Noted New York City sculptor and painter, Eric Fischl, clad in jeans and a T-shirt, sits in the center of his SoHo studio, smoking a cigar. It is a spacious room filled with hunched-over sculptures, framed paintings and a broad, mounted canvas offering a voyeur’s-eye-view of a couple having sex.
Smoke floats up and dissipates. He is discussing his new book, Eric Fischl: 1970-2000 and the role dogs have played in his life and in his artwork over the years.
Fischl grew up surrounded and influenced by dogs, mostly crazy ones, throughout his childhood-including an insane German Shepherd, a vicious Dachshund, a long-lived Weimaraner, and a violent St. Bernard. His dogs taught him quite a bit about emotional attachment. “We had two German Shepherds once, brothers. Buck escaped and got hit by a car. Hondo went insane. This was pre-Prozac,” Fischl says explaining people didn’t try to figure out a dogs’ psychology then. “He was absolutely obsessive-compulsive,” he adds.
As for his St. Bernard, Friar Tuck, whom Fischl claims was violent as a result of living in a house that was too small for him. “You should have seen that house,” Fischl says. “Dogs absorb what’s around them, the insanity around them. Take drug dealers’ dogs. They show up in kennels and no one will take care of them because they’re completely out of their minds.”
Fischl uses dogs (and sometimes cats) as symbols in his paintings. “Because dogs have no language and have been socialized to only a certain point, they add a primitive aspect,” he says. Consider, for example, his painting “Master Bedroom,” in which a young girl wearing lipstick kneels on a bed that is not her own, clutching a Newfoundland. Reflected in the light is a presence that is clearly threatening. “The dog, who should be the protector is oblivious,” Fischl explains, “he’s not responding to her fear, which makes it more frightening.
The choice of breeds in his works is deliberate and dramatic. One painting, which takes place in a bathroom, depicts a man holding a dog and a woman washing her hair in the bathtub. The dog is a Whippet; the artist included this lean and speedy dog as a way to suggest nervousness.
“Scarsdale” is another painting that uses animals as a way to express thought: the middle-aged woman in a wedding dress holds a dog’s leash, representing loyalty, but gazes toward a cat, representing infidelity.“I like cats in paintings because they’re the opposite of dogs,” Fischl says. “You call a cat, they won’t come directly to you. Instead, it will go to an intermediate spot first, then shows up. It wants you to appreciate that third thing,” he explains. “And that is exactly what an artist does with a painting.”