After rediscovering the nonagenarian painter Sylvia Sleigh a few years ago and exhibiting her contemporary nudes, the wily I-20 Gallery owner Paul Judelson has convinced Sleigh, who is the widow of the seminal critic Lawrence Alloway, to exhibit some of the small portraits of art world luminaries that she painted in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Sleigh stands in odd juxtaposition to two of her contemporaries, Alice Neel, to whose rather herky-jerky style she adds a certain lushness, and Louise Bourgeois, then known primarily as the wife of the influential critic Robert Goldwater, during an era when critics held court like court-appointed librarians at high tea. Just as Neel did, Sleigh painted critic John Perrault, who long ago sensibly retired to the making of art objects, only with his clothes on.
She also depicts the great Life magazine critic David Bourdon, foremost interpreter of Warhol, in a delightful puffy green chemise. Sleigh's primitive style is oddly appropriate for capturing a New York art elite, uncomfortably middle-aged during the Flower Power era and struggling to stay relevant. Hence, dealer Betty Parsons appears to be taxidermied, but Pace's Arne Glimcher is rather sexily on the make in front of a peculiar Ernest Trova mandala.
Sleigh's own husband, the critic Alloway, timelessly relaxes in a minimalist chair. Every painting, especially every painting by Sleigh, is not a masterpiece, for her style is often stiff and her colors formulaic. However, two, in this commendable show, stand out. The first is a self-portrait of the artist, reposed in a blonde bob, with a disturbing look in her eyes, a kind of Betty Friedan-esque resentment at being ignored by the wider carnival of art. The other is an erotic gem, a backwards nude of Elaine Dufor, curling like a snake in anticipation of seduction from the artist who paints her.
In this true masterwork, in which form, brushwork, subtle tones and sexy subject ideally align, Sleigh achieves Nirvana.
Silvia Sleigh, Nov. 5-Dec. 31, 2009, at I-20, 557 West 23rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10011
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).