MoMA Jen (2005), by Marlene Dumas

Once upon a time it seemed obvious that the future of painting lay in abstraction and that representation was becoming a thing of the past. Today it’s abstraction that has been eclipsed. And yet it would be misleading to say that representation, in the sense that was developed in the Renaissance and remained the standard for European painting until Modernism, has made a comeback. One no longer paints from life but from images; the problem is no longer how to reconstruct the visual effect of three-dimensional volumes in space on a two-dimensional surface but rather how to translate a relatively light and consumable image into one that is materially and psychologically much denser and more durable.

In the 1960s, painters like Gerhard Richter, Vija Celmins and Malcolm Morley, among others, tried to attack the issue by painting the “look” of the photographic image. Today their successors are more likely to work from photographic sources by rendering them with a loose and painterly facture that blatantly plays up the differences between photographic and painted images. In great part, this is because of the influence of the Amsterdam-based, Cape Town-born artist Marlene Dumas, whose first mature works date from around 1984 but who began to accrue a big international reputation in the ’90s. Her retrospective, “Measuring Your Own Grave,” curated by Cornelia Butler, is on view at the Museum of Modern Art through February 16. The exhibition, which was previously shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, will be at the Menil Collection in Houston from March 27 to June 21.

Dumas is entirely a painter of people. You won’t find landscapes, still lifes or other motifs in her exhibition–hardly even as background to her figures. Occasionally there is a vaguely adumbrated interior. All her attention is on the figure, or sometimes just the face. And although Dumas keeps up the great Dutch tradition of group portraiture with a number of impressive multifigure compositions like The Turkish Schoolgirls (1987), as well as others that are not here, unfortunately a pair of unusually weak group portraits from 1997, Colorfields and Ryman’s Brides, have been chosen instead. Dumas also likes to tweak the conventions of group portraiture by depicting her groups from behind, though none of those paintings are at MoMA–look in the catalog for Group Show (1993) and the The Visitor (1995) as good examples. But mostly she sticks to the formula of one canvas (or sheet of paper) equals one person. Dumas treats her subjects as if she didn’t notice anyone else in the room, or the room itself. For the most part, this exclusivity of focus flatters her usually anonymous subjects: it doesn’t idealize or beautify them, but it underlines their importance.

Because one’s engagement with the painting becomes so exclusively a focus on a single body or head, its surroundings fade into insignificance–and so do the limits of the rectangle on which it appears. The individual takes on the grandeur of a whole world. But the intensity of attention that is the hallmark of Dumas’s approach to the figure is really an intensity of imagination, of invention–not of observation. “You can’t TAKE a painting,” she has written. “You MAKE a painting.” To the extent that her work represents a sort of paragone between painting and photography, the vindication of her preferred medium rides on her ability to use the tactile variousness of paint to invest the image with more life, though one of an uncanny and finally inexplicable sort. “Painting increases the animation and multifaceted character of its model,” as Richard Shiff puts it in his catalog essay. Strangely, this is true even when the subject is a corpse. Not that Dumas uses painting to magically reanimate the dead; rather, in a painting like the ghoulish Dead Marilyn (2008), she gives death itself an uncanny energy through the vigor, urgency and brutal contrariness of her mark-making. That’s what justifies her in saying, “I am an artist who uses secondhand images and firsthand experiences.”

It may be typical of Dumas’s paintings to show a single figure, but it wouldn’t be quite correct to say the figure is typically alone. It’s just that the other person is not in the picture–this person being, of course, the viewer, who was in the first instance the photographer. The people Dumas paints are rarely engaged in any activity except showing themselves. They are posing; they open themselves to the gaze. They are never taken unawares. No wonder Dumas is drawn to prostitutes and to pornography for her subject matter. But her fascination with the act of posing only makes those of her paintings that are based on unposed photographs seem all the more poignant: paintings of the dead, of sleepers and of infants–subjects with whom there’s no question of playing to the camera. (In this regard, the toddlers Dumas also likes to paint have already lost their innocence; even so young, one already knows how to pose.)

In the pose, Dumas’s idiomatic distinction between “taking” a picture and “making” one is dissolved: the subject collaborates in the production of his or her image. It’s only when the pose is absent that the image can truly be said to have been taken. By the same token, these “taken” images are among those that seem to challenge Dumas to an even more heightened intensity of making. They’re not necessarily better paintings, but they give a greater sense of the painter’s struggle with her material. Her other subjects’ poses are often seductive, and she can make immensely seductive paintings out of them, paintings in which the fluency of the brush conjures up a sensual immediacy that few other contemporary painters can match. But with more recalcitrant material, Dumas digs into the image in a different way–less pleasurably, perhaps, but with an impressive insistence.

What the paintings don’t get from their photographic sources is detail, above all that sort of random, unforeseeable detail that Roland Barthes famously called the “punctum” of the photograph, “that accident which pricks me…bruises me.” Undoubtedly the photos Dumas chooses have such an effect on her, but in being painted they change. Turning the image into a map for the movements of her brush, Dumas generalizes the bodies and faces she paints. That doesn’t mean she loses the specific character or attitude that individualizes each one; rather, she omits nearly everything but that. And this is what makes the paintings so touching. The contributors to the catalog are a little too caught up, for my taste, in the exercise of comparing the paintings to their source photographs–an exercise whose main value is to confirm the photographs’ final irrelevance to any appreciation of the paintings’ specificity as such. But Shiff makes an interesting point in talking about the source for the painting Jen (2005), which shows, from an eccentric angle, the head and breast of a sleeping woman (but whom one might easily have imagined to be dead). “One aspect of the source photograph that attracted the painter is far more idiosyncratic than intimations of sleep or death: Dumas noticed how the photographic perspective had set the woman’s nipple extremely close to her face, and she even wondered whether the real nipple was not anatomically displaced (rather than merely appearing so).” This apparent displacement is obviously the site of the photograph’s punctum. What the painting absolutely doesn’t provoke is that question about what is real and what appears so. The structure of the painting produces a formal equivalence of part to part, so that the nipple, nearly black though saturated with red, the focal point of the painting, nonetheless strikes the viewer as essentially a concentration of the reddish-gray murk of its background–which is to say that the painting undoes its own implicit hierarchy of attention. That’s why the painting as a whole–rather than just the figure it depicts–conveys a terrible vulnerability. Dumas speaks of empathy as the aim of her work; a painting like Jen achieves it with understated force.

Like Dumas, Barkley Hendricks is a painter who has asserted the human metaphor in art. Unlike her, he has not been taken up by the international art market or, although he has a substantial exhibition history, by the mainstream New York art world–though on the strength of his current exhibition, “Birth of the Cool,” that is likely to change. The exhibition, curated by Trevor Schoonmaker, is at the Studio Museum in Harlem through March 15. Having previously been seen at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, it will be on view at the Santa Monica Museum of Art from May 16 to August 22; the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, October 17-January 3, 2010; and the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, January 30-April 18, 2010.

I became aware of Hendricks in 1994, when three of his paintings from the 1970s were included in the much criticized exhibition “Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art” at the Whitney Museum. Those paintings, like the ones that dominate “Birth of the Cool,” are grand-scale, sometimes larger than life, highly detailed portraits of people whose full-length figures are crisply silhouetted against a monochromatic background to lend them a minimalist graphic force. Each is a character in an almost linguistic sense. Reviewing “Black Male” in the New York Times, Michael Kimmelman emphasized the unfamiliarity of Hendricks’s work, finding it to be among the show’s highlights. “Black Male” was curated by Thelma Golden, who is director of the Studio Museum. Golden’s loyalty to Hendricks is a good reminder of why, after a couple of decades in which the adjective “international” has been about the most glamorous word in the vocabulary of art, we need institutions with such seemingly parochial missions as black artists or American art. Giving international stars a monopoly on our serious attention might have meant ignoring an artist as interesting as Hendricks, who might have seemed too much of a traditionalist to be fully accepted, too involved with representation in the pre-Modernist sense. Certainly his education at the Pennsylvania Academy, a bastion of realism, would have oriented him in that direction, as would the fact that when he went on to Yale to get an MFA his mentor was the earnest, backward-looking Bernard Chaet. Though Hendricks is also a photographer, his painting is not essentially oriented toward the changes in perception wrought by photography. His most striking work is concerned with the attempt to sustain high-style portraiture–a tradition that went out with John Singer Sargent–in the present. But what’s clear is Hendricks’s realization that, for this genre to be kept up, it would have to be thoroughly transformed.

Most postwar artists, American or European, would have found it impossible to undertake this kind of painting in good faith. In attempting to do so, Hendricks’s only credible immediate precursor would have been Alex Katz. As Katz once put it to me, “There are hardly any painters since the Impressionists who have really refused transcendental subject matter, whether it be mythological or existential or something else–it’s all subject-matter art. And people think it’s serious. But if you deal with an optical or social world, people think it’s not serious.” Perhaps the crucial issue was art’s autonomy. High-style portraiture became nearly unthinkable because of its dependence on a form of patronage that had long since lost any legitimacy. Katz bypassed the problem by taking his family and friends–poets like Frank O’Hara, dancers like Paul Taylor–as his subjects, thereby reaffirming the myth of the artist. For Hendricks, painting acquaintances in the African-American community in the wake of the Black Power movement and the proclamation that “black is beautiful,” on the other hand, the essence of his portraiture would seem to be an assertion of a politics of style, one he clearly shared wholeheartedly. His subjects’ swagger and flourish convey a sense of ingrained nobility as convincing as that of the earls and duchesses painted by van Dyck or Gainsborough–more convincing, really, as soon as one reflects that, unlike the court painters of old, this artist’s flattery had not been bought, and his subjects had achieved their dignity in the teeth of a system of caste and class that was built to grind them down.

This fascination with style, with attitude, is already present in My Black Nun, an early student work dated to 1964, when Hendricks was just 19. Except for the fact that it is a portrait, albeit an imaginary one, it has almost nothing in common with the painter’s later work–except that it shows blackness, not so much as a biological given but as a manner of projecting one’s image in the world. This is one tough sister, and her sassy, cross-armed stance effectively détournes the habit that is supposed to remove her from worldly concerns. In the large-scale portraits from the late ’60s through the late ’70s that make up the bulk of “Birth of the Cool,” this intensely stylized self-presentation becomes not merely the subject but the content of Hendricks’s art. The emphatic presence of the painting is completely identified with that of the person pictured in it. Style, here, may have to do with the impressively inventive approach to dress manifested by the subjects of paintings such as George Jules Taylor (1972) or Bahsir (Robert Gowens), from 1975–one of several paintings here that productively take up Katz’s device of peopling a painting with multiple avatars of the same figure (consider, for instance, the elder artist’s sixfold portrait of his wife, Ada, in The Black Dress, from 1960). Bahsir’s striking get-up, which in the catalog Richard Powell aptly sums up as “part Superfly, part reminiscent of the male Hasidic uniform, entirely self-concocted,” is offset by a distinct sense of reserve, the projection of an inner distance that simultaneously contrasts with and justifies his visual flamboyance. But clothes are optional to Hendricks’s modern dandies. The sense of style is already there in the stance of a nude, in one’s way of wearing the body, for instance in Brilliantly Endowed (Self-Portrait), from 1977 (its title a double entendre on the possibly unwelcome praise the conservative New York Times critic Hilton Kramer had paid Hendricks in a review that year).

“Birth of the Cool” includes only a few examples of Hendricks’s portraiture from the early ’80s and then again the early 2000s, but they are enough to suggest that his work in this genre eventually lost its focus. The show skips 1984-99 entirely. The best of the recent works are small-scaled landscapes of Jamaica, often tondos or ovals, which one would hardly recognize as being by the same artist as the imposing portraits of the ’70s. There is an eerie calm about the landscapes; they seem to gather within themselves more space than their modest dimensions should be able to bear. These seemingly delicate yet powerfully built paintings deserve a closer look than an exhibition so focused on Hendricks’s eye-catching portraits can easily allow them. They are just as ambitious, but their ambition is no longer focused on the social world as a completely sufficient subject matter. They suggest that we are just beginning to see what this artist can do.