NEW YORK — It's sultry at the beach. The antiseptic vacation rental overlooks the coast highway and a strand pebbled with swimmers and sunbathers. Despite the exposed view, a young woman stands naked on the balcony wearing only sandals and carrying a tote bag. Two dogs regard her attentively, and she seems to be saying, "You take good care of the place while I'm away."
The next thing you know, an adolescent pair are on the balcony. The girl has dropped her bikini and the boy, clad only in a black T-shirt, touches her shyly. Both are graphically portrayed in a state of sexual excitement. The funny thing is that the kids have the same coloring as the dogs: one dark, one red-haired. It is as if they transformed themselves into kids when the mistress left the house. What's going on here--magic or everyday rites of pubescence?
What is actually going on is a painting called "Dog Days" by Eric Fischl. It is on view with about 20 other works at the Whitney Museum until May 11. They constitute the first in-depth examination of a 38-year-old artist who has become one of the most talked-about members of the Neo-Expressionist generation.
Unlike others of his ilk, Fischl does not spur controversy over whether he can really paint. It is generally conceded that he can, even though he paints a world that seems to be made up of slept-in sheets and flesh that hangs lazily around bones like a kid lolling on a mall. What keeps people wondering about Fischl is his subject matter.
He deals in intimations of the forbidden--masturbation, incest, pederasty, interracial sex, fetishism, bestiality and necrophilia. Everything is soaked in an aura of languorous dread and potential violence. Probably no artist since Max Beckmann has so strongly evoked these lethal taboos. But Beckmann called them up as heroically scaled aspects of tragic Jungian mythology. Fischl confronts us with them as suburban banalities, fag-end cliches of pedestrian Freudianism.
Fischl's "narrator"--so to speak--is an adolescent guy, who brings to mind Holden Caulfield of "Catcher in the Rye." He is perceptive and sensitive but fundamentally amoral. He accepts everything with an apparently profound wisdom that is really only the callowest kind of naivete. You can almost hear Caulfield telling us about Fischl's pictures.
"Mom went away again. She asked Mrs. Blaine next door to, you know, keep an eye on me. Well, I was sort of, you know, messing around with myself in the plastic wading pool in the backyard. She told me to come in and there she was undressed in the bedroom and I laid on the bed and talked to her and felt sort of funny but then she started writhing around in this kind of corny way. First I thought I was suffocating or something but I realized that basically she was grossing me out so while she was wiggling around I slipped $20 out of her purse. She is such a phony she will never miss it."
Essayist Jean Christophe Ammann writes about this pubescent point of view in the catalogue but he, like the other catalogue writers, tends to bead up on the surface of Fischl's work like raindrops on a waxed car. They dribble off into the realm of the theoretical instead of dealing with the experience of works that have so many people chuckling and snorting with embarrassment at the Whitney. Well, who can blame them? It isn't easy to have to relive those giddy, guilt-saturated rites of passage we all went through with such exquisite pain.
But Holden Caulfield is Fischl's mouthpiece and straw man. These paintings do more than reminisce on neurotic nostalgia. Fischl, the adult, unleashes a Pandora's box full of sexual goblins and calls forth a complex panoply of artistic and literary allusions to add another dimension to the work. Fischl makes some people think of Manet because both artists deal in shock.
Significantly, however, Manet was cool and Fischl is not. Fischl is more like great 19th-Century activist Romantics who meant their paintings as sensational social documents condemning ills of the time. Fischl is like the Gericault of "The Raft of the Medusa" and the Delacroix of "The Massacre at Scio," both of which could be read as either heartfelt social protest or artistic grandstanding.
Fischl's "The Old Man's Boat and the Old Man's Dog" calls forth "Medusa," not to mention Winslow Homer's "Gulf Stream," Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea" and the general shade of Joseph Conrad. Fischl takes their collective vision of heroism and tragedy and replaces it with a load of hare-brained hedonists evidently working up to a bored weekend orgy that may be interrupted by bad weather. Fischl seems to feel that if their ineptitude and venality cause them to drown, tough luck.
"A Visit to the Island" is an enigmatic diptych half devoted to naked white yuppies en flagrante and half to a group of black people doing something ambiguous but serious as if they might be boat people trying to rescue survivors of a wreck.