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Anh Duong & Simone DePury, painted by Eric Fischl

Now, as the Occupy Wall Street movement continues to agitate against grotesque concentrations of wealth at the top end of the social food chain, Mr. Fischl is having a lavish, two-gallery exhibition of two decades of portraits of the rich, powerful and famous friends and benefactors that his celebrated career has enabled him to attract. What, any sentient viewer must wonder, were he and Mary Boone thinking?

March 1, 2012
We’re Fabulous, but Are You?
By KEN JOHNSON/New York Times
In recent years Eric Fischl has displayed a remarkable obliviousness to possible perceptions of his work. In 2000 he created a memorial to the tennis star Arthur Ashe in the form of a giant, Rodinesque bronze sculpture of a lumpy, naked man in the act of serving. Installed outdoors at the National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, Queens, it became for many fans of the game a source of consternation that the figure was nude, did not resemble Ashe and held in one hand only the stump of his racket.

In 2001 he produced a bronze sculpture to honor victims of the World Trade Center attacks in the form of a naked woman on her back with upward flailing arms and legs. Titled “Tumbling Woman,” it looked like a gymnast who had fallen off her apparatus. But as presented on the floor of the underground concourse of Rockefeller Center in 2009, it all too obviously called to mind images of people who fell or jumped to their deaths from the upper floors of the twin towers. In response to complaints, the center’s administrators quickly had it curtained off and then removed.

For his 2009 exhibition at the Mary Boone Gallery, Mr. Fischl showed a series of large, romantically heroic paintings of bullfighting scenes. Differing opinions about murderous contests between men and animals aside, the works seemed weirdly disconnected from anything a contemporary New Yorker might consider relevant to realities of modern life.

Now, as the Occupy Wall Street movement continues to agitate against grotesque concentrations of wealth at the top end of the social food chain, Mr. Fischl is having a lavish, two-gallery exhibition of two decades of portraits of the rich, powerful and famous friends and benefactors that his celebrated career has enabled him to attract. What, any sentient viewer must wonder, were he and Mary Boone thinking?

A painting in the foyer of Ms. Boone’s Chelsea location is woefully emblematic. Based, like all his portraits, on a photograph and painted in Mr. Fischl’s signature, lushly sensuous style, it pictures the model, actress and artist Anh Duong lying naked across the lap of the elegantly dressed Simon de Pury, the auctioneer and co-star of Bravo’s reality television series “Work of Art: The Next Great Artist.” A blasphemous Pietà, it flaunts a sophisticated but pointless decadence.

In the main gallery are group portraits of Mr. Fischl’s grinning, unnamed friends posing for the camera in bathing attire in the glaring sunlight of St. Barths; the painter Francesco Clemente and his family; the singers Paul Simon and Edie Brickell; the model Stephanie Seymour and her naked little girl Lily Margaret; and the collector and Los Angeles real estate mogul Eli Broad.

The uptown gallery finds the collectors Kent and Vicki Logan relaxing with their dogs in their art-filled living room; the director Mike Nichols smoking; the tennis star John McEnroe and his family on a rooftop overlooking Central Park; and smaller portraits of artists and writers, including Chuck Close and E. L. Doctorow.

A sympathetic viewer might consider it unfair to make a big deal about the social status of Mr. Fischl’s subjects. We don’t care who the sitters are in works by Rembrandt and Eakins, so why should we here? In this sense Mr. Fischl set himself a challenge with a high degree of difficulty: to make portraits so beautiful, inventive and beguiling, so deeply probing of their subjects’ souls, that we overlook the boldface names.

Some paintings come close to achieving that. A feeling of mysterious anxiety pervades a large picture of the comedian Steve Martin in a gray suit and white shirt sitting on an outdoor swinging bench. His face is bleached by sunlight to a ghostly pallor heightened by deep background shadows; his wife, Anne Stringfield, stands to the side in a red ball gown looking at us askance, as if we’d interrupted a tense conversation.

A painting of the novelist and screenwriter Richard Price and his loved ones in and out of a swimming pool exudes a curiously strained, noirish feeling, like a scene from a movie about high-rolling gangsters.

But the psychologically resonant works are outnumbered by those that dress up nondescript photographic images with suave brush work, and the cumulative effect is of a gated community that ordinary folks are allowed to see into only from a distance.

There is a larger lesson to be gleaned from all this. When the experience of art goes well, there is a kind of social contract in effect between artist and viewer that produces what you might call reciprocal empathy. As a viewer, you feel you are in on whatever problems the artist is working on. This can happen in conservative or avant-gardist terms, and the issues can be technical, psychological or philosophical.

But you know that the artist is doing his best to make himself clear to himself and, in turn, to you, the average, reasonably intelligent viewer. A sense of spiritual kinship emerges. When the experience goes badly, the viewer is made to feel dumb, uncool, tricked, morally deficient, politically incorrect or excluded from whatever social circle the artist is speaking to and for.

In the dreamlike scenes of Oedipal distress that Mr. Fischl created in the early ’80s, a viewer could sense how urgently he was trying to paint his own fears, desires and confusion. You could identify. Now that he has seemingly mastered his craft and his feelings, it is hard to empathize. The contract has been broken.

“Eric Fischl: Portraits” will be on view through March 17 at the Mary Boone Gallery, 745 Fifth Avenue, at 57th Street, and 541 West 24th Street, Chelsea; (212) 752-2929, maryboonegallery.com.

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