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by Phyllis Tuchman
"All the More Real: Portrayals of Intimacy and Empathy," Aug. 12-Oct. 14, 2007, at the Parrish Art Museum, 15 Job’s Lane, Southampton, N.Y. 11968

"All The More Real" isn’t your typical survey show. It doesn’t hype the latest young things or call attention to the ills of the world or protest some politically incorrect notion. Instead, it performs something wondrous: it tells a story. It’s a simple tale, one that’s been told countless times by artists, poets, playwrights, composers and the like.

Shakespeare, with a flourish, described it as the seven ages of man. Think Edward Albee’s searing dramas crossed with Edward Steichen’s legendary MoMA exhibition, "Family of Man." Put bluntly, the story is this: we’re born and then we die.     

Filled with figurative imagery, "All the More Real" is greater than the sum of its parts. It raises the curtain with Alice Neel’s Pregnant Betty Homitsky (1968) and Egon Schiele’s Newborn Baby (1910) and draws to a close with Gustav Klimt’s Nude Old Woman Facing Left (1901-1907) and Robert Gober’s Untitled (Candle) (1991), assumed to be a tribute to those who’ve died of AIDS. Eric Fischl, who initiated the exhibition when the words "all the more real" popped into his head one day, and Merrill Falkenberg, his collaborator whose swan song this is as a curator at the Parrish, borrowed paintings, sculptures, drawings, watercolors, photographs and videos that are provocative, beautiful, tender, compelling, even off-putting. The 33 artists, excluding Klimt and Schiele, range in age from 24 (Alexandra Moore) to 85 (Lucien Freud) and the participants hold passports from the U.S., Britain, Germany, Canada, Iran, South Africa, Korea and Australia. To say they work in a variety of techniques is an understatement.

The artists fittingly address universal themes as if size is no object. The exhibition includes sculpture and painting that is miniscule as well as humongous. The first work that greets gallery-goers is Tom Friedman’s Untitled (Self-Portrait), carved from an aspirin. If you’ve never been a fan of Friedman, this endearing cameo will win you over. Chuck Close’s Georgia, a 102 x 84 in. mesmerizing portrait of the artist’s daughter is at the other extreme. Who would ever have suspected that you could put a painting by Chuck Close in context by exhibiting it with a work smaller than a dime? Both visages cogently communicate that they were handmade.

Falkenberg and Fischl have organized the art in their show under the rubrics of birth, childhood, body and portraiture. But these categories are quite fluid. Jeff Hesser’s Baby Face #1 (2006), a large beeswax and Hydrocal mask-like face resembles aspects of James Croak’s Dirt Baby (2000), which is cast from dirt, as well as the newborn whose umbilical cord has not yet been clipped in Ron Mueck’s mixed-media Mother and Child (2001-2003). Hesser’s work also has a gnarled, aged quality that prefigures death, as does the Mueck, which calls to mind images of Mary with the Christ child.

The organizers of "All The More Real" also address emotional states, not just outer appearances. Babies cry (cf. Diane Arbus’s black-and-white print), and children gaze at the camera or wearily or with the composure of adults (photographs by Loretta Lux). You’ll find loss (Gober’s petite, wax Mary Jane shoe with hair matting its interior) as well as pain (Vito Acconci’s Prying, a videotape transferred to dvd).

As for the look of bodies, a trio of frontal nudes by Lucien Freud, Cynthia Westwood and Joan Semmel are displayed together, while a set of views of the backs of heads by Karel Funk, Evan Penny and Catherine Murphy also hang as a group. And there’s the revelation of the show: two extraordinary sculptures accompanied by animations and other elements by 57-year-old Elizabeth King. Her Bartlett’s Hand (2005) and an Untitled head (1994-2004) are worth the price of admission. She’s managed to mine familiar territory -- a head, a hand -- in a totally original way.

Profoundly engaged by all this variety, you find yourself looking at every single work of art in the show. Do you remember the last time you didn’t skip an image or two or three? The wall captions are also exceptional in terms of suggesting what you should notice as well as filling in information, and you’ll end up reading these. Ordinarily, I just look at the art. As an exhibition about life spans, this turns out to be a show that takes lots of time to view. Because it fits beautifully into the awkward spaces of the Parrish, you also realize how carefully the two curators composed their survey. As for the Schiele and the Klimt, which are installed near the entrance to the museum, they remind you how universal the theme of "All The More Real" is. An exhibition like this could be organized with a different group of artists as well as other moments in the history of art. It could be larger; it could be smaller. As it is, it is just right.

PHYLLIS TUCHMAN publishes regularly in the Smithsonian, Bloomberg News, Town & Country and other journals.