I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing
New York Academy of Art, New York
The following is a transcript of the conversation.
A.M. Homes So I thought I would just leap right in, which is earlier today as I was reviewing your entire career — I started early in the day, actually, and it took a while — I was looking actually at the progression of figures. In the earlier work there was often a young male figure and often maybe an older female figure. Now the figures are aging with you; they are of your generation.
Eric Fischl Well actually, every time I go to the painting, how to paint the body is the question. It’s been there from the start. So the progression shows what I think about the body. Early on I definitely tried to find something that couldn’t be taken away from me, a kind of concrete sense of reality of what I knew. In looking for that, what I knew started with memory. So it began a kind of young life, young male life, young male psychological life, a very specific sense of place and cultural milieu. Then I grew with it. I wasn’t too strategic about it; just looking back, I see that. I caught up with myself.
AMH One of the things I always think of when I think of your painting is a very specific kind of honesty about the psychological honesty and a physical reality. I kept thinking when looking at the figures as they age, how do you deal with gravity and those things in painting when also grappling with beauty and all of the subtexts of it?
EF Yeah, I think that the definition of beauty is a little more fluid and stuff. In some ways, beauty exists around my figures more than in my figures. Although I have to say that there are some kind of gestures and certain kind of thing where the body just seems right. So that’s beautiful.
EF But mostly it’s the light, the illumination that carries the being.
AMH I think if we could all live in the lighting in your paintings, we would all look better too. But it’s a very specific—
EF (laughter) I tell you, I’ve been … You know, I paint portraits from time to time. I do good with guys, but women I … I like them (the portraits I do), but they’re always met with a kind of disappointment. With guys, they’re simpler; if you give them a kind of sense of character, if you make them look like they’re thinking, they’re really happy; it doesn’t matter if they’re pot-bellied or double-chinned or wrinkled or whatever. Women, they’re a little bit more upset about it.
AMH But, you know, it’s funny, one of the portraits that I was admiring a lot today that I hadn’t seen before was Joan Didion and her husband. I thought, in effect, in that one she comes across in many ways as the stronger image. I thought it was an incredibly beautiful, and accurate, portrait of them and of her.
EF Yeah. I talked her into taking her sunglasses off; you never see her with her sunglasses off. She reluctantly did it, and when I painted the portrait I put her sunglasses back on. It’s so much a part of her persona.
AMH What is the psychological process for you in terms of doing a portrait? Is that a very different experience for you? Do you think about how you’re going to deal with who that person is? And often they’re people you know, so how you’re going to …
EF Well, I find with portraiture that it’s a discovery for me. I don’t actually pose people; I let them sort of find themselves. I find that if you let people pose themselves — in some not forced way, but just in a relaxed way — they tell you an enormous amount about themselves. I find when I’m painting the portrait that I’m discovering. There’s always that thing between, Am I projecting my feelings onto this person, or, are they projecting theirs on me in some way?
AMH I think that’s the difference between fiction and nonfiction. Your other work is fiction, and that [a portrait] is a nonfiction painting.
EF Ultimately I don’t think it is. I think it’s total fiction.
AMH Do they know that?
EF Our self-image is fiction, right?
AMH Yes, absolutely.
EF We have no sense of what we really look like or how we project onto … I did this portrait of Lorne Michaels, who is somebody I had met but didn’t really know. I caught him in a moment in his life, a kind of middle-aged moment in his life when he was world-weary. He didn’t know that. When he saw the picture that I painted there was a vulnerability there that made him extremely uncomfortable, because he didn’t think that he had transmitted that to me, an almost perfect stranger. He sat with the painting for three hours in my studio, just trying to get used to this. [The image] might be real.
That thing between fiction and nonfiction, I had an experience recently that I actually haven’t recovered from. I had done this project over the last four years, the Krefeld Project. I had hired these two actors—
AMH Excuse me, I had questions about that right there.
