The art scene in America experienced an epochal shift in the 1980s, when figurative painting asserted itself as the dominant aesthetic language. After over three decades dominated by the deconstruction of traditional supports, Abstraction and subsequently Conceptualism, an exploding downtown New York art scene combined with an avant-gardist hotbed on the West Coast–with its epicenter at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts)–demanding a reckoning with new American contemporary life. Artists including Julian Schnabel, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Sherrie Levine, Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, Keith Haring, revisited the legacies of Pop and Abstract Expressionism to confront the most urgent social issues at that time, ranging from gender inequality, to the realities of American suburbia, and the AIDS epidemic. Eric Fischl and David Salle, two classmates at CalArts, belong to this pivotal historical moment. The essential tension of their figurative works is captured persuasively by the art critic James Cahill, who astutely recognized their status as “bear[ing] dispiriting witness to an ultra-refined social performance in which narcissism and rivalry are sublimated into a delicate, mannered set of relations” (J. Cahill, “Eric Fischl at Victoria Miro,” Art in America, 2014).
David Salle always aimed to create difficult images. He explained, “I’ve always had a tremendous problem with authority […] if I’m supposed to walk this way, something makes me want to go off in the other direction” (D. Salle, “Thirty Years After: A Conversation Between Hal Foster and David Salle,” David Salle: Ghost Paintings, Chicago, 2013, p. 47). As beautifully exemplified by Folded (Mirror), the images he uses reflect the larger narratives related to appropriation and representation in art, simultaneously undermining facile art historical references. The positive/negative man depicted in the two central panels, reminds us of a familiar late renaissance bucolic scene, which is enlivened with the schematic outline technique–one also employed by Warhol in his ‘do-it-yourself’ paintings aided by an overhead projector. In turn, the curtain drawn against a flat background, juxtaposed with the decontextualized outlines of insects and folded paper in the lateral panels, hint at Salle’s Dadaist fascination with symbolism–one he shared with important influences including Francis Picabia.
Speaking of how his suburban childhood informed his work, Fischl explained that “the dysfunction behind freshly painted doors across perfectly manicured lawns mocked my feelings of chaos beneath” (A. Abrams, "The View from Sag Harbor: Q+A with Eric Fischl," Art in America, 2012). Catboy (1987), a multi-panel painting composed of three overlapping elements, captures a sense of fear, dissatisfaction and embodies many of the concerns of his generation. Belonging to an early series produced between 1983 and 1989 (also present in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art) Catboy, invites the viewer to witness an intimate scene, one imbued with farce. Not only is the boy solitary, masked and bearing a reserved posture in a bare and empty room, but all elements present in the piece have been carefully and artificially positioned. The mise en scène transcends mere technical mastery to imagine the deeply American story Fischl portrays.