"Reconfiguring the Body in American Art, 1820-2009" -- a seemingly limitless survey of body imagery from the collection of the National Academy Museum -- reminds us that the body, whether male or female, clothed or unclothed, is a staple of art, and, however reconfigured, is hard to figure out. The abundance of works in every medium, the varieties of poses and situations in which the body is placed, suggests that there is no one correct way of perceiving it and placing it in space, being too much a space and place of its own to fit comfortably let alone seamlessly into surrounding space. The body has an esthetics of its own, and is its own medium, whatever estheticizing style is imposed on it by the artist.
The point is made particularly clearly by the modern, more or less abstract works in the exhibition, for example Jacob Lawrence’s Self-Portrait (1977), where his body resists its Cubist flattening into planar fragments, as the prominent head -- its projective power not compromised by its mask-like character -- suggests. The survey includes a whole section of self-portraits, all suggesting that the artist’s ego is a reflection of his body. Thus, Thomas Hart Benton’s tough-mindedness -- not to say defiant arrogance -- seems to echo his hardy body and outdoorsman-look, while Will Barnett’s tender-mindedness -- his modest demeanor and composure -- suggest that he’s physically more at ease in the studio than in the outside world.
These self-analytic works are among their best, and seem to show them as role models for other artists. If I am correct in thinking that artists want to show other artists the way before they want to show the public the way, then the self-possession and integrity evident in Benton’s and Barnett’s self-portraits show that it is possible to go one’s own independent creative way whatever the current trend -- not become a victim of a trend in an art world in which trendiness seems to have become all. If nothing else, the exhibition makes it clear that the artist is always trying to tell the naked truth about what it means to be an artist in an art world that is often more narrow-minded -- not to say antagonistic or indifferent to his or her art -- than the more welcoming larger world, when he or she is trying to tell the truth about what it means to have a body and face, the most naked and truth-telling part of the body.
However subtle the artist’s handling of the medium -- evident in the numerous sketchbook drawings in the exhibition -- the body is still more subtle. As work after work unwittingly shows, fixed geometrical space -- especially that of the canvas but also the clearly demarked space of a room -- and flexible organic body are at odds. Even the landscape and the body are not organic in the same way, however equally natural, as Henry Siddons Mowbray’s L’enfant Bacchus (1880) makes clear. In general, it is emotionally awkward to place a full-bodied figure on the flatbed of a canvas, however technically well it is done. The unresolved tension between the body and its spatial setting is one reason representations of the body are exciting and provocative -- whatever the manner of the representation -- apart from the fact that we cannot stop ourselves from projecting our feelings about our own body into the represented body, giving it uncanny expressive life. And, of course, we are always curious about other people’s bodies, which often seem more real than our own because we can see them as objects -- even as we invest our subjectivity in them -- while we can never be completely objective about our own body.
The female body seems particularly hard to frame, contain, confine in space: the parallel lines that form the top and bottom of the couch on which Kenyon Cox’s A Blonde (1891) is placed as though on a Procrustean bed do little to restrain the curve of her volupruous body and plush mass of her buttocks, and the projecting nipple of the veiled nude in Alyssa Monk’s Vapor (2008) suggests not simply her seductive allure but the unrestrainable desire implicit in her naked body. The female figure invariably has a greater presence than the male presence, as Alpheus Cole’s The Blank Canvas (1937) and Natalie Frank’s Painting (2008) make clear, not only because she’s the male artist’s model or an object of desire, as in Howard Ridley’s The Charm of 5:30 (2009), but because the curvilinear geometry of her body is alien to the rectilinear geometry of the canvas, and inherently more complex.
This is a hodgepodge of an exhibition, with a great many empirically descriptive works, and a few "mystifyingly" flashy, for example, Ed Paschke’s Tuti Fruiti (2001), a tattooed face of a club queen. But what was most striking, at least to me, was how, as the body left its neo-classical anchorage in the 19th century and became more everyday, it seemed to lose dignity along with its anatomical structure, becoming more like a cheap cut of indigestible expressionist meat, if sometimes cleanly cut and filleted into boneless planes. Increasingly, as the 20th century works suggest, the body had nothing but its exhibition value to go on, which suggested that it no longer had any emotional surplus value -- sublime value. The whole tragedy of modern art is right there.
"Reconfiguring the Body in American Art, 1820-2009," July 8-Nov. 15, 2009, at the National Academy Museum, 1083 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10128
DONALD KUSPIT is distinguished professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.