EF Oh, sorry. Are we jumping ahead?
AMH No, that’s the exact question I have for you!
EF Well, you probably didn’t know this part of it. So I hired these two actors. I photographed them for four days in this house. Then I went away; they went away. I did these paintings, et cetera. I had actually gotten so into the fiction that I was creating of this relationship between these two that even after the Krefeld show, I continued to make more of these paintings. I had a show last June in Germany—these were German actors—so I asked the gallery if they could get in touch with the actors to invite them to the opening and stuff like that. They called back and said [that] the guy had died.
AMH Oh, no …
EF Fort-years-old, tragically died, you know, whatever. I only knew them for four days as these actors. I didn’t really know them. At the same time, for four years they were more intimate than my closest friends. I couldn’t separate the fictional reality from the real reality.
AMH Did you paint him ever again after that?
EF I did one last painting. As a literary thing I thought, Maybe I should follow the loss. Maybe that would be really adult of me. But I couldn’t face it. I still can’t face it.
AMH It’s interesting, because I was going to ask you about the actors and if in that project, you had given them direction or scenes or sort of things you wanted them to do, or what the evolution of those images was.
EF I had never worked with actors. I have friends who are playwrights and friends who are directors, so I asked all of them, How do you deal with actors? Do you talk to them? Are they human?
I got some really great advice. Something I could apply was, Give them problems. They love to solve problems. I said, What’s a problem? One friend of mine said, Well, you know, one girl wants to borrow $500 from him, but she won’t tell him why. Just give them that. So that’s what I did. They’re speaking German. I don’t speak German. I’m taking still photographs, so I’m not recording their dialogue anyway, which they’re actually making up. All I’m interested in is trying to get some, what I think are, reality of body language—some sense that these people are in the same room together, reacting to each other. I didn’t care about all that other stuff. So I would give them these problems, and they’d go crazy. The thing that blew my mind was how quickly I could tell that it wasn’t going anywhere. I didn’t know that, because I didn’t think I was caring about that. There were some moments where you just think, This is totally boring! So I would stop, and I would give them something else. The other thing that blew my mind was there were other times when it was so real I’d forget to take photographs. I would be sitting there just like …
So that was really interesting.
AMH Have you worked with actors since?
EF No. No, I just …
AMH Do you think you would again?
AMH In another language?
EF Stars. I’d only do stars. Only stars. Name people.
AMH You’re thinking Jack Nicholson and—
EF —Whoever. And anyone else!
EF Yeah, I would choose a beautiful woman, but that’s alright.
AMH When you think about a body of work—I mean that project in particular comes to mind—do you conceptualize in terms of a whole body of work, or are you thinking in terms of single images?
EF Normally I don’t think of series of work. In this case I was invited to do a show in this house. My idea was that I would photograph these people as if they lived in this house. I would then put the paintings back in the room where the actions took place, so there would be sort of “reality painting TV show.” So that was it. Other than that I didn’t have images in mind. I didn’t even have a narrative. I could never figure out whether they were a husband and wife. I couldn’t figure out whether it was the mistress and he owned the house, whether she was the housewife and he was the daytime lover. I kept thinking, Well I should figure this out. So I’d do another painting where I’d define that relationship more. I couldn’t figure out whether this was taking place over a night, a weekend, or a year. I kept thinking, I’m supposed to define that more. But the more specific I tried to get about it, the farther away it got.
AMH But so much is—all of that comes through in those paintings. When you look at a single image from that body of work you think, Oh, it is a mistress and a guy. Then you look at another one and you’re still sort of wrestling. I think that’s part of what works about those paintings. It’s not ever fully defined who they are to each other, but you know that it’s probably not husband and wife. That much, at least to me, seemed clear.
EF Yeah, in one of the later paintings it wasn’t even clear whether it was a guy and a girl. I chose her because of her androgyny; she had a hairdo that had this sort of ’20s, sort of bob thing to it. She was very gamy. So I liked that aspect about it. He just seemed like a big guy.
