The sexually-charged melodrama painted by Eric Fischl in The Visit II makes it one of the most compelling paintings of his career. In this early interior painting of 1981, Fischl’s heightened sexual tension reaches fever pitch. Set within a sparsely-furnished, darkened room, Fischl depicts two unabashedly naked women who lie upon a bare mattress, their discarded clothing strewn about the floor while a young boy looks on. Here Fischl straddles the line between the frankness of nudity and the taboo of sexual perversion, a common hallmark of his most acclaimed paintings such as Bad Boy, 1981 and Sleepwalker, 1979, which both depict the adolescent boy as a recurring character. In The Visit II, the contrast between the women’s wanton sexuality and the innocence of the boy creates a shuddering unease. Indeed, the painting channels our deepest desires and most latent fears, creating a thrilling voyeurism that knits together the loneliness of Edward Hopper with the sexuality of Balthus and the psychological intensity of Hitchcock. As Donald Kuspit has written, Fischl’s “pictures are stage sets on which we can act out the fiction of our most hidden selves” (D. Kuspit, “Introduction,” FISCHL, New York, 1987, p. 7).
Spartan in its limited imagery, yet lush in its painterly expression, Fischl lavishes upon the nude figures the delicate daubs of his loaded brush, paying particular attention to their pale, naked flesh. Their mysterious accoutrements linger nearby; a fully-packed suitcase, opened to reveal its contents, sits upon the floor next to an old-fashioned fan, while a glowing color television illuminates the figures’ pale skin. Alongside the mattress, the women’s discarded clothing—pink underwear, an orange tank top—are strewn about the floor. Typical to his paintings of this era, Fischl’s portrayal of the nude women accentuates the fleshiness of their bodies, and the young boy’s presence in the room creates a profound sense of alarm. The young boy lingers on the periphery, witness to private encounters outside of what’s appropriate for his age.
The Visit II shares several similarities with Fischl’s epic masterpiece Bad Boy, painted the same year, in which an adolescent boy is confronted with the lascivious body of a nude woman, who lies spread-eagle on a disheveled bed. In both The Visit II and Bad Boy, the artist juxtaposes the innocence of youth with the brazen nudity of the older woman, set within a dimly-lit interior. Indeed, the boy is a poignant recurring character from his early paintings, appearing in several important works. In The Visit II, Fischl exaggerates the innocence of the boy, rendering him with a scrawny pre-pubescent body and tight white underwear. His appearance is such a contrast to the libidinous, womanly sexuality of the nude women that it provokes a shock, verging on obscenity without wholly veering into that realm.
Peter Schjeldahl has claimed that the recurring boy character actually represents Fischl’s alter-ego, and indeed, Fischl drew on the troubled relationship that his alcoholic mother played in his young adolescent life (as a child, he recalls coming home from school to find his own mother passed out). For the artist though, the boy character represents the moment of innocence in a child’s life before the full weight of adulthood—and adult sexual situations—bears down with all its emotional and psychological weight. Here, Fischl captures the strangeness of seeing an adult female body for the first time, in all its corporeal mystery. It evokes the moment of sexual awakening, of a young boy’s journey as he crosses over from child to young adult. The artist recalled: “The point of view of the work is of a child looking at an adult situation.... I paint a kind of suburban garden of Eden in which sexual awakening and self-discovery occur” (E. Fischl, quoted in “An Interview with Eric Fischl by Donald Kuspit,” in D. Kuspit, ibid., p. 35)
Like the famed American modernist Edward Hopper, Fischl delves beneath the surface of things to reveal a common inner truth. His paintings often convey the sense of malaise that pervades modern life and the desperation for human contact that lies at the heart of our most hidden fears and insecurities. For Fischl, the particularly American sense of isolation that he experienced growing up in the suburbs proved especially troubling, considering his alcoholic mother and often absent father. He recalls: ”Everyone tried to live up to the image of the kind of ideal life promised by the look of the suburban scene and invested all their feelings in that effort. And when life wasn’t so ideal, the feelings suffered all the more… I realized that what I had going inside me was out of kilter with what I was seeing. My feelings didn’t match up to what I think of as a visual projection of how you should feel and how you should order life. So I felt completely displaced. I remember that this was how I felt as a child. This was what I felt like in the suburbs” (E. Fischl, quoted in D. Kuspit, ibid, p. 21).
Though Alfred Hitchcock has been described as “the master of suspense,” the phrase might also apply to Fischl, whose captivating scenes provoke more questions than they provide answers. As the preeminent art critic Peter Schjeldahl has written, “The truth of the picture comes in waves, in a way typical of Fischl’s work: you think you “get it,” but then you get it again, and yet again, riding an emotional escalator” (P. Schjeldahl, “Witness,” in D. Whitney, ed., Eric Fischl, New York, 1988, p. 24) Indeed, like Hopper’s haunting interior scene, Fischl’s tableaux hinge upon their relationship with the viewer, who is forced to puzzle out their meaning by searching deep within their own subconscious thoughts. Again, Donald Kuspit writes “Fischl’s pictures seem to promise us a clarity about complex issues, but in fact suggest depth of a complexity that can never be fully deciphered. It is this that makes his pictures particularly opaque dreams, abysses of meaning we can never quite climb out of once we have accepted their terms” (D. Kuspit, op. cit., p. 7).