Painter Eric Fischl on Being Friends With Steve Martin, Finding Inspiration in 'Her' (Q&A)

11:54 AM PST 06/23/2014 by Christopher Wyrick
Courtesy of The Broad

Ahead of the artist's conversation with the comedian presented by the Broad Museum on Monday night, Fischl chats about his lifelong friendship with Martin and what he enjoyed most about Spike Jonze's film.

In the kingdom of Steve Martin's art collection, Eric Fischl could hold the title of court artist, chief portrait maker of the king (or the jester?). Like Goya before him, who was court painter to the genetic casserole that was the Spanish royal family at that time, Fischl doesn't pull any punches. Since his emergence as a major voice on the art scene in the early 1980s, Fischl has painted the naked truth (literally and metaphorically) of the repressed sexuality and emotional distancing within American society. His seminal painting "Sleepwalker" from 1979 depicts a teenage boy masturbating in a baby pool. Fischl published a memoir entitled "Bad Boy : My life on and off the canvas" in 2013 which he describes some of the challenges he faced in his own childhood and how he learned to channel those experiences through his artwork.

Fischl and Martin have been friends for decades, and the multi-talented actor continues to be a major collector of Fischl's work. Martin appeared on the big screen last year in The Big Year alongside Jack Black and Owen Wilson. He has recently been touring with Edie Brickell and the Steep Canyon Rangers in support of their album Love Has Come For You, the title track for which won a Grammy Award this year for Best American Roots Song. But come Monday, he returns to L.A. to reunite with his pal Fischl.

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Ahead of Fischl's public conversation with Martin at The Broad Stage on Monday night, as part of the Unprivate Collection series hosted by Broad Museum, in promotion of the new building being erected in downtown Los Angeles, The Hollywood Reporter chatted with the artist about his career as a visual artist and friendship with the actor-comedian. 

The Hollywood Reporter: Have film and television played a role in your development as a visual storyteller?

Eric Fischl: Absolutely. I saw TV and film long before I saw painting, so I grew up on that. Magazines, TV, film — that kind of media. So I came to painting late in regards to visual learning. I think it has formed a base. I think of painting in terms of point of view — in how I try to lead a person into a scene. I think of them as scenes. The language that I talk to myself in has a lot to do with film language. 

In your painting process working from snapshots, there is a sense of you being a director when you are culling through imagery and crafting the scenes that you paint. 

Yes, exactly. I use the people that I use in my paintings I choose because of a certain kind of body language, a certain way they animate a scene, which would be something like working with actors — filming something — some kind of truth through gestures, through body language - look, gaze...

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Are there any particular filmmakers or painters who have been particularly important to you through your career? 

If you are a representational painter, painting the psychology of daily life, you have to go through [Edward] Hopper. He's a giant in that regard. He casts a big shadow. He has this wonderful sense of light. He has this wonderful sense of compositional abstraction. He is able to convince you of reality using the most abbreviated descriptive terms for reality. If you look at his work closely, the way he paints a window, a door or grass, a tree, a bed — he convinces you that those are all real, but there is very little actual visual description to it, so that has a kind of modernist reduction quality to it that is also something that I have had to figure out and deal with. But I also feel that he is very American and I feel that I am very American also, in terms of my relationship to history, my relationship to a larger world context. I tend to put things, like he does, into more modest terms. I think they are archetypal, so I think they are important, but I put them into the context of suburban daily life or wherever my life is at that time. Rather than speak to the bigger themes or art history, history itself.

In terms of film makers, there are certain giants like Mike Nichols, who have been a huge inspiration and impact on me. And Fellini as someone I wish I could be. I wish I could be as sort of fanciful and humorous and loving as he is in his work. And people like Bunuel...

One recent film that I found tremendously inspiring is Spike Jonze's film Her, which is absolutely just a genius work and it just blew my mind. And I thought to myself, 'This can't work — it's too simple of a construct or something — and yet it was just riveting. And compared to so many other movies that in the future are so dystopic and apocalyptic, this one was not unlike today, just a little further along. You know, you make friends, you lose friends, you feel lonely. But the meditation on what is love — what does it take to convince yourself of love. It is a sound of voice or a tone or someone who makes you think they are actually listening to you. I thought it was brilliant. So put that in there as one of my faves.

You and Steve Martin have been friends for a number of years now. Do you think that there are similarities in your respective upbringings that have helped forge your friendship?

I would say probably yes. Not that they are mirror images of each other's childhoods. But there are definitely things that we share that we have talked about in the past. And I think that we approach how we deal with that very differently. But there is certainly a respect for that kind of space and the complexity of it. But I think that is one of the reasons why he responded to my painting "Barbeque," which, on one hand, certainly reminded him of the kind of architecture and light of Southern California and then this kind of insane domestic scene that is sort of humorous and extreme and also kind of creepy and tragic. I think that was the first painting that he bought of mine.

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Steve has redefined comedy in many ways through his career, and I would say that you have done the same within the traditional of figure painting.

I would certainly agree that Steve changed the playing field in comedy and I feel connected that we are connected to the same generation and within that generation, one of the things that a lot of us have dealt with is a profound sense of absurdity as a tool for undermining preconceptions about values and social behavior. And I have certainly been inspired by Steve's craziness, long before I knew him. The kind of comic craziness that just came out of nowhere didn't make a bit of sense and just had you howling with laughter. So there is that. But I don't think my work has had the cultural impact that his work has had, so I don't compare us at all on those levels. One of the things that I cherish about our friendship is how I get to be close up to him sometimes when he is creating and he is creating all the time. And he lets you into that process which is an incredible privilege, but he is also somebody, unlike so many creative people, he has this inexhaustible curiosity about different forms of creativity. So he does the comedy, then he does serious acting, then he writes a novel and then he writes joke pieces for the New Yorker. And then the Twitter. And now he's writing a musical. We've had some public conversations a couple of times. They have always been fun. I hope this one has been fun as well. We don't plan it out — we just chat.

The event is sold out, but a rush line will be available starting at 5:30 p.m. at The Broad Stage. The museum also will be hosting a live video stream of the talk at thebroad.org starting at 8 p.m. PT. For more information, visit the museum's website here.

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