"The Muse," Jan. 13-Feb. 21, 2004, at Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, 535 West 22nd Street, New York, N.Y. 10011
In her current exhibition, the New York art dealer Leslie Tonkonow, in collaboration with Amy Wolf Fine Art, is reviving the notion of the "muse." The 39 works assembled in Tonkonow's Chelsea gallery, many by the past century's most significant artists, were inspired by someone the artists considered seminal to their creative process. In curating this exhibition, Tonkonow demonstrates the depth and plasticity of a muse's identity.
In the 1980s and '90s, feminist scholars belittled the ideal of the artist's muse, rejecting it as a stifling supporting role relegated to women whose own creative urges had been suppressed or subsumed into their relationships with their artistic male partners. Revisionist feminist scholarship resurrected the neglected art of famous muses, like Frida Kahlo and Lee Krasner, as worthy of attention on its own merits, but, feminists had little patience for the notion that being a muse might be creative in itself.
Tonkonow's "The Muse" provides a compelling rebuttal to this aspect of feminist thinking, through a varied selection of work from 1908 to the present. As evident by Tonkonow's curatorial decisions, the role of the muse is not always subordinate, or merely romantic, and often the links between artist and muse are bonds of mutual respect instead of disproportionate sacrifice.
The most interesting challenges to the concept of the muse as frustrated artist are the works dedicated to the late cellist and performance artist Charlotte Moorman, created by Joseph Beuys, Peter Moore and her collaborative partner, Nam June Paik. Beuys' Infiltration Homogen fur Cello, a cello wrapped in felt, is a loving synthesis of their signature mediums. Moore's photographs of Moorman (also on view at the Sonnabend gallery) document three of her performances with Paik. In one of them, Moorman is seen solemnly playing Paik's naked back, as if he were a living cello. In another, she wears goggles and runs her bow over a stack of televisions. The third photograph is a more standard portrait which shows a smiling Moorman with Paik sitting by her feet.
Paik's celebration of Moorman is a still frame of her contemplative face, taken from an interview in Paik's single channel video project, Global Grove. And then, Moorman's own muse appears in the form of a neon outline of her cherished cello.
Tonkonow has expanded the concept of the muse to include works devoted to celebrity obsession. The watercolor and ink drawings of Isadora Duncan by the American Modernist painter Abraham Walkowitz, part of the series of hundreds that he executed between 1908 and 1928, are a worshipful homage made by a fan who never knew Duncan intimately. Walkowitz depicts a faceless Duncan frozen in poses he might have admired from her numerous performances. Though his connection with her was distant, he depicts her muscular, solid body, draped in her signature Grecian robes, with enormous emotion. In one image she stands in mourning, as straight as a column with her face hidden behind her hands. In another sketch, she swaggers across the page thrusting her powerful arms forward like a hulking Athena.
Similar star worship is found in works by Elizabeth Peyton, Andy Warhol and Deborah Kass, artists whose breathless adoration of other, often lesser artists or beauties is central to their own creative agendas. Of all the images that Peyton has created paying homage to lithe, limpid rock stars, junkies and pretty boys, Tonkonow displays Sid, Peyton's soft rendering of the punk rock idol Sid Vicious.
A black-and-white strip of photo-booth snapshots depicts Warhol superstars Susan Bottomly, known as International Velvet, and Gerald Malanga. Both preen with a cool mixture of glamour and artlessness, demonstrating why they were members of Warhol's muse collective, the Factory. Nearby, a 1965 Warhol silkscreen print of Jackie Kennedy represents his worship of more iconic and unattainable celebrity. Deborah Kass' 1993 Jewish Jackie, for which Kass painted Barbra Streisand Warhol-style in a grid of brightly colored images, proves once again that imitation is the best form of flattery.
In contrast to these distant icons are images of artists' family members. New York artist Tracey Baran photographs her mother lovingly caressing the neck of a blind horse she rescued from the glue factory. Mothers also figure prominently in other work. Fluxus artist Larry Miller underwent hypnosis in order to become possessed with the spirit of his mother, something most people go to psychiatrists to avoid. While in a trance, he drew self-portraits of himself and his mother and afterwards created smaller versions, whose basic lines recall cave drawings, illustrating the primacy of the mother/child bond.
A more traditional muse/artist relationship is represented by the 12 artists who used their spouse or lover as their model. In two photographs from the 1940s, Eugene von Bruenchenhein shows the world how proud he is of his pretty, young wife, who poses topless like Bettie Page, Bunny Yager's luscious muse. Paul Cadmus' 1996 crayon drawing, John Straddling an Old Chair, shows a man's firm, graceful body as a paragon of Roman beauty, while Alex Katz's crisp, breezy portrait of his elegant wife, Ada, standing in a serious pose on a beach is an ode to New England domesticity. The strangest portrait is Beverly Semmes' dreamy photograph of her husband wrapped in an orange hooded costume, which makes him look like a cartoon llama set adrift in a small raft on a misty lake. William Wegman's portrait of his canine muse Man Ray, the dog who inspired his art and names of his subsequent Weimaraner breed models, is also included.
Collier Schorr's Forest Bed Blanket (Red Ribbon) bridges the divide between hero worship and homage to a loved one. Like Kass, Schorr mimics a historical artist's motifs, this time Andrew Wyeth, but she uses as her model a young boy who she knew and personally admired. Her model replaces Wyeth's beloved muse Helga, in photographs meant to replicate the image and mood of Wyeth's Helga series. By associating the boy with Wyeth's adoration of Helga, Schorr reiterates the inherent conundrum of the muse's role in which a biographer is rarely more famous than his or her subject, but an artist is often more known and admired than the muse that inspires him.
The exhibition culminates with Carrie Mae Weems' 2001 photolithograph Not Manet's Type of a nude woman turned away, facing a bed, as seen in a circular mirror. Under this photograph are printed the words, "It was clear/I was not Manet's type/Picasso -- who had his way with women -- only used me/& Duchamp never even considered me." As with Weems' body of work examining the dual role of race and gender in art, culture, personal relationships and history, this piece is provocatively poetic as she declares her muse to be herself, her heritage and her own significant talent.