A Portrait of the Artist: Eric Fischl Speaks with Bill Collage

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Artist Eric Fischl and screenwriter Bill Collage in Sag Harbor.

Artist Eric Fischl and screenwriter Bill Collage in Sag Harbor.

EXT. SAG TOWN COFFEE – SAG HARBOR, NY – MORNING

World-renown painter ERIC FISCHL sits at a cafe table with screenwriter BILL COLLAGE to discuss the portrait as an artistic genre. Both drink coffee.

COLLAGE

So in your book, you wrote that the portrait as a genre is one of the most difficult modern idioms because it’s essentially nonverbal.

FISCHL

So much of art has become so conceptualized that it’s almost like language precedes experience of the feeling. With portraiture, it seems like what you’re trying to do is create a believable person staring back at you.

COLLAGE

When you paint a portrait, you essentially have so many images of a person to choose from — whether you’re selecting from memory or a group of photographs — how do you select which likeness of a person you will present?

FISCHL

Well, you get a variety of images when you’re photographing someone but there’s usually an accumulation of some that feel the same. Also, remember, I’m present in the photographing. I’m there. We’re talking. I’m getting an experience, a vibe from the person.

And then when I look at the photographs, something starts to show itself. At some point, you start to see something that’s consistent. And then you start to hone it down to a kind of a moment.

Sometimes I like the body language of one and I’ll use the head of another to get something that’s more consistent with the emotion I’m feeling.

COLLAGE

Something that differentiates what you and I do is that you sometimes do portraits of people you know. I don’t know anybody. The people I do portraits of are dead. Moses, George Washington… I just finished a new script on Picasso.

I’m wondering how you wrestle with the expectations of the subject?

FISCHL

That’s, like, the story of my life.

(both laugh)

Struggling with my feelings versus my projection on how they’ll either be accepted or not.

 COLLAGE

 So you’re used to it.

 FISCHL

 Yeah.

(both laugh)

But the people I know best are the hardest to capture. Because I know them in a variety of ways. And a painting isn’t a summation of all that I know about them. It captures a particular moment in their life. And it also expresses me in relationship to that moment.

Expressing myself at the same time I’m expressing my perception of them.

COLLAGE

Would you say the hyper-articulation of that point is the piece you did called Self Portrait: An Unfinished Work which shows you sitting in front of a painting-within-the painting that contains you and a group of your friends? And then you sort of erased the figure of you on the inner painting…?

FISCHL

Yeah, it’s like I’m present and absent in myself at the same time.

Ghosting…

COLLAGE

It’s such a cool effect.

FISCHL

Ralph Gibson, who I’ve painted several times, is a dear friend of mine. And he came up to me after seeing that self-portrait and said: “It’s really nice you’re as hard on yourself as you are on everyone else.”

(both laugh)

Which I took as a good thing. It’s like, nobody’s spared. Not even myself.

(Collage laughs, Fischl drinks his coffee…)

But you know from time to time I do commissions and they’re hard portraits because I’m not just struggling with how they see themselves versus how I see them — but there’s also this money involved in it, right? So to some extent they have the right to say no. It’s like this hysterical Ruth Draper piece from the 50s where she plays an upper-crust type of lady and at one point the artist who is painting a portrait of her daughter comes in and Ruth begins subtly trying to change everything about the painting. Saying things like, “You know in the summer when cheeks get rosy? Couldn’t you make her cheeks a little rosier!?”

COLLAGE

Like the famous one where the guy looks at a masterpiece and says to the painter, I love it! But could you do it in green because it’d look better above my couch.

FISCHL

Right or the story where Degas did a portrait of Manet and his wife — as part of some exchange of paintings, I think it was — and Manet took the portrait home and cut his wife out of it.

(both laugh)

It’s like, okay…

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