Yeah, but no, I couldn’t decide. Ultimately I wanted that ambiguity to it. The other thing I was surprised at in the process of making the paintings was that—and this was not conscious; it just started to evolve—was that sometimes the scene would be from her point of view, sometimes from his. The consciousness within the picture changed in a way that I hadn’t anticipated.
AMH It’s interesting, because I was looking at the Rome paintings and these paintings from Germany. I was thinking about in my own work there’s definitely a sense of wanting to work in different places, wanting to write novels that are set not in New York, not in the worlds I grew up in. I’m curious to hear a little bit more about the influence of travel and place.
EF One of my earliest inspirations, like in terms of sustained inspiration, came from being on the beach in Southern France. And again, it took the form of, initially of, just tons of photographs that I took of people on the beach. The thing that I was profoundly struck by was that kind of bizarre public relationship between the nudity and social interaction to my quasi-Puritanical eyes. I was like, What is going on here? There were so many taboos that were presented. I mean there was … not only was there the body taboo; but also there was this thing. There was racial taboo; because you’d have these Black Africans going around selling artifacts, art things to people. Until I confronted it, I didn’t realize how strong this sense that they are in an area they shouldn’t be. A naked woman (a white woman) and a black guy—whoa. So it brought up all of my past and my prejudices and stuff I had to confront. Then there was just this thing—which was great because like I said “body language”-wise were behaving socially; they weren’t behaving privately. So you could take these figures out of the beach and throw them into another situation, and they’d look normal in that situation. They’d just be nude. So that was a huge kind of inspiration for me that sustained me for a long time. Then I went dead.
Then I went to India. In India—I hadn’t planned on doing anything from India—I couldn’t believe what I saw there. That was just a … I’ve never had such a profound effect of otherness. I felt so alien. I assumed that in the world you can read body language. You can sense when a situation’s dangerous or welcoming. When I went to India I had no idea what I’m experiencing here. I don’t know whether it’s threatening or fabulous. Visually it was incredibly stunning. I realized—which I’ve never had this experience before—I will never understand this culture. I knew it the day we were driving back from the Taj Mahal, and I saw a person hitchhiking … with a bear.
AMH On a leash? Living? Dead?
EF Standing next to him. On a leash.
EF You know, you think, I don’t know one person that would ever pick up a guy and his bear.
AMH When I look at those paintings I do think, of all the bodies of work, that there is mysterious, sometimes fearful, sometimes exhilarated in those paintings.
EF I showed them. There was some kind of critique about them based on kind of a colonialist mentality. I’m sort of reviving a 19th-century colonialism. The reason I felt that it wasn’t about that was because when you look at those paintings you see that there’s no sense of entitlement or possession on the part of the viewer. They feel “other,” excluded from this whatever it is we’re looking at. Even though we’re fascinated by it or mystified by it, whatever, we don’t feel we control it. We don’t feel better than it, et cetera. So I thought it was okay to sort of approach that that way.
AMH Is it just sort of accidental that you go to India, that you go to Rome, that you go to Germany? Is it the evolution of things? Someone says, You want to come here? You just think, I’ll go and look? I know for me I definitely feel that different things happen in different cultures. People relate differently. They do. That’s also what interests me: How do they deal with each other; how do they negotiate and navigate different representations of the self in some way? I’m curious about how you think about where you want to go, and where are you going this year?
