Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas
While we read memoirs voraciously, our enjoyment of the literary form is always tempered by a sense that we’re only getting part of the story. Too often authors excessively focus inwards and fail to provide readers with enough of a context to truly comprehend the writer’s motivations, or conversely devote too much attention to the actions of others and portray themselves as almost innocent bystanders in the narrative of their life. Eric Fischl, an artist who came to prominence in the 1980s and helped to define the American art scene of that era, has managed to avoid both these pitfalls in his thought-provoking, as well as undeniably juicy, new memoir, Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas. Written with his friend Michael Stone, who conducted countless interviews with family members and art world luminaries to help supplement Fischl’s own memories, Bad Boy is both the story of an artist’s life told through the lens of some of his most important paintings as well as a larger exploration of the mercurial nature of the contemporary art world where you are only as good as your last sale. For those who instantly recognize the names Mary Boone, Julian Schnabel and David Salle, Bad Boy will have an obvious appeal, yet the book, and Fischl’s life, is interesting enough on its own to captivate even art world neophytes.
Beginning with Fischl’s dysfunctional childhood dominated by an alcoholic mother, Bad Boy does an admirable job revealing how he mined his personal experiences for inspiration and subject matter for his art. After leaving home to pursue an art career in the 1970s, Fischl had the fortuity of being in the right place at the right time. He studied at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) which had just emerged as the most innovative school in the country; its experimentations in social and conceptually-based practices would reverberate through the art world for the next twenty years. As a young painter trying to find his voice and approach in an environment where painting was considered irrelevant and antiquated, Fischl clashed with the school’s conceptual faction led by John Baldessari, and his insider account of the affairs of this revered institution, as well as the intellectual discourse and debates it inspired, is fascinating and worthy of its own book length study. Fischl then went on to teach at NSCAD in Nova Scotia—another bastion of conceptual art and the only other North American school that rivaled CalArts’ influence—before eventually settling in New York to begin his career in earnest.
The bulk of Bad Boy is devoted to Fischl’s meteoric rise to bonafied art star in the 1980s, a success that was very much tied to an art market newly flush with cash and to the careers of other young painters, such as Schnabel and Salle, and the Pictures Generation of which Fischl was a fringe member. Many of the artists who came to prominence during this period would go on to have some of the most innovative, and lucrative, careers of the late twentieth century and would help to define a postmodern sensibility. What makes Bad Boy such an engaging read is that is shifts so seamlessly between gossipy tidbits—like the real reason Schnabel left the Mary Boone Gallery and the origin of a feud between Fischl and art critic Jerry Saltz—and in-depth analysis of Fischl’s art making and process. While those less familiar with Fischl’s work may skim the rather extensive descriptions of his works and how he arrived at both his approach and subject matter, we found these passages to be enthralling and a welcome break from stories of disagreements, parties and drug use.
More than just a depiction of one man’s life and career or even of a particular era, Bad Boy offers a fascinating glimpse at the affairs of the art market. Fischl is quite candid about his relationships with dealers and collectors, making explicit machinations which are typically shrouded in secrecy. Equal parts autobiography, treasure trove of art world secrets and aesthetic study, Bad Boy is a fascinating page-tuner that would make a great addition to anyone’s summer reading list.