In 2010, the artists David Salle and Richard Phillips mounted a first-rate show, to which they gave the provocative title “Your History Is Not Our History,” that was about the art of the 1980s. The point of the exhibition, which included, among others, Carroll Dunham and Barbara Kruger, Julian Schnabel and Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince and Eric Fischl, Jeff Koons and Salle himself, was to set the record straight on a messily, and excitingly, varied time. The organizers wanted to show how the large and often representational paintings of the era, which were tagged “neo-expressionist”—and flew in the face of a widely held belief that painting in itself was no longer a vital art form—were part of the same quest for new and more personal approaches as the wry and analytical work of artists (and they were often women) who, at that same moment, were using photography to comment on social issues.
Whether or not the exhibition cleared up the history of the time, it provided a needed new glimpse of a decade or so in our art that, except for a few figures, has not been given its due, certainly not by museums. Thirty years later, they remain leery of taking most of these painters seriously. Although the pictures by Eric Fischl weren’t necessarily the strongest works in the show, they made a real impact on this viewer, perhaps because they were especially well chosen. Now sixty-five, Fischl was a central figure among those who, in the early 1980s, bucked the art world’s notion that oil paintings in the vicinity of six or so feet on a side had become dinosaurs. Even more daringly on his own, he made storylike, or scene, paintings that seemingly were untouched by Cubism, Surrealism, Pop art, or modern art in general. Yet his pictures felt entirely contemporary.
Showing a boy masturbating in a plastic lawn pool at night, or a barbecue underway at a pink ranch house—or adolescents stripping for a slumber party, or people sunbathing at a nude beach—Fischl captured intimate, even hidden moments that hadn’t been seen before in such a way. Much of the force of the works came from the prevalent nudity in the scenes. As in Lucian Freud’s images of sitters placed on mattresses or threadbare sofas, Fischl made nakedness feel like an agent of exposure, possibly even shame. He painted, though, without any of the English artist’s clinical solemnity. If the people in Fischl’s pictures are nude when seen in pools, or in bedrooms or kitchens, it is because we have just come upon them this way—and from painting to painting it was stimulatingly hard to tell if these people were louche or acting naturally for the circumstances.
Fischl’s art had an awakening force as well because he made the …