EF I don’t have any big plans this year, but a lot of it has to do with April [Gornik, Fischl’s wife]. April has a more fearless sense of the world than I do. She’ll say, Let’s go to Japan! I’ll say, Okay … et cetera. So it was that. With India, we were invited to India by a family who has a program there for artists. Even when I was a hippie, I never wanted to go there. India—I couldn’t stand the smell of patchouli oil. I’m not into the religious aspect of it. It seemed like all I was going to do was go see horrible poverty. I didn’t want to go, but April wanted to go. Here was a situation where we would be taken care of. I said, Okay. So there’s that. I don’t think I’ve ever said: I have to go here, because I think here’s where some interest lies. It’s more like I kind of blow in the wind, and I kind of find it. I mean, I went to Japan, and I didn’t see anything that I could paint. I saw beautiful things. What I found with Japan is they’re so aestheticized to begin with that they’re all about controlling the way they present themselves to you. I didn’t have another way of looking at it. There were no cracks.
AMH I was going to say, a point of entry. Exactly.
EF Yeah. So I couldn’t do anything with it. I didn’t; whereas with India, it was like chaos. You could enter it and leave it on so many different ways that it was stimulating. I remember going to Monet’s house in Giverny. Here’s something where he kind of pulls back from the world and creates this garden. Then [he] paints the rest of this life in this garden, so he’s not going anywhere. I remember walking in that garden—of course, they sort of put it back together, so it looked just like it looked when he was [alive]. So you could kind of take every little thing and frame every little thing and go da-da-da-da. But I couldn’t see what he saw. I kept looking at it like: If he and I were standing easel to easel and somebody said, Okay go! I wouldn’t come out with his painting. I just kept squinting my eyes to see if I could break it up.
EF You know, flatten it out somehow … Until he showed me. I couldn’t see what he saw at all. So that sort of sense of you don’t have to go very far at all to see this universe, this incredible vision of something, something extraordinary. Then another experience similar that was going to this house in Southern France that [Pierre] Bonnard lived in, where he painted all these paintings of Marta in the bathtub or sitting in the sunroom or having tea and whatnot. That house was no bigger than this stage. The feeling of claustrophobia in this tiny environment that he kept expanding in this very interesting way! Even though he was dealing with very condensed psychological situations—his paintings are really troublesome in some ways, but at the same time you never get a sense that that room is really as small as it actually is.
AMH It makes me want to ask you, What’s the inside of your head like these days?
EF Is there one?
AMH I mean, obviously, it’s narratives that are reflections of the interior. Obviously in many ways, it’s your interior. I guess I’m curious being that we had this last conversation 11 years ago! How is your interior? Has it been redecorated? I mean, do you feel more—I guess I’m interested in the psychological—that the issues and ideas that you’re working with have changed, or are they just a steady progression of yourself as you move through your life? It’s a very simple question. That’s a $2000 question.
EF It is [simple]. There are so many ways of answering it. Anybody that would go to the trouble of externalizing their feelings, thoughts, and visions, desperately wants to show somebody else what’s going on inside. I think as a relationship of artist to object, and then object to audience, one [the relationship of artist to object] is a kind of exhalation. It’s sort of a getting outside of yourself these things, these visions, feelings. Then [to] the audience, it’s in like an inhalation. So the object is a pivot point for that exchange. How you seduce an audience into letting themselves go, feeling safe enough or sure enough or whatever to take you in this thing that you’ve created for them … it’s kind of where the art is. That’s how you set up the drama or the not telling too much or allowing the audience to complete the story or associate with the moment, things like that. It’s like how you stop, where you … Because I came out of an educational environment that over-intellectualized the creative process that … actually a culture that fed on having to know. I approached my process of creativity by trying to work backwards from what I knew to what I — not even to what I felt—but to the moment before I started trying to know. Because I think what dramatic experiences do is they make you think. They make you have an experience and then start rushing to figure out what that means, why did I feel that way, as a strategy to get back to that point where all of the sudden words don’t exist, back where the moment is real. That’s where for me the deepest part of my inside is.
AMH As you gain incredible mastery over your craft and your technique and your ability to just render what you imagine, does your vulnerability or the way in which you expose yourself change? Do you feel like you become less vulnerable over time? Or are you still sort of turning yourself inside out, saying, Hey, what do you think!
