Saturday, August 1st, 2009

Paint Made Flesh at the Phillips Collection

June 20 to September 13, 2009
1600 Twenty-First Street, NW
Washington DC, 2020 387 2151

Philip Guston. Web, 1975. Oil on canvas, 67 x 97 1/4 in. The Museum of Modern Art, Gift of Edward R. Broida. © Estate of Philip Guston, courtesy of McKee Gallery, New York. Photograph © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY.
Philip Guston, Web, 1975. Oil on canvas, 67 x 97 1/4 in. The Museum of Modern Art, Gift of Edward R. Broida. © Estate of Philip Guston, courtesy of McKee Gallery, New York. Photograph © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY.

1967 was the summer of love.  2009 – despite the weather – was the summer of flesh.  On the eastern seaboard of the United States, that is, and in selected art galleries.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston sported some of the most libidinally charged rooms of painting in recent art world memory in the exhibition, Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice.  Sumptuous naked flesh was paraded before viewers rather in the way the three goddesses vied for Paris’s apple, with such glories as Titian’s Danaë from the Capodimonte, the same violated princess by Tintoretto from Lyon, and scrumptuous Venuses before the Mirror by Titian (National Gallery of Art) and Veronese (Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska.)

When Willem de Kooning famously quipped that “flesh was the reason that oil painting was invented,”  he was of course referring to the Northern tradition, and the mythic inventor of oils, Van Eyck.  But if the Flemish masters who pioneered the new material used it with exquisite skill in the depiction of pearly skin and attendant (contrastive) fabrics, it was thecolorito early-adopters on the Adriatic a century later who truly consummated the equation of painterliness and fleshiness, the voluptuous correspondence of visual and tactile satisfaction.

New York’s contribution to the skin fest of ’09 took the form of a Francis Bacon retrospective.  Bacon is the artist who spoke of wanting to create “rivers of flesh” in his paintings, and who dramatically reified that ambition through metaphorical gouging of faces and literal splurges of paint on otherwise fastidiously neat, dry surfaces.  Also in New York, no rival to the Venetian rivals but a scintillating summer treat nonetheless, was an eclectic orgy of an exhibition, Naked, organized by Adrian Dannatt and hung cheek by jowl at Paul Kasmin Gallery.

John Currin. The Hobo, 1999. Oil on canvas, 40 x 32 in. Collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Museum purchase, Contemporary Collectors Fund. Photographer: Pablo Mason.
John Currin. The Hobo, 1999. Oil on canvas, 40 x 32 in. Collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Museum purchase, Contemporary Collectors Fund. Photographer: Pablo Mason.

But for the apotheosis of this idea of equivalence we must turn further south, to the Phillips Collection in Washington DC, with Paint Made Flesh, an exhibition entirely premised upon de Kooning’s dictum.  This show surveys the postwar love affair between a material painters use and the material all of us are.

Curated by Marc W. Scala, Chief Curator at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, Tenn. where the exhibition originated, Paint Made Flesh kicks off with Picasso and proceeds, via assorted Americans, German Neo-Expressionists and three generations of School of London painting, inexorably in the direction of John Currin, Lisa Yuskavage and the German Daniel Richter.  It was a stimulating show and surprisingly late in coming, considering how relevant the subject has been since at least the 1980s.  Of course, the major international surveys of that decade such as the New Spirit in Painting in London and Berlin (1981) laid the ground for the fleshly commonality between expressive realist groups and schools (and individuals) of markedly disparate intentions and politics.

Late Picasso is a perfect place to start because this period of his work is like a Janus face looking in two directions, back at his own career (and life) and forward to a resurgence in painterly, old master-obsessed, “bad” – as in late, indulgent, sloppy, nonchalant, near-impotent, desperate, and bravura – painting.  “The Artist and His Model” (1964) locates meditation on age and youth in the studio, a place where paint and nakedness cohabit.

De Kooning himself is represented by one of his classic “Woman” paintings of 1953-54 (Brooklyn Museum), a work in which the urge to engage with the body both subverts and consummates abstract expressionism.  A pair of tall, thin works in oil on paper mounted on canvas from 1966 and 1971 more forcefully get across the sensation that the actual matter on the canvas is flesh, rather than just being fleshlike.  The reds and whites and resultant, commingling pinks show De Kooning in joyful and ecstatic mode.

