Notations/Revolutions of the Real: Painting the Figure, 1960s to Now is a small but compelling ‘comprehensive’ sampling of mid-20th c. styles, located in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Gallery 176, one of many rooms comprising the modern wing. While at first glance this show seems to be a simple set of paintings exploring different approaches to the expression of the human form from the 1960s to the present, the way this exhibit has been curated creates endless curiosities and surprises. Nearly every work is juxtaposed with its neighbor in intelligent and challenging ways, revealing something about each work. What is implied by one painting is often revealed or challenged by its neighbor. xxxxxx
Sidney Goodman’s Seated Woman is startling and unsettling. The female figure is rendered in grayscale on a simply colored background in limited shades. She could be any woman—any artist’s model seated in a chair. Her body is sketchily painted, and while her face has all the shading, convex forms and hollows of a human face, her features are left implied and blurry. It is as if this woman is sitting, but in truth her mind and thoughts are elsewhere. She is there in the flesh, but not entirely “there,” leaving me to wonder: where would she rather be? What is she thinking of? And how does she feel about sitting in the nude, being painted by this artist?
James Rosenquist’s large, two-canvas work Zone, also in gray scale, provides a clue as to the emotional status of her Seated neighbor. Two thin vertically oriented canvases placed next to one another create a larger whole. Yet, compositionally, a jagged line cuts across the two canvases, ignoring their natural division. One of the jagged sections depicts a woman’s laughing face, her mouth wide open and eyes crinkled. The other side of the jagged line depicts droplets of water that could be tears. Happy and sad—the dichotomy seems simple enough: sadness spilling into happiness, making everything gray. Yet the closer I looked, the less I was convinced of my earlier impression—perhaps the woman’s face is not actually happy, but sad, her tears separated from her, compositionally. Plumbing curatorial intent, I began to wonder if this work was being used to underscore what the nearby Seated Woman was portraying.
In Philip Pearlstein’s 1973 Two Female Models with Drawing Table, neither model engages us. Their bodies are rendered hyper-realistically, and we are encouraged to look at them. Yet it quickly became unsettling once I realized that neither model is capable of returning our gaze—the face of the model on the left is cut off, while the model on the right is asleep. Had Pearlstein painted the bodies in a more idealized and alluring manner, rather than showing every flabby bit of skin and protruding vein, I would have concluded that we as the audience were being encourage to take part in the male gaze, since the woman cannot condemn us by looking back at us, looking at them. Yet, Pearlstein’s unappealing female forms challenges my earlier conception: perhaps it challenges our tendency to look with that gaze. In this work, perhaps the way the women have been painted challenges the viewer’s predilection to viewing their naked bodies in a sexual light. There is little made alluring or sexual about the tired-looking bodies of these women, painted in that glassy, waxy way. Yet why does Pearlstein not allow the models to confront our gaze with theirs? Two Models left me wondering whether Pearlstein was challenging the male gaze or merely providing an example of it.
To the left of Two Models, Alice Neel’s Julie Hall responds to our attempts to objectify the women of the Pearlstein painting with a strange, unerring stare. While the women in Pearlstein’s Two Models cannot respond to our gaze, Julie Hall meets our eyes, looks through us and over our heads. Is she judging us for looking too long at the naked bodies presented to us? It’s a striking juxtaposition of paintings on the part of the curators. Additionally, while the headless woman in the Pearlstein panting is open with her body, presenting it to us, the painter/viewer, Julie Hall is hunched over, hands and arms across her body to obscure it, leaving us to take in that face with those baleful eyes.
Chuck Close’s Paul is Close in his usual style—the large-scale portrait made up of tiny mosaic-like components coalescing from afar into a single image, but swimming before your eyes as pixilated building blocks as you get closer. Yet as I looked at Paul and Karen Kiliminik’s Mary Shelley, a tiny painting nearby, I realized the goal of this exhibit’s layout—to push and pull the viewer around the space, forcing me to juxtapose adjacent works as we must move to examine at a smaller work, then step back to take in the larger neighbor. In the case of the Close and Kiliminik, if you maintain the same distance from both paintings, you are either too close to the Close or too far to see the Kilimink—an intriguing and daring strategy on the part of the curators.
People Looking by Michelangelo Pistoletto ingeniously makes the viewer both the subject and object of the painting, with its use of reflective surfaces. The men on the right gaze out beyond the surface of the canvas, making the viewer the subject of the painting. You look at yourself, and you look back, triggering a bit of an identity crisis. How do the painted figures see you? Does it affect how you see yourself? This work also plays with the idea of the male gaze, like the Pearlstein and Neel works, leading me to wonder, as a viewer, if I was absorbing the male gaze of the men painted in the work who appear to be looking at me, the viewer. Or do I see myself proper? And how can I be sure? This painting brings up questions of how viewers and artworks can relate in a rather explicit way.
The juxtaposition of looking close and looking away at different distances continues with Elizabeth Peyton’s minute Spencer Walking and Noel Mahaffey’s massive Catfish. The Peyton is interesting because it depicts both figures from the back. As the man in the foreground follows the woman in pink, you mimic his path, moving closer, as though engaging me in a dialogue that spills out, beyond the edges of the painting—to become an extension of the painting in the real world.
This exhibit succeeds on the strategy and strength of its organization, and because it considers the unforeseen relationship between works. Each artist has chosen to paint the figure in a different way—seated, in motion, realistically, abstracted. It leaves the viewer asking: What does each work say about the one next to it? Rarely is a compact exhibition as much a physical or mental workout as this one. Notations/Revolutions of the Real: Painting the Figure, 1960s to Now is a well-organized and carefully-curated experience, worth the time and effort to track down in the large Philadelphia Museum of Art.
By Deborah Anne Krieger, Contributing Writer
Author’s Note: This installation is part of “Notations,” an ongoing series named after the 1968 book by the American composer, writer, and visual artist John Cage, who was widely celebrated for his experimental approach to the arts. Cage’s Notations was an international and interdisciplinary anthology of scores by avant-garde musicians, with contributions from visual artists and writers. It was also an exhibition in book form, in which the scores doubled as drawings. The “Notations” series at the Museum serves as a flexible tool to explore contemporary art.