EF Uh … no. Short answer, no. The things that your craft, the mastery of your craft, make you not vulnerable to is criticism about your craft. I want people to say, He’s a really good painter. But then I want them to deal with what the art is. The art is the actual experience, the drama and stuff. I have to deal with it first. Going back to the Krefeld Project, the paintings, the initial painting I did on them for two years—I’m going into my studio; I’m painting these people. I’m following them around each room. I had this horrible relationship, and it’s getting worse. Room to room, it’s getting worse. There’s, like, missed opportunities. There’s, like, outright scorn. It’s unpleasant. I’m thinking, I am a horrible person. I can’t believe that I cannot make this couple go together in a nice way and have at least one day where it seems okay. There were some days where I was so afraid of going in there and facing that that I wouldn’t. Some days I wouldn’t go in and deal with it. I kept complaining to April about it. She would try to assure me that I was okay.
AMH What do you do when you don’t go into the studio? Like you have a day where you sort of plan to and you can’t, when you’re just up against it?
EF Tennis helps; but then, that’s only a couple hours. Then if there’s tennis on TV, that helps.
EF You know, little things like that.
AMH But I think it is interesting. Whether it’s tennis or something else, even though you’re not painting, you are working on the painting. You are dealing with how you’re going to get the next place in it. I always think that in order sometimes to make work you have to make space, and you have to wait for it to happen sometimes. Sometimes you’re not caught up to it, or it’s not quite caught up to you.
EF And then what do you do? You just—
EF You do tennis? You don’t write poetry or something?
AMH Shopping. I actually—You know what I really—I used to paint.
EF You used to paint?
AMH Very messy, I found it. It’s true. I really did used to paint in my tiny apartment. It’s awful, because it was what I could do when I couldn’t find verbal language. I would find gestural language for things. It was definitely a way of solving problems. Even now—
EF Your writing is so imagistic, first of all. Your sentences are so short that it—
AMH Limited vocabulary is really what it is.
EF Yeah, right! No, it’s a cadence; it’s a rhythm that is not unlike a brushstroke.
AMH It’s interesting, because there definitely is that sense. There’s definitely, over time, you build this language. This becomes a series of language or writing or a series of gestures that you use. There’s an economy to it, I think, at a certain point.
EF So do you ever think, I’d really like to do this florid, huge, brevior sentence?
AMH No. I sometimes accidentally write long sentences, and people read it say, That’s not a sentence. Thank you. Thank you very much. I can’t write something unless I see it. I have to have a visual in my mind. Interestingly, when I painted I only painted abstractly. I could never paint anything real. It was psychological in a sense and problem solving in a sense. One of my next questions, bring it back to you, is about narrative. Clearly narrative in a dramatic tension has been key all along. I’m curious to hear you talk about that, because I do think of you as a storyteller and a psychological storyteller.
EF I mean that was a discovery thing for me. One, because I came out of abstract painting in which I did sort of pretend that this sort of meant something and this sort of meant something. If I painted the edge a certain way, people would understand what that relationship was. Then they would talk about it in terms that had nothing to do with my personal content. I thought, I’m not communicating. But how to construct the story, of what I found, thank God, early on is that I have an associative mind, or an associational mind, where I don’t need much to get started. A chair will do. A particular kind of gesture, which I find sort of mysterious and fascinating simultaneously—somebody turning in a certain way or bending a certain way, something that betrays something to me. But then it’s about finding out exactly how to contextualize that so that my discovery becomes the audiences’ discovery. Then the other thing is that that the … So anyway, it’s a series of questions. Once it starts, it’s like, There’s that person and there’s that chair. Is that person standing near the chair or walking away from the chair? Are they turning their back to the chair? Are they facing the chair? Is that chair important? If it’s not that chair, is it a dog? Is it a person standing next to a dog? At some point these things start to lock themselves into place. Then you go with that. The great thing about art, and certainly the great thing about painting, is that you can make a chair be more real in a situation than the people. You can — through the magic of whatever you can give an inanimate object consciousness. So the whole scene could be expressed and felt through the coffee cup. So it becomes interesting to me how to sort of manipulate how to do these.
