WASHINGTON, DC.- For generations, artists have used a wide range of painterly effects to suggest the physical properties and metaphorical significance of human flesh. This summer, The Phillips Collection will present Paint Made Flesh, a survey of figurative painting since the 1950s. Bringing together more than 40 provocative works from private collections and museums around the world, the exhibition features 33 internationally renowned contemporary artists rarely seen together, including Pablo Picasso, Francis Bacon, Georg Baselitz, Willem de Kooning, Alice Neel, Lucian Freud, Eric Fischl, and Julian Schnabel. Paint Made Flesh will be on view at the Phillips from June 20 to Sept.13, 2009.
While in recent years figure painting has been pushed to the periphery of contemporary art, Paint Made Flesh uses some of the most celebrated examples to show how ideally suited the subject and the medium are to expressing what lies beneath the surfacethe emotional, sensual, and tragic aspects of human experience. Featuring works created between 1952 and 2006 in Europe and the United States, the exhibition traces figurative paintings powerful personal and social commentarybeginning with images that convey a feeling of existential despair following World War II and
Paint Made Flesh generates a fresh and fascinating conversation about the powerful legacy of figure painting, said Dorothy Kosinski, director of The Phillips Collection. The exhibition, with its thoughtful juxtaposition of paintings, not only reveals the singular capacity of paint to capture the complexities of the human condition, but also broadens the scope of our collections conversation with contemporary artists.
At the same time that well-known abstract painters such as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Helen Frankenthaler were abandoning the representation of tangible objects, many American artists remained preoccupied with the human figure. Artists such as Alice Neel, whose unflinching paintings are among the most powerful portraits of the 20th century, distorted the anatomy of their subjects and used an unusual color palette to express themes of poverty, despair, and turmoil. Other painters, such as Willem de Kooning, who once said flesh is the reason oil painting was invented, used vigorous brushstrokes and deliberate vulgarity to describe feelings of anguish and anxiety.
The widespread revival of figure painting in Germany and the United States during the 1970s and 1980s was often labeled neoexpressionism because it evoked the strong colors, primitive forms, and energetic brushstrokes of early-20th-century German expressionists such as Emil Nolde, Max Beckmann, and Edvard Munch. German artists Georg Baselitz and A.R. Penck, who were children during the Nazi occupation, and American artists Susan Rothenberg and Julian Schnabel, combined bold colors and crudely painted figures with imagery culled from dreams, folk art, and personal obsessions to render psychological depth.
Drawing on the English tradition of portraiture, artists such as Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon took full advantage of paints capacity to be thick or thin, opaque or transparent, to translate the actual surface of flesh into expressions of psychological strength and vulnerability. Bacon dramatically smeared and scraped oily color to extract every nuance of feeling and tension, while Freud focused on the skins various bumps, scabs, scars, and wrinkles to create powerful and riveting images of humanity.
The exhibition culminates with recent work by contemporary artists such as Tony Bevan, Wangeschi Mutu, Albert Oehlen, and Daniel Richter who show the body responding to a wave of social concerns, including new technology, disease, and threats of terrorism. They mix and adapt expressive styles to challenge perceptions of identity beyond nationality, ethnicity, religion, or politicsturning the human form into the embodiment of complex social values.
This section also includes portraits from the late 1990s to 2006 by Michael Borremans, Francesco Clemente, John Currin, Eric Fischl, Arnaldo Roche-Rabell, and Lisa Yuskavage. In these works, skin is blemished, wrinkled, or otherwise made imperfect as if it is a topographical map that signifies the subjects inner psychology. Fischls Frailty is a Moment of Self-Reflection (1996), created by the painter while mourning his fathers death, is a poignant consideration of human vulnerability. By depicting skin as if it is made of parchment, Fischl has stripped away any sense of decorum or artifice to reveal a painful truth about the eroding impact of time. In contrast, portraits by Michael Borremans, Lisa Yuskavage, and John Currin combine the likeness of their subjects with cultural stereotypes derived from art history, old movie posters, and girlie pinups. In each, skin seems to be made of plastic or covered with heavy makeup, reinforcing the artificiality of the social persona while reflecting the era of plastic surgery and digital beautification.
Paint Made Flesh was organized by the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, Tenn. The curator is Mark W. Scala, chief curator of the Frist. After its presentation at the Phillips, the exhibition will be on view at the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, N.Y., from Oct. 25, 2009 to Jan. 3, 2010.