First Sex is a classic example of Eric Fischl's narrative paintings of the 1980s. Fischl, along with David Salle and Julian Schnabel, helped to resuscitate interest in figurative painting at a time when painting was thought to be at a standstill, a dead end. Unlike his two colleagues, Fischl's painting delved deeply into the psychological underpinings of the suburban American family. Not the idyllic family portrayed in advertising of the 1950s and 1960s--the sunny, optimistic view of a boundless, energetic America, working hard to solve the world's problems, dominant in political and social affairs. Rather, Fischl dissects the post-Vietnam America, the middle-class dream gone awry, with its material wealth and trappings creating a thin veneer that could not completely conceal the troubled lives hidden just beneath the surface. His paintings struck a responsive chord among critics and collectors who saw his depictions of adolescent loss of innocence paralleled by America's own corruption of its Arcadian values in the late twentieth century.
The settings in Fischl's paintings--bedrooms, suburban backyards with barbecues and swimming pools, the beach--are chosen for their stereotypical nature. Collectively, we know these places as safe havens, shelters away from the violence and cacaphony of the city. Fischl inverts our vision of idyllic harmony with scenes of suburban depravity created in a realist style that is painterly and lush, in distinct contradiction to their true subjects, the dark taboos of familial relationships. '"I want to give just enough muscle tone or flesh tone, enough of a dose of life, that you don't think about how it was made...That's the kind of realism I admire, and that I'm trying to achieve. At the same time, I want to rely on the force of the narrative, the sensuous thrill or shock or subtlety of the actual moment. This can be strongly conveyed through the indulgence of paint. I want to create a picture in which one can give oneself to the paint as well as to the image"' (D. Kuspit, Eric Fischl: An Interview, New York 1987, p. 36).
Fischl grew up in the suburbs of Long Island, and his childhood was complicated by his mother's alcoholism. '"When you are a child growing up in paradise,...everything that is promised is supposed to be delivered, but when it isn't--when you have a tragedy like a debilitated or invalid parent--it shapes the very foundations of what you do. The tragic fact doesn't correspond to the visual experience of suburban paradise. It doesn't correspond with the things that you're surrounded with, which are supposed to symbolize your life and also to insulate it"' (D. Kuspit, p. 20).
In First Sex, Fischl depicts one of the most troubling scenes of adolescence, the loss of innocence. It isn't the teenagers and the woman who are about to engage in sex that are the central focus of the drama, however. It is the loss of innocence of a child, one who witnesses something beyond comprehension, a scene that is both disturbing and painful. The central figure, around whom the narrative revolves, is the fully-clothed boy in the literal and conceptual center of the painting. His gaze is slightly averted in shame, as a scene of bacchanalian revelry swirls around him. A naked woman--his mother?--offers herself up for sex, her legs spread in the direction of two young boys who are stripping off their clothing, the first boy so anxious that his underwear still hangs around his knees as he moves toward her. A third boy clutches his crotch, howling to the night sky in anticipation. In the background, a fire on the beach has three nude figures standing in its glow, while a nude man chases a nude woman down the beach. The central boy's pose, holding the woman's leg, shows his innocence, his vulnerability, his pain. He is clearly out of place, witnessing something that is taboo beyond his comprehension, an oedipal nightmare of enormous consequence.