for defying trendy abstract expressionism to compose figurative paintings with compelling narratives. He’s now the reformed bad boy I aspire to be, and I’m honored and thrilled to follow his lead.

“The thing with watercolors is you have to attack,” Fischl declares as he hunkers down over a 40-inch-by-60-inch paper rectangle. “The paint is running and puddling, and it’s not going to wait for you. You’ve got one shot, and you have to go for it.”
Fischl outlines the Sudanese ingénue in Indian yellow, making brush strokes that start thin and gradually thicken and/or the other way around, using the entire length of the paper to convey her elongation. Opining that she needs to be “tarted up,” he highlights her with layers of Mars violet. In less than 10 minutes, he’s created a heroic, luminous female who appears to be on the verge of walking off to throw a leg around her chosen man.

“Sure, I can do that,” I mutter. “No problem.”

In fact, the only thing I’ve ever been able to draw is breath. When it comes to painting, I’m a complete klutz. But I quickly experience a semimiraculous transformation. Fischl suggests that I go at the figure upside down, painting straight and curved lines starting at her feet and moving on to her head without obsessing over drawing toes or head. Even as I compress her torso and overdo her arms, he urges me to embrace my unintended exaggerations as a means to express feeling and emotions.

When we look at my paper right side up, I’m startled to see that my mess of watercolors actually bears a passing resemblance to our model.
“The good news is, I really like the way you attacked with the watercolors,” Fischl allows. “You nailed a gesture with her arms that tells more about her character than if you’d tried to depict her facial expressions. The bad news is that what you’ve ended up with is somewhere between a figure and an X-ray.”
I nod my head, pondering the bottom-line question that occurs to any wannabe artist studying under a master whose works command six- and seven-figure prices.

Then I have to ask. “So, Eric… what do you think I could sell this for?”