A somewhat ghoulish corner at the Phillips, a sideshow in the Carnival sense (carne valeindeed) has a Soutine-recalling dissection painting by Hyman Bloom, a mercilessly macabre self-portrait of Ivan Albright, and a coquettish pair of vaudeville performers by Jack Levine.  The main thrust, on the other hand, of the trajectory of De Kooning’s corporeality is taken up by Alice Neel and David Park in  paintings where emphatic impasto both works with and against the succulent smear of brushstroke, as in the flick of lighter paint on the dark forehead of “Randall in Extremis” (1960) by Neel, to depict and to express.   Philip Guston, in MoMA’s “Web” (1975) takes his cue from De Kooning in distending fleshtones across the composition, as if the tone cannot be contained by the body but bleeds all-over.  The tremulous, fidgety, awkward unease of little brushstrokes conveys angst about the human condition and alienation from the flesh. Guston’s touch, palette and attitude find direct reverberation in paintings by Susan Rothenberg that hang across the way in the show’s largest gallery, filled with German and American Neo-Expressionists.

In this central gallery the show’s curatorial thrust dissipates, as there seems almost to be some kind of obligation to include all and sundry member of the latter school regardless of whether the individuals, or the works selected, pull their bodily weight.  Sure, there are bodies in A.R. Penck’s grafitti stick figure monochrome “Sketch” (1983) or Markus Lüpertz’s Wilfredo Lam-ish personages in “Springtime (After Poussin)” (1989), but there isn’t much flesh on them.

Bacon and Freud, whose paintings share somber, dingy, studied interiority, appropriately get to share a closet of a small side gallery.  Freud, like Bacon and De Kooning, spoke words that pay his dues, so to speak, to the ethos of this show when he said: “I want my paint to work as flesh.”  In his tortuously slow (to make, to see, to sit for) figure studies, such as “Standing by the Rags” (1988-89), on loan from the Tate, the paint is mottled and encrusted at those places, such as the face or breasts, where the burden of perceptual truth exacted its (literally) heaviest toll.  Bacon, exploiting speed and chance, splatters glistening paint on otherwise dry, calculated surfaces to generate a visceral, heightened sensation of naked presence.

Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach, with their extreme collisions of the haptic and optic dimensions of paint, get to share a room with two young (and more to the point female) Turks who extend the School of London aesthetic into funky, postmodern/neo-conceptual terrain: Cecily Brown and Jenny Saville.  Brown is given her perfect – you could say, her sink or swim – art historical context here, with the insolently agitational anti-aesthetic of Albert Oehlen ahead, and the expressionist forebears upon whom she habitually riffs behind.  With two choice pieces from 2001 and 2002, I’d say she swims.  Jenny Saville, however, whose “Hyphen” (1999), a self-portrait with her sister, is sported on the catalogue cover, dives.  Sure, it is an arresting image, in scale, intensity of gaze, and emotional ambivalence.  She too has said the right things to warrant inclusion: “paint mixed a flesh color suddenly became a kind of human paste;” her work uses “pots of liquid flesh.”  Conceptually, she probes relevant issues of fat as a feminist issue, of contested notions of balance and beauty in the female body.  But she presents an academic rendering of flesh in an art historically polite realist idiom that is too slick and formulaic to do more than illustrate her themes.  In a show that is all about fleshlooking like paint, and paint being like flesh, hers are simply paintings of flesh that look like painting.

Jenny Saville. Hyphen, 1999. Oil on canvas, 108 x 144 in. Private Collection, Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery.
Jenny Saville. Hyphen, 1999. Oil on canvas, 108 x 144 in. Private Collection, Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery.

The same criticism can be extended to some of the other young artists who conclude the show such as Lisa Yuskavage, John Currin and Michaël Borremans: their works are about style, technique, the power of images, the language of art; Currin’s “The Hobo” (1999) is delectable in its rendering of thin fabric over an arousingly taut, lithe body.  But each of these artists, in their painterly finesse, are, so to speak, skin deep.  In their actual handling of paint there is an absence of incarnation.

It is not that the paint has to be laid on thick to be somatic: after all, bodies are contained and smooth, like paintings, in their way.  The silken surface of Francesco Clemente’s “Self-Portrait with Two Heads” (2002) intimates the voluptuous sheen of flesh; Eric Fischl’s weirdly absent, ethereal “Frailty is a Moment of Self-Reflection” (1996) uses the slipperiness of paint to evoke a sense of imminent demise.

It is disappointing, though, that a show that opens with the radical fleshly abstraction of De Kooning becomes an apology, fairly quickly, for increasingly conservative figurative painting.  The rendering of skin is one way in which flesh can be made in paint.  But abstract painters can also be attuned to bodily sensation, the feel and smell of flesh, the distilled resonances of old master painting.  Sean Scully and Howard Hodgkin are painters who get right to the bare bones of flesh.  Either would have been a powerful way to conclude this show.

other exhibitions mentioned in this review:

Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, March 15 to August 16, 2009, and at the Musee du Louvre, Paris, September 14, 2009 to January 4, 2010

Francis Bacon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, May 20 to August 16, 2009; previously at Tate Britain, London, and the Prado, Madrid

Naked at Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York, July 9 to September 19, 2009