Wet: On Painting, Feminism, and Art Culture (University Museum Symposium Series; 6)

Wet: On Painting, Feminism, and Art Culture (University Museum Symposium Series; 6)

by Mira Schor

ISBN: 9780822319153

Publisher Duke University Press Books

Published in Arts & Photography/Painting

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Sample Chapter


Appropriated Sexuality

Whoever despises the clitoris despises the penis
Whoever despises the penis despises the cunt
Whoever despises the cunt despises the life of the child.

—Muriel Rukeyser

Rapists make better artists.

—Carolyn Donahue/David Salle/Joan Wallace

A woman lies on her back, holding her knees to her stomach. She has no face, she is only a cunt, buttocks, and a foot, toes tensed as if to indicate pain, or sexual excitement, or both. A patterned cloth shape is superimposed over her, and paint-tipped pegs protrude from the wooden picture plane above her. Thus, she is dominated by phallic representations.

This image of woman in David Salle's The Disappearance of the Booming Voice (1984) may be appropriated from mass-media pornography, but more immediately it is based on a photograph taken by Salle himself. Salle has said that "what's compelling about pornography is knowing that someone did it. It's not just seeing what you're presented with but knowing that someone set it up for you to see," and that "the great thing about pornography is that something has been photographed." Salle has even suggested that photography was invented for the enhancement of pornography.

But, cries Robert Pincus-Witten, "clearly your works must be liberated from the false charges of pornography." This sentiment permeates almost all of the vast critical literature on Salle. The issue of pornography is forever raised and laid to rest. But the issue of misogyny is left untouched. Yet, it is the pervasive misogyny of Salle's depiction of woman that is so persistently refuted and excused in favor of a "wider possibility of discussion," for "in literature of twentieth-century art the sexist bias, itself unmentionable, is covered up and approved by the insistence on ... other meanings." Salle's depiction of woman is discussed in terms of the deconstruction of the meaning of imagery, and in terms of art-historical references to chiaroscuro, Leonardo, modernism, postmodernism, poststructuralism, Goya and Jasper Johns, Derrida and Lacan—you name it, anything but the obvious. The explicit misogyny of Salle's images of woman is matched by the implicit misogyny of its acceptance by many critics. This complicity is clearly stated by Pincus-Witten: "We're commodifying the object and we're mythifying the makers.... I've certainly participated in that mechanism because I believe in the mechanism."

The "mechanism" and Pincus-Witten's belief in it are evident in his earliest interviews with Salle, "up close and personal." He visits Salle's studio in 1979 and meets "a dark 26 year old, impatient and perplexing." "The real content of Salle's painting is irony, or paradox, or parody." Flesh into Word (1979), reproduced alongside this text, contains several images of women. The painting is framed on the left by a kneeling nude, seen from behind, near a telephone, and on the right by a headless, upside-down nude. A central, more heavily drawn female contains within her a pleasing, bosomy, sketched-in nude. The central figure is scowling and smoking; a small plane flies into her brain. Thus, the private plane (canvas plane/paintbrush/penis) of the male artist zeros in on the only female in his painting who seems to be trying to think and to question his authority.

Pincus-Witten returns months later, now apparently writing for Harlequin romances. "Complex David Salle—lean of face, tense, dark hair on a sharp cartilaginous profile—the unflinching gaze of the contact-lensed. A cigar-smoker (by way of affectation?) and a just audible William Buckley-like speech pattern." The macho positioning is completed by the specification of locale: "the Salle studio is in that row of buildings in which Stanford White—shot by Harry Thaw—died." Thus, the vicarious glamour of a notorious murder committed over the naked body of a woman is rubbed onto Salle (and perhaps onto his hopeful accomplice, Pincus-Witten).

Pincus-Witten offhandedly describes the left half of Autopsy (1981), Salle's notorious photo of a naked woman sitting, cross-legged, sad and stiff, on a rumpled bed, a dunce cap on her head and smaller ones on her breasts. In Autopsy, the naked woman is juxtaposed with an abstract pattern of blue, black, and white blocks* This type of juxtaposition of representation with abstraction, as well as any juxtaposition of "appropriated" images, seems to be enough to allow for the deflection of scrutiny away from the sexual content to other, apparently more intellectually valid, concerns, specifically "the uncertain status of imagery, the problems of representation that infect every art."

Challenged in public forums to explain the meaning of Autopsy and other like images, Salle has stated tersely that it is about "irony." Indeed, his work is seen by his supporters as an eloquent representation of the nihilistic relativism that can result from an ