Marlene Dumas Retrospective Stays Just This Side of Pornography

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Photo: Getty Images

If anyone came to the opening of Marlene Dumas's 30-year retrospective at MoMA last night with a heart full of the holiday spirit, the odds are it was quickly exorcised by the haunting, dark-minded art in the show, titled "Measuring Your Own Grave." The exhibition featured a jarring number of morbidly affecting images, including paintings of battered corpses and figures dangling from nooses, most rendered in washes of somber blues and reds that gave the works a bruised appearance. Of course, since it was a Dumas show, there was also a room featuring erotic paintings of strippers and prostitutes, and this is where the crowd seemed to linger. The painter Alex Katz was particularly struck by one steamy portrait of a kneeling stripper. "I mean, look at this," he said. "It's like there's no paint on the canvas at all. There's so much restraint, and the details are all so beautiful. Just look at the nipples. The work is so careful." Katz, who deemed the show "first-rate," was impressed by the daring of the subject matter — "there's a lot of explicit stuff that I wouldn't have the nerve to do," he said. "It's sexy and not vulgar," enthused the painter, who's currently working on large-scale portraits of overlapping faces for a show in Calabria. "Like Titian's nudes are very sexy, and Titian's drawings, you know? A lot of tits in your face. This goes to the edge of pornography."

Porn is "something that has always been in her work in various ways," said MoMA curator Connie Butler, who organized the show. "I think in Marlene's case, her interest is in the gymnastic quality of those bodies in the coldness of pornography. I think she restores a kind of vulnerability and humanity to those subjects." She noted that Dumas never painted from live models, only from snapshots. "If you're the painter of a figure and you don't use a model, in the end you have to end up with pornography because you're always looking for new source material. And in pornography you do have the figure doing very strange things, gymnastic things. You have the body doing things that they don't do anywhere else. If you're going to paint the figure, you're going to look at porn." Several of the nudes were, in fact, part of a series Dumas made in Amsterdam, where she invited prostitutes working in the red-light district's window displays into her studio, paid them, and took their Polaroids for source material.

Dumas herself, dressed in a black shawl over a black dress that straddled the line between chic and funereal, didn't feel like discussing her show — "I've been talking such a lot," she apologized — but she walked though the galleries meeting well-wishers like Chuck Close and Vik Muniz, whose own show, "Rebus," which he curated as part of the MoMA's "Artist's Choice" series, was opening last night as well. Downstairs on the third floor, the exhibition was a thrilling series of classic and lesser-known works from the museum's collection that Muniz had arranged in puzzlelike order that the visitor was expected to follow — for instance, a bright-yellow Ellsworth Kelly leading to a Kiki Smith sculpture of an egg yolk to a milk-white Rodolfo Bonetto–designed timer to a Harold E. Edgerton photo of a splash of milk, etc. After the Dumas show, it was a blithely entertaining respite that made the viewer momentarily forget that he was looking at a Duchamp ready-made or a Picasso sculpture, so engaging was the conceit.