THE LARGE mid-career survey of paintings by South African born, Amsterdam-based artist Marlene Dumas that opened last weekend at the Museum of Contemporary Art represents, in effect, her Los Angeles debut.
A few works have shown up in local exhibitions, and frequent travelers will know her art from its regular inclusion in major international shows. But the 66 paintings and several dozen works on paper at MOCA form a full-scale introduction for Southern California.
Of course, Neo-Expressionism never really had the traction in L.A. that it did in Europe and New York. The brash embrace of gestural figurative painting helped fuel the eruption of a big-ticket art market in the 1980s, so it was widely shown, but Neo-Ex also coincided with L.A. art’s own international emergence as a major force. Here it was just another new style, not a wholesale revival of something thought lost.
Neo-Expressionism is typically caricatured as a big-mouth boy’s club -- Baselitz, Schnabel, Kiefer, Clemente, etc. So, if there’s an element of Dumas’ work that seems right at home here, credit L.A.'s strong history of feminist art.
The show’s curator, Connie Butler, also organized “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution,” last year’s important MOCA survey. Butler is now a curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, where the Dumas exhibition, co-organized by MOCA and MOMA, travels in December.
The earliest painting dates from 1984, when Dumas, then 32, picked up a brush again after a five-year hiatus. But MOCA’s show is installed thematically rather than chronologically. Two works are even inserted into MOCA’s permanent collection galleries, at points that make thematic sense. One salutary effect is to underscore her wholesale reinvention of so-called women’s subjects.
Dumas often paints children, for example, but she’s no Mary Cassatt -- or even Alice Neel. Her babies do not burble.
In “Reinhardt’s Daughter” (1994), a brown-skinned child is shown upside-down, bent backward over an inexplicable form. The little girl’s two dangling arms frame her tilted oval head, its eyes and mouth softly shut. She’s either a blissfully innocent model of somnolent repose or else she’s dead.
The narrow painting is 6 feet tall, so the inverted child’s body, truncated just below the waist, is larger than life. The figure is painted thinly, almost as if with a dry brush, while the space around it is thickly swept with deep, dark oil paint. Dumas’ palette is black and bruised. The surrounding pigment suggests a murky pool, an ooze into which the fragile child is disappearing.
This technique is encountered throughout the show, where the human body is mostly a negative space made visible by a forbidding, even oppressive context. Dramatically stated and powerfully seductive, it can nonetheless feel repetitive.
The picture’s surrounding space seems to both define and crush the little figure, while the lush, moody colors squeeze purples, inky blues and coagulated reds in between burnt umber and soot. One dangling hand is awkwardly drawn, the other a virtual smear. With its luscious morbidity, the picture holds a contradictory vision of vibrancy and death.
“Reinhardt’s Daughter” seems to be something of a metaphorical self-portrait. As the title declares, it positions Dumas as a child of Ad Reinhardt, the great American abstract painter whose so-called black paintings of the late 1950s and early 1960s at first appear to be simply square black canvases. Closer inspection reveals a velvety surface subdivided into nine distinct squares of nearly indistinguishable shades. Any faith in an absolute gets severely shaken. So it is with Dumas’ maybe-dead baby, a Goya-like sleep of reason that produces monsters.
Sex is also a frequent subject, in pictures derived from pornography. (All her work starts from photographs, rather than being drawn from life). But pornographic degradation calculates its own quantity of loss, as in a 1993 sketch for a peace monument: It’s a Claes Oldenburg-style sculpture of a gigantic penis, castrated and hanging flaccid.
“Leather Boots” (2000) shows a busty nude woman in profile squatting inside a narrow space and wearing only what the title says. A cascade of black hair tumbles down her back, and she’s framed by the black walls of what might be a peep-show booth. Yet her torso is backed by a vaporous veil of lovely sunrise color -- peachy pink lifting into radiant yellow, which puts you in mind of the intimate intensity of a Rothko.
Dumas’ sharply focused practice is largely a meditation on the dead. So, inevitably the painter is also responding to the metamorphical “death of painting,” an event commonly assumed when she took her hiatus from art at the end of the 1970s. It’s as if she passed through unidentified stages of grief, finally ending up at acceptance: OK, painting is dead; now, what can I make of that?
One thing she made of it is watercolors, some huge, many made with ink, which occupy a space between drawing and painting. A lot of them feel conventional.
The paintings rarely do. “Measuring Your Own Grave,” a 2003 painting also used as the show’s title, is one weirdly funny and incisive recent retort to the painting dilemma.
The painting, just under 5 feet square, is divided in two -- white for the bottom half, dark for the upper half. (It’s like a curtain coming down.) A figure is bent over the horizontal division between darkness and light, his body painted in contrasting colors. The man’s arms are outstretched, barely touching the canvas’ sides.
His feet don’t touch the bottom edge but instead hang in space, suspended just the way the painting is on the wall. (He also wears suspenders.) The purply brown-black paint visually pushes the figure down, so that he seems to bow to the viewer -- a startling gesture of supplication and respect.
It’s a work Dumas probably couldn’t have made before racking up some time on the job. Any artist, especially one with her ambition and success, is anxious about the legacy she leaves for the future. In that sense painting is indeed an act of measuring your own grave -- passing time from one lived moment to the next while carving out a place in history. And the bow declares that you are in charge of measuring your own grave too.
Dumas’ philosophical deportment is among her work’s chief attributes. Death is a big theme, and her paintings of laid-out bodies make pointed reference to any number of artists already in their own graves. Reinhardt and Goya, obviously, but also Massaccio, Mantegna and Manet -- all authors of famous paintings of the dead.
But talk about ambition! The 2003 “Measuring Your Own Grave” was painted at a desolate historical moment between bodies tumbling through space on 9/11 and civilization in virtual free-fall at Abu Ghraib. It looks to nothing less than Leonardo da Vinci for solace and inspiration.
Dumas’ bowing figure, battered by darkness yet reverential toward the spectator, summons up Leonardo’s pen and ink drawing of “Vitruvian Man,” inscribed within a perfect circle and a square and measuring the mysterious workings of the universe. Her painting unceremoniously folds him in two.
There are other revealing references -- some probably accidental. Dumas’ palette and gangly figures can be reminiscent of Lester Johnson, whose 1950s and 1960s images of Bowery bums made him the only full-fledged member of the New York School to fully refuse abstraction.
Others, like the death’s head picture of slain Ulrike Meinhof, notorious German domestic terrorist, are intentional. Dumas used a widely published news photograph as a source, but she also employed Gerhard Richter’s softly blurred painting of that photograph, part of his landmark series “October 18, 1977.”
Unlike Richter’s soft-focus inscrutability, Dumas’ version is hard, wielded like a blunt instrument. The rope-mark around her corpse’s neck is a crisp black slash, recalling the choker on “Olympia,” Manet’s imperious prostitute. Defiant sex suddenly mingles with mortality, in a picture one wouldn’t expect could be pulled off.