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Mid-career Survey of Painter Marlene Dumas is the First to be Presented in the United States
Installation view of Models (1994. Ink and chalk on paper. 100 drawings, each 24 7/16 x 19 11/16" (62 x 50 cm). Van Abbemuseum Collection, Eindhoven) in the exhibition Marlene Dumas: Measuring Your Own Grave at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 2008. Photo by Brian Forrest.

NEW YORK, NY.- Marlene Dumas: Measuring Your Own Grave is the first North American mid-career survey of paintings and drawings by Marlene Dumas. The exhibition features approximately 70 paintings and 35 drawings ranging in format from small individual drawings and intimate, early sketchbooks, to large-scale ink washes, which are, in some cases, more monumental than the paintings. Several series of drawings are also featured, including Models, which consists of 100 single sheets. Dumas’s paintings are also diverse in size and scale—ranging from very large, recumbent figures of the dead or newborn, to several paintings just completed by the artist and seen at MoMA for the first time in the United States. The exhibition will be on view from December 14, 2008, through February 16, 2009, in the sixth floor International Council Galleries, and the third floor Paul J. Sachs Drawings Galleries.

Marlene Dumas: Measuring Your Own Grave is organized by The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in association with The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The exhibition is curated by Connie Butler, The Robert Lehman Foundation Chief Curator of Drawings at MoMA and the MOCA Ahmanson Curatorial Fellow. The exhibition was on view at MOCA from June 22 through September 22, 2008. After MoMA’s presentation, the exhibition will travel to The Menil Collection, Houston, where it will be on view from March 26 through June 21, 2009.

The exhibition takes its subtitle, “Measuring Your Own Grave,” from a painting made in 2003. In this work, a figure bows toward the viewer, gracefully stretching its arms the width of the canvas. The title suggests that the space of the canvas becomes the figure’s coffin or grave—for the artist, this measuring is akin to the process of representation itself. “Marlene Dumas is one of the most intriguing painters working today,” Ms. Butler said. “Her exploration of portraiture and engagement with many of the most difficult social issues of our time is truly unique, as is her continuing commitment to painting as a relevant and powerful medium.”

Born in 1953 in Cape Town, South Africa, Dumas studied art at the Michaelis School of Fine Arts at the University of Cape Town and moved to Amsterdam in 1976 to pursue further studies at de Ateliers. Dumas has lived and worked in Amsterdam ever since. This exhibition surveys more than 30 years of work and is organized around the theme of portraiture, which Dumas treats as a psychological phenomenon, like a Rorschach test. Drawing almost exclusively on photographic source material, Dumas explores crucial questions of humanity and representation. Subjects of life, birth, sex, death, grief, and identity are represented through portraits and images drawn from her ongoing archive of Polaroid photographs, personal snapshots, and thousands of media images culled over time. A painting is never a literal rendition of a photographic source, nor is the material source of a painting the same as its psychological subject matter. Rather, Dumas focuses on the inherent differences between photography and painting—what she has described as “the essential immorality or indifference” of a photographic image when it is removed from its original context or stripped of its identifying information. Dumas believes that the process of making art is a struggle to be free of the prescriptions of the culture one comes from, just as the figures in her paintings measure themselves against the edges of the frame.

The exhibition is installed not chronologically but rather associatively, and reflects Dumas’s ongoing investigation of the same topics, as well as the artist’s tendency to work in series, with drawing series and groups of paintings arranged together to create new associations. Key paintings in the exhibition include The White Disease (1985), which addresses issues of race by creating a visual relationship between the surface of skin and the surface of painting. In addition to works with single figures, Dumas also produces large-scale group portraits such as The Teacher (sub a) (1987).

Dumas’s portrayal of the female figure, often nude or provocatively clothed, contrasts with traditional art historical representations of women. In iconic works such as Waiting (For Meaning) and Losing (Her Meaning) (both 1988), the artist questions the power of this classic image—the female nude—to convey meaning. Other works, such as Miss Pompadour (1999) and Cracking the Whip (2000), show women in provocative poses, both humorous and assaulting in their acrobatic sexuality, while Male Beauty (2002) features an erotic image of a male nude. Connected to her exploration of female identity, Dumas’s work often includes portraits of infants and children, focusing on pregnancy and motherhood and the physical and psychological trauma and mystery of both. Works like Die Baba (The Baby) (1985) challenge the traditional portrayal of children by suggesting their mysterious and even threatening aspects. Notions of beauty and ugliness underlie Models (1994), a group of 100 related drawings in serial format that capture the diverse facial expressions of women in various professional and psychological roles.

Examples from Dumas’s recent body of work, the Man Kind series (2002-06), highlight the artist’s ongoing commitment to questioning received ideas about identity and politics by presenting portraits of men, seemingly of Middle Eastern descent, drawn from images of terrorists, martyrs, Dutch Moroccans, Palestinians, friends, actors, and ordinary citizens. In Duct Tape (2002–05), the subject’s face is obscured by a hood, recalling recent photographs of Abu Ghraib or images of Palestinian prisoners. These paintings force the viewer to recognize the complexity of current political conflicts and our evolving understanding of race, identity, and human confrontation.

Among the more recent works in the exhibition is Dead Marilyn (2008), based on an autopsy photograph of Marilyn Monroe, which Dumas painted for the exhibition’s premiere showing at MOCA. Several paintings Dumas completed recently are appearing at MoMA, and in the United States, for the first time. While searching for images of crying women in twentieth century art, Dumas came across a text describing Man Ray’s iconic photograph Tears (1930-32) as the prototypical modernist representation of tears. That inspired her own version titled Glass Tears (for Man Ray) (2008). Dumas’s mother passed away in 2007 at noon, two months before the artist’s first solo exhibition in South Africa. Her Self Portrait at Noon is a touching memorial to this moment of loss.

As Ms. Butler writes in the accompanying catalogue, “Dumas’s career-long investigation of the portrait cannot be understood outside her relationship to issues of identity… Dumas has said that South Africa gave her content and Europe gave her form and, indeed, her relationship to her subjects is deeply imprinted by her experiences of constituency, citizenship, and viewership, as well as how these subjectivities shift as we inhabit different cultural positions.”

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