"Naked Since 1950," Oct. 11-Dec. 8, 2001, at C&M Arts, 45 East 78th Street, New York, N.Y. 10021.
Why since 1950? Well, for one reason, 1950 was the last year Jackson Pollock painted his big, all-over abstractions; after those consummate paintings, his return to figuration the following year seemed abortive, and the resulting abstract figures seemed to have aborted their humanity in the process of trying to give birth to it (but Pollock's figures were abortions from the start -- grotesque monsters more than wholesome human beings).
For another, more important reason, the figure never disappeared, however déclasse it became. As this exhibition indicates, many artists continued to paint and sculpt the human figure, and above all the naked human figure, which has long been a standard academic subject matter. It may have fallen on hard times since the gloriously naked human figures of classical antiquity -- they seem comfortable with their nakedness, as though it confirmed their inherent nobility, while the modern figures here seem self-conscious about being naked, as though it revealed the vulgar emotional truth about them -- but it remains a subject of boundless curiosity, no doubt involving sexual curiosity.
Depictions of the naked human figure undoubtedly afford a certain voyeuristic satisfaction, however physically imperfect -- far from the ideal of fantasy -- the body may be. We all have bodies, and we all wonder what other people's bodies are like, and what it might be like to engage them, one way or another: to spy on them through works of art thus affords a certain vicarious thrill of relationship, even as it affords a certain narcissistic satisfaction, for every other body is implicitly a mirror of our own, even if the mirror doesn't tell us that our body is the fairest of all.
Truth has traditionally been personified as a naked woman -- Bernini's example is famous -- and nakedness in general has been understood as a revelation of raw, vulnerable existence. The body is presented as naked as the day on which it is born, hardly ready to take on the world. The naked body is the moment of truth, and the naked truth is something we prefer to avoid, and often refuse to see, even when it stares us in the face. The naked body thus poses a moment of truth for the viewer: it demands that we strip the veil of preconception from our eyes, forcing them to see what is in fact right in front of them. That is, to really see the naked figure, the eye must become as naked -- exposed or "open," as it were -- as it is.
Whether ironically idealized, as in Roy Lichtenstein's pretty comic strip Nude with Street Scene Painting (1995) or Tom Wesselmann's sexy Great American Nude #58 (1965) -- both are populist academic paintings (the artists formulaically fill in the formulaic space) -- or grotesquely natural, as in Diane Arbus's photography of A Family One Evening in a Nudist Camp, Pa. (1965), Lucian Freud's Naked Portrait with Green Chair and Jenny Saville's Brace (both 1999), the naked figure dares us to see without illusions.
Edward Hopper's Woman in the Sun (1961) is the modern version of the unvarnished Truth: standing in glaring light, which she seems to worship, the stark reality -- barrenness, one might say -- of her body leaves nothing to the darkness of the imagination. In fact, apart from Francis Bacon's pensive Oedipus (1979) and the morbid shadow in Jasper Johns' Untitled (Summer) (1985), almost nothing is hidden by an imaginative fig leaf in the majority of the works.
Philip Pearlstein's Two Standing Models (1974) and Alice Neel's Cindy Nemser and Chuck (1975) are unequivocally what they physically are, as are Robert Mapplethorpe's Bob Love, N.Y.C. (1979) and Charles Edward Bowman, N.Y.C. (1980), who may be sexually provocative, if you incline that way, but the point is that they are upfront. So are the quasi-orgiastic figures groping their way to perversity in Eric Fischl's The Old Man's Boat and the Old Man's Dog (1982) and the young, handsome bodies, standing in the surf, in Larry Clark's Untitled (1970).
To be upfront -- to show it all, with whatever exhibitionistic abandon and artfulness -- is also the point of George Segal's Nude on Couch (on Her Back) (1971) and Lucas Samaras's two Auto-Polaroids (1970 and 1971). Even Jeff Koons's Pink Panther (1988) and Cindy Sherman's 1999 Untitled female doll with her crotch on view, are about showing it like it is, however predictably glamorous or grotesque their rendering of nakedness may be. (Both works have a cartoony look that neutralizes their apparent boldness, reducing them to clever manipulations of form rather than ironical confrontations with a risky, fake-seductive content.)
However attractive, the bodies on view tend to be banal -- or is it banally attractive? -- like those of Andy Warhol's Standing Male (1967) and Nan Goldin's Joana in the doorway looking at Aurele, Château du Neuf, Avignon (2000). The rather boring buttocks -- all the more so because they are repeated, interminably -- in Yoko Ono's Film No. 4 (Bottoms) (1966) says it all. Even bottoms up, the shock of the upfront -- the blatantly naked -- quickly dissipates into tedious familiarity. Surprisingly, many of the works are bourgeois for all their effrontery. The bourgeois are no longer bothered by the naked truth -- by any version of physical reality: nakedness is no longer daring, but another marketable cliché.
Strange as it may seem to say so, the truly irksome nakedness belongs to the abstract bodies -- to Jean Dubuffet's Corps de dame, esplanade de peau (1950), Pablo Picasso's Nu allongé; la sieste (1954), Alberto Giacometti's Femme de Venise VII (1956), Yves Klein's Ant 160 (1960), Willem de Kooning's Two Women (1964), and Richard Diebenkorn's Nude on Blue Ground (1966), among other works. Whatever their manner, medium and mood, these works bring out the mystery, complexity and peculiarly disturbing -- not to say uncanny -- character of the body.
So do the works that use it to symbolize a certain attitude or emotion, for example, Robert Gober's Untitled (1990), a hairy wax buttocks imprinted with bars of music, interpretable as a coy metaphor for gay jouissance (let's make perverse music together, that is, the viewer is invited to play the body part as though it was a musical instrument) and Louise Bourgeois' Pregnant (2001), a lurid doll of a nasty mother-to be, with no arms to embrace her baby, clearly an emotional failure.
All these works show a certain insight into the body's absurdity -- the oddness of its construction, which helps make it endlessly suggestive. It clearly lends itself to innumerable formal and expressive possibilities. In fact, only when the body is used as an expressive device -- as a projection of inner life -- does its nakedness seem significant. It is no longer simply an infinitely manipulable, irreducibly bizarre combination of discrepant parts, but an existential statement. It is only when the body becomes an emotional language that it no longer seems commonplace, as it does in many of the works, even those in which it is rendered with a ruthless facticity.
This exhibition, for all the inventiveness of the artists -- for all the ingeniousness with which they struggle to re-invent or at least re-articulate the body, and for that matter nakedness -- suggests that the body is one of the wonders of nature that no art ever quite does justice to, however much it seems to. It can always move and grow, making it seem fresh and new, while art petrifies it into a momentary absolute.
DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.