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by John Zinsser
|Call it the summer of "pained figuration." Last month in New York, a cluster of unusually strong painting shows re-examined the troubled legacy of post-war portraiture.
Begin with Alice Neel (1900-1984) at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The museum's ad for its survey of Neel's portraits reads: "Isn't it time you summered with the beautiful people?" That hardly seems the artist's original point.
For Neel started out in the 1930s not as a society painter but as a Social Realist. Her period depictions of friends and lovers in Greenwich Village and East Harlem are starkly confrontational. Dour in mood, they share an earnest, dingy palette. Most extreme is her painting of Joe Gould (1933), showing the crazy-eyed writer with three penises attached to his torso.
By the 1960s, working against dominant trends of abstraction and Pop, Neel was delving deeply into psychological territory. Her 1962 portrait of the then-unknown artist Robert Smithson captures an irascible glint in his eye. The paintings got stronger as Neel allowed them to get uglier: Smithson's cheek is rendered with a grossly impastoed knob of paint.
From the 1960s through the '80s, Neel treats canvas like paper, leaving large white areas exposed, outlining flesh with sickly blue contour lines -- pushing the figure/ground tension into literal space.
Her attitude toward her sitters becomes openly confrontational. Curator Henry Geldzahler is cast as a Humpty Dumpty egghead. Andy Warhol is seen exposing his scarred, stitched torso, the result of having been shot by Valerie Solanis. Bad-boy art critic Gregory Battcock is shown in dumpy-looking yellow jockey shorts and red socks -- sitting next to art-scribe guy-pal David Bourdon, himself dressed in natty suit and tie.
Maybe the Whitney's ad is right after all: Neel's paintings will look fresh again to today's People-generation art crowd. It's an audience that demands that art be about biography and have a strong narrative sense. For Neel, those concerns were always her source of strength.
At Salander-O'Reilly Galleries on East 79th Street, a small survey of Neel's contemporary Gandy Brodie (1925-1975) provided a comparative context: another New York tenement dweller who explored realism's rough-hewn possibilities against the grain of prevalent art movements.
Self-taught and said to be inspired by van Gogh's Starry Night, Brodie was encouraged to paint by the critic and art historian Meyer Shapiro, whose lectures he attended at the New School and Columbia.
For Brodie, figuration was a means to explore self-doubt. His portraits and cityscapes are worked and re-worked over time, the surfaces built up into thick, dense accretions.
In the fine Lady from Hanover (1959), an elderly woman engages the viewer with hawk-like intensity. The skin of her clasped hands is rendered in choppy gray-pink strokes with delicate, crisscrossing blue veins. Her blue eyes are rimmed red.
The Astronaut (1967-1974) has NASA Apollo spacemen floating against a mottled blue sky. The mood is strange -- a high-tech image achieved out of consuming hand-wrought struggle.
Brodie, who was re-introduced to the public with two shows at the Edward Thorp Gallery during the past decade, can now be seen as anticipating Lucian Freud and Eugene Leroy, two artists who have exploited the sheer physicality of oil paint to suggest corporeal sensations. Salander-O'Reilly represents Brodie's estate (the pictures are priced in the $25,000-$150,000 range).
Willem de Kooning also turned to the figure in the 1950s and '60s, following a period of purely abstract painting in the 1940s. In "Mostly Women: Drawings and Paintings from the John and Kimiko Powers Collection" at Gagosian at 980 Madison Avenue, a number of studies deal directly with the image of Marilyn Monroe.
The movie star's face, smile and voluptuous body haunt many of the drawings, monoprints and oil-on-paper paintings. She's seen gazing, gaping and grinning devilishly in fleshy, distended landscapes. The figure floats, or stands or kneels -- always on the verge of disintegrating into fully abstract space.
The lushness of the paint and the action of its application become flesh incarnate. Come to think of it, the opulent use of oil paint to evoke female flesh seems to be rather constant at Gagosian, ranging from his Old Master Rubens show in 1995 to his exhibition of Jenny Saville's paintings at his SoHo space in 1999. With this de Kooning outing, the "male gaze" finds a most comfortable home.
A delightful art historical comparison to de Kooning's Marilyns was found in the fine show of Weegee photographic "distortions" mounted at Matthew Marks' 24th Street gallery. Weegee, born Usher Fellig (1899-1968), is mostly known for his grisly but deadpan photos for the tabloids from early in the century.
In this show, however, you see him developing into a late-life dandy, turning the photographic medium into something Surrealistic.
Like Warhol, Weegee was fascinated by the iconic newspaper image of Monroe. Like de Kooning, he distorted her countenance into a liquid puddle. In one work, he obsesses on Monroe's sensual mouth, transforming her lips into a creature unto themselves.
This exhibition shows Weegee in the 1950s and '60s re-inventing himself as a "painterly" photographer, borrowing freely from that medium's freedoms. As such, he anticipates today's crop of photographic re-mixers: Cindy Sherman, Barbara Ess, Adam Fuss and Gregory Crewdson.
Speaking of the current generation, Anh Duong's show of self-portraits at Tony Shafrazi Gallery in SoHo nicely carries the tradition of "pained figuration" into today's milieu. Duong uses herself as a muse.
Painting in the style of mentors Schnabel and Clemente, she shows herself nude or in lingerie, staring blankly out at the viewer -- often paired with a tribal artwork, or exposing her vagina.
She trades on her celebrity status as fashion model-turned-painter. Is this the ultimate vanity project? Maybe. But it works anyway. Duong has a nice touch (much gentler than her macho-man Neo-Ex compatriots) and her spare style has convincing strength.
JOHN ZINSSER is a New York painter and writer.