Lot 58
  • 58

Eric Fischl

2,000,000 - 3,000,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Eric Fischl
  • The Black Sea
  • signed, titled and dated 1986 on the reverse of each panel
  • oil on canvas
  • 85 x 175 1/2 in. 215.9 x 445.8 cm.


Mary Boone Gallery, New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above in 1986


Mason City, Iowa, Charles H. MacNider Museum, Contemporary Currents, October - November 1987
Des Moines, Des Moines Art Center, March 1990 - October 1994 (extended loan)


David Whitney, ed., Eric Fischl, New York, 1988, no. 75, illustrated in color
Arthur C. Danto, Robert Enright and Steve Martin, Eric Fischl 1970 - 2000, New York, 2000, pp. 160-161, illustrated in color
Eric Fischl and A.M. Homes, Eric Fischl Beach Paintings, New York, 2009, pp. 86 - 87, illustrated in color


This work is in excellent condition overall. The work is comprised of two separate panels that each hang independently but overlap. The right panel has two vertical wood struts attached to the stretcher bars which allow this panel to hang away from the wall at a distance sufficient to overlap the left panel. The canvases are not framed. Left panel: In the top right corner, there are scattered light horizontal rubs that result from contact with the right panel during installation. These range in length from 1 – 4 in. and extending in from the right edge. On the far left edge of the brown towel, there is a small area of stable drying craquelure in the brown paint. Below the right cloud there are small spots of white pigment located 21 ¼ - 23 ½ in. from the right edge from the time of execution. Under ultra violet light, there is an area of retouching located 35 ½ in. from the left and 35 ½ in. most likely by the artist at time of execution. Right panel: Under ultra violet light, there are no apparent restorations to the right panel.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

Eric Fischl's The Black Sea from 1986 is a monumental and magnificent example of the artist's fluid approach to painting.  Bold brush-work and attention to light and shade immediately pull the viewer into the depiction of the seaside scene, a subject that holds seminal importance in the artist's oeuvre.  The series of beach paintings allows the artist more opportunity to deeply investigate the human figure which has been at the core of his oeuvre throughout.  Fischl rose to prominence in the early 1980s with paintings depicting suburban and urban life inhabited by an eerie, uncomfortable program of figurative art that left viewers feeling as if they had stumbled across some private moment between people unknown to them.  As in these interior and domestic scenes, there is no specific or overt narrative at play in his outdoor beach scenes. The grouping of figures rendered in the present canvas is composed of two women and one man, all depicted in the nude.  The group conveys an engaging narrative that leaves us with a host of questions – primarily, what are the relationships among the three and what has happened or will happen between them on this "picture perfect" day at the beach.  We sense Fischl's hidden narratives have considerable meaning for his characters but they serve to alienate the viewer; thereby fuelling the viewer/voyeur dichotomy - a skill that Fischl has so perfectly mastered.  With extraordinary painterly sensitivity for the body, Fischl creates a readable environment with a manipulated underlying psychology.

Fischl brought figurative art to the forefront of painting in the 1980s and reintroduced it as a subject of contemporary aesthetic criticism.  In the present work, there is an erotic and unencumbered expression of desire that animated Fischl's work. The artist selects poses that are realistic and he consistently treats them with a sympathetic touch. There is no equivocation about the lush quality of Fischl's depiction of the human figure or the mastery he commands as an oil painter.  It is in the slippery grasp of his subject matter that Fischl eludes the viewer. The answers to our questions are open to interpretation, but by the very act of asking, one becomes aware that Fischl brilliantly demonstrates how precarious our urge to interpret really is.  What elevates The Black Sea is the nature and intricacy of the various possibilities that could follow the particular instant the artist portrays.  Adding further complexities to our analysis of the present work, Fischl chooses to paint the work on two canvases, isolating one woman on the right panel.  He describes the assembled canvases; "the multi-paneled paintings of the mid-1980s were a dramatic break from the way I used to make paintings.  Time is very much a part of the experience of the works: the time it takes to construct the scene and the time it takes to break it down.  Each painting has its own specific shapes.  For me each panel was like a separate but intact artifact of my memory.  I wanted the viewer to experience the constructing of the scene simultaneous with the discovery of the scene." (Exh. Cat., Wolfsburg, Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Eric Fischl: Paintings and Drawings 1979 – 2001, 2003, p. 33).  The woman at right is a figure that has appeared in a number of small drawings and paintings: with her back turned to the viewer she is almost an androgynous observer and mysterious critic of the scene to her left and establishes a separate togetherness with the narrative.

Deliberately confrontational, the scale of The Black Sea places the viewer in an unavoidable space that teeters between a dream–like fictional world and a commonplace truth.  In addition to the anxiety of the half-glimpsed plot, Fischl employs anathematic compositional perspective.  Fischl's painting clearly is inspired by Picasso's paintings of bathers with parallel groupings and poses among his figures.  While Fischl's work tends more towards Realism and Picasso's toward Surrealism, both artists treat the motif with structure and perspective.  As Jean-Christophe Ammann notes, "Fischl's eye for and perspective of the reality broadly surrounding him has always been something to do with discovering.  This becomes clearly evident in his viewpoint, that is, in the manner in which he selects the detail of the picture or in his composition: as if one unexpectedly entered a room...as if one were sitting a little off to the side in a beach chair and, glancing up from a book, contemplating what was going on (Untersicht, view from below), as if one suddenly became aware of a situation in passing." (Exh. Cat., Saskatoon, Mendel Art Gallery, Eric Fischl: Paintings, 1985, p. 6).  Clearly the psychological remains central to Fischl's undertaking – he takes the innocence of a day at the beach and unearths its darkness.  He manages to maintain a sense of fleshiness, of sexiness even, without observing too closely.  Across the vast expanse of this spectacular painting, Fischl's handling, plasticity and compositional abilities are at their most accomplished, verifying there is no artist better than he at conveying groups of people in complex relationship where sexual dynamics are hinted at yet never explicitly outlined - leaving the viewer to 'finish the story' themselves.