While pondering Sterling Ruby's video installation "The Masturbators" at Foxy Productions in Chelsea, which features several projections of naked male porn stars mechanically masturbating in bare rooms, I had one of those "Eureka!" moments that rarely come to aging white male art critics. The veil dropped from my eyes and suddenly, for the very first time, I could solve all the mysteries of art history.
Mona Lisa's smile? Masturbation. All the higgledy-jiggledy of Nude Descending a Staircase? Duchamp was painting that picture "with one hand," as the saying goes. That depraved look on the face of Gainsborough's Blue Boy? The little fucker was a wanker.
My editor tells me of hearing, many years ago, a famed art critic refer to all those Degas pastels of nudes in tubs with a pantomime of the artist, busily "drawing," saying, "don’t turn around, don’t turn around." And van Gogh's troubles? It was all about masturbation. He was as haunted by his onanism as are the grim subjects in Ruby's videos.
Cubism clearly commenced after an absinthe-fueled wack-off contest between Braque and Picasso, which permanently twisted their vision, just as their mothers had warned them it would. On the other hand, Norman Rockwell was a truly awful artist precisely because he didn't masturbate. Couldn't get his hand of his ever-present pipe.
Andy Warhol’s early work is all about erotic tableaux, up to and including his many "money shots". Then there's Frank Stella's peculiar fixation on masking tape (just kidding, Frank!). And Joseph Kosuth? Don't get me started: masturbatory is his middle name.
But why should the boys have all the fun? I mean, Cindy Sherman? Ha ha ha! And the Louise Bourgeois secret to a long life is not just chain-smoking: she could market a whole line of sex toys based on her work. So thank you, Sterling Ruby, a name that could inspire a few sex toys of its own. Your next sphincter massage from AA Bronson is on me!
"Sterling Ruby: The Masturbators," Oct. 16-Nov. 21, 2009, at Foxy Production, 623 West 27th Street, New York, N.Y. 10001.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).