What are the odds that three artists would go to the same school and earn degrees at roughly the same time, move to New York City and have their first solo shows, then migrate to the Hamptons to live and work within a half-hour’s drive of each other? OK, an hour’s drive in summer traffic.
Coincidence or destiny?
That question, posed by Parrish Art Museum director Terrie Sultan, is explored in “Unfinished Business: Paintings from the 1970s and 1980s by Ross Bleckner, Eric Fischl and David Salle,” a 40-piece exhibition opening Sunday, Aug. 7, at the Parrish.
“Considering all the circumstances under which lives change through different phases of friendship, we’ve actually stayed quite close,” Bleckner said in an interview with Sultan for the exhibition catalog.
“To give you an idea how much things have changed, I rented a home from Memorial Day to the middle of September for $5,000,” Salle recalls of a three-acre property on Sagg Road in the 1980s.
“As time went on,” says Fischl, “I became more familiar and comfortable with the historical legacy of the artistic community” — the Pollocks, DeKoonings and on and on — “and I found it stimulating.”
“My gosh, that’s really curious to have so much in common in terms of biography,” says David Pagel, who curated “Unfinished Business.” “I like those connections in terms of a group show. Usually the links are so pedestrian, obvious or boring.”
In the early ’70s, when the three artists studied at CalArts in Los Angeles, “Everyone was turning to conceptualism, installations, text-based art, performance, photography — anything but painting,” Pagel says. “Yet being an artist is all about doing what you’re not supposed to do. So they became painters.”
But, we asked, what’s “unfinished” about their art?
“Any work of art worth looking at has an unfinished aspect to it,” Pagel says, “because it’s about the viewer’s reaction to it. That’s why we still look at Rembrandts.”
Why limit the show to their early works?
“These guys got famous so quickly that a critical consensus formed almost immediately,” Pagel says. “Eric’s work was about suburban adolescent sexuality. Ross was deemed a romantic evoking melancholy over loss as a result of AIDS. And Salle got the worst of it — a misogynist pig, some said.”
The works range from figurative to dark abstract, from erotic to tragic, from geometric to narrative. And they range in size from a sketchbook page to 15 by 18 feet.
“This show takes a fresh look at their work with art they created before all these notions about them were formed,” Pagel says, “maybe before even they realized what they were up to — as if they’re at war with themselves, artistically speaking. If these paintings had shrinks, they’d all have issues. Their internal incompatibility makes them work together when you see them all in one place.”