AMH An interesting question: How do you know how to do that? How do you know how to make the coffee cup have consciousness?
EF Well, I think that it happens naturally, which is to say [that] the coffee cup is more interesting to you than the person is. An amusing story, amusing still to me, is my most sort of notorious painting Bad Boy, which I literally only knew that I wanted to paint a bowl of fruit. At a certain point, I had the people in the room. At first it was like I was imagining a sort of after-sex, mid-afternoon scene. Southern, Southwestern, sort of stucco, hot outside, cool inside, kind of thing. Siesta time. Post-coital. I put this man in, sort of off to the edge painting.
I put the woman next to him sort of off to the edge sleeping. I’m sort of painting, drawing them in there; I can’t make them fit. So I thought, Well he doesn’t fit. So I erase him. Then her body language was not very active so I rolled her over. But I kept thinking, It’s not just me and her. I’m not just the viewer watching this. There’s other people in the room. So then I thought, Oh, she’s sitting next to a small baby, lying next to a small baby. You know, it’s nap time, et cetera. So I put the baby on the pillow next to her. I couldn’t make it fit, so I got rid of the baby. [I thought,] Well maybe it’s not a baby, it’s a five-year-old kid over to the edge of the bed, sort of poking his fingers through the slatted blinds, you know, peeking out. Didn’t work. Eventually I got him: 11-years-old, standing up, etc. etc. It worked, but it was intuiting that this was—I don’t want to have it be direct contact viewer-to-subject matter, one-on-one. I need an intermediary. That wasn’t articulated except through trying to find a figure that also existed in the same room. That’s part of the drama thing. You have to figure out where you want your audience to be when you show them what you want to show them. If you do a painting of an individual staring out, then it’s direct contact—you and that person. You turn the person, avert the gaze; you create a voyeuristic situation in which the audience is a little more comfortable about peering in with impunity. Although, depending, you could turn it just a little bit that makes it feel like they’re going to turn back and get you. You put two people in that situation and have them interacting in an intense moment; well, now the viewer has a kind of distance where they can feel comfortable in their voyeuristic investigation. It kind of expands out from them. Then you can also play around with like putting stuff between them and you. You can make it easier or harder for the viewer to find their way into that moment.
AMH You know I always think of your work being incredibly cinematic. The way that you’re talking, it sounds very much like the way a director begins to think of a scene. I’m curious to hear a little bit about the influence of cinema both in terms of narrative, but also in terms of things like lighting and just the way you view images.
EF I’ve been way influenced by cinema, by TV, certainly by photography. They all offer up ways of reinvigorating painting. You also have to include theatre in a part of that, in a sense that you pretty much always see the whole scene. The figures are sort of life-sized. So it has that kind of theatrical reality to it that sort of box form.
AMH Are there specific filmmakers and playwrights and directors that you particularly are moved by?
EF Yeah … Well I think that I was influenced by Mike Nichols. The Graduate and Carnal Knowledge. Robert Altman and some of his just offbeat almost surrealist humor to his narratives, Also the sort of banality of his environments. Certainly a lot of playwrights that have that kind of psychological drama appeal.
AMH —I was going to say, Very Pintur-esque—
EF Pintur, and all these … Virginia Woolf, for sure, but also people like Marsha Norman. The thing is—your work deals with this as well—which is that generationally when we were coming up the suburbs was a taboo. It wasn’t seen as a legitimate genre for art. It was totally disregarded. It was a cliché already in so many ways, but an unexplored cliché. So many of our generation came from—and you’re younger than I am—
AMH —But I think that the suburbs—
EF —That came from the suburbs—
AMH Particularly weirdly intimate in the sense that things happened in these houses. It’s private self and public self, what could happen in the sort of mid-range isolation that people experienced in the suburbs.
EF Well also the suburbs is inherently imagistic. It’s utopian; so it’s all about a kind of calm serenity, a kind of “taken care of the lawns, the fences, the neighborliness, etc., etc.” It’s idealistic that way. A lot of it is determined by a lot of people looking at a magazine and saying, I want that kitchen. I want that picket fence. I want this, this, this … kind of thing. Also they don’t want to betray the things that are destroying that utopian vision —the alcoholism, the incest, the whatever, the child abuse, the fun stuff.
EF So I mean that’s what you’re saying—
AMH —I think something interesting that you’re saying about suburbs —
EF —with the inside, outside stuff—
AMH Yeah, but also in the suburbs—you know in the city we’re used to seeing so many people moving through their daily lives. That is one kind of experience. But in the suburbs, there’s something about the fact that if you’re looking out your kitchen window and you see the neighbor leave their house. Everything is thrown into relief. Each motion seems so much larger and so much more notable. So if you see two children playing outside, there is that surprise of seeing how people occupy their space and move through their space. Because each person is so set off behind the background of that idealistic kind of fantasy life.
EF Yeah, so it’s a great place.
AMH Yeah, love the suburbs.
EF It’s still not fully plumbed either.
AMH No. I’m curious to hear a little bit about your feelings about public art. The 9/11 piece you made and the other being the Arthur Ashe piece. Do you have thoughts about the public art versus sort of what I think of as more private art, or art that is not offered up to people in that way?
EF The Arthur Ashe sculpture turned out to be an incredibly positive … The initial resistance to it was eclipsed fairly quickly. First of all, I was so surprised that they’d accepted my ideas for doing this sculpture. You’ve probably never seen it, but I did this large male, nude male, figure in a gesture of the serve (in tennis), which is an incredibly heroic gesture to begin with. You know it’s: one arm is lifted, tossing the ball; the other is reaching back to begin the swing up. There’s a lot of nice metaphors about it. It’s something that fits in very comfortably, I think historically, with the discus thrower, the javelin thrower, the wrestlers, the athletic classical image of physicality and heroism. The sensuous body and heroic form. Tennis is, like, a very conservative group of people. The fact that they would allow this blew my mind. But they bought my spiel. Thank god to Jeanne Ashe, Arthur Ashe’s widow, because she’s an artist as well as a photographer. She got behind it and pushed it through. There was an initial response from the people coming to the tennis center, What is this naked person doing in here? It changed. It took a few voices that they trusted. There was a very funny thing where the TV camera would pan the grounds during the US Open. It would kind of go along, and then it would sort of go up and over my sculpture.
EF Then [tennis pro John] McEnroe, who’s a friend of mine and an art-lover and stuff, he really got behind it and kept saying, You have to shoot this thing. You have to do an interview with me standing in front of it. They [the journalists] eventually began to look at it. They figured out angles where they could show it where the genitalia wasn’t [exposed]—which I wasn’t very discreet about the genitalia anyway; it’s really more of a blur than anything else. Anyway, so that was a positive thing. Then of course, the 9/11 thing was horrendous and really disappointing. I have to say when I was watching the disaster unfold, one of the thoughts that went through my head was, I’m needed; as an artist I’m needed now. If there was ever a reason to try to make something and put it into the public in some way, this was it. Every artist has to respond to this thing. This was a life-changing event. We have to deal. We have to be there to give it form, give it voice, give it some way of understanding this terrible thing that happened. So I started that day trying to figure out expressing something about it. Every medium is different too. I mean photography and video were there right away. They nailed it—what it looked like, these hugely dramatic images, and stuff like that. I would imagine the 9/11 opera is probably going to take a lot longer to figure out how to do. But now we’re starting to see novels come out with that as a background of some kind. There’s movies being made and stuff. So everybody’s responding to it; it just takes time.
Anyway, I came on this image, this form, which was of a tumbling woman. Clearly the falling people were the most unforgettable, most horrifically unforgettable, most sort of jarring in terms of your imagination. What possessed … How bad was it that this was the way they chose? One death over another … . Then there was immediately the taboo of showing it. The weird thing is that they’re the only bodies that we saw. It was amazing how fast that experience—3,000 people dead—all we’re talking about is the buildings. All we’re talking about is the architecture. All we’re talking about is how to memorialize this horrific thing by keeping the exact footprints as though that has anything to do with what actually tragically occurred. So when I found this sort of image—and I say found in my own imagination—not so much a falling thing as a tumbling one, kind of a lateral movement. I felt like it was not just expressing the falling bodies, but it was expressing myself and even American in a state of disequilibrium.
So it seemed right to present it that way. I didn’t think a whole lot past that, in terms of showing it and the reception of it. I’d asked my dealer Mary Boone if she could find a place for it. I thought that the first anniversary was appropriate to do that. I actually thought that there’d be a lot of people expressing their feelings and memories on that day, so it was appropriate to do that. She found a place for it in Rockefeller Center in this concourse area, which was a very publicly traveled. I actually had two choices: I could put it there or I could put it in its own room. I chose to put it in the most public place as opposed to one that isolated it. Mistake number one.
I completely underestimated the intensity of the shock of seeing it. I guess partly because I had lived with it for a year, making it, that initial impact of seeing this vulnerability had kind of left me. So I underestimated when people came on it un-expecting and saw it, that they would be so upset by it. But I was also sure that the longer it stayed there, the more we would understand it. The whole thing of memorialization, of monumentalization of these kind of tragedies is you kind of hang with it till you realize you’re still here. That was then; that happened there. It’s fixed in time and place. You survived it, so you can go on with your life. That’s sort of the way that the thing worked. People were just so not ready to see that in that unexpected way. It was surreal too, because on the day of the anniversary I was walking from my apartment to my studio through Washington Square Park into SoHo. They’re reading the names off. There were people sitting on park benches with their radios, and these names are wafting out. I walk by a pizza parlor, and their names are wafting out. I went into my bank, and the names are wafting out. Then I walked down the street. You could hear the dead everywhere. It was coming out of the drains. You could feel this sort of energy. So it was like the tragedy was in the city; it was the city itself. So the idea that I had to make a sculpture that went into an art context seemed wrong to me. That was part of the critique, Well if you would have put it in a gallery, nobody would have said anything.
AMH I just wonder if it was secretly an uptown/downtown problem. No, but seriously, if it had been in Washington Square Park, if it would have had a different response? Somehow, even on the day of the event itself, there was such a split between people who lived downtown, people who physically experienced it, and people who lived uptown. I mean obviously it was huge, but life in the immediate moment didn’t change. Downtown we had no newspapers for a week, which that had never happened. You couldn’t get in or out. I mean I wonder if downtown would have been more ready for it. I mean, I’m only thinking about that now, but it was very interesting.
EF There is this hierarchy to death, to tragedy—maybe it’s part of the mourning process or whatnot—where those closest to the event have the most honor, in relationship to … They have the most honor, the most privilege, if they were in that place. You lose a wife or a husband or a child or a parent, you’re in the inner circle, the tight ones. So in this case it’s the families who suffered and tragically died, then the fireman and police (that was the second tier), and then the people who were downtown. Below 14th Street they could shut anybody up who was talking about it by going, “Well you know, I lived down on Canal Street.” Then there was Uptown. If you were in Manhattan … I was out on Long Island, so shit, I had no room to talk except for people who lived in Ohio.
AMH But it’s exactly true, they talk about exactly those circles in terms of trauma. The depth of which people are affected by trauma is directly related to the proximity of the event. Obviously the entire country was traumatized, but in radiating circles.
I guess, on that lovely note, we have to probably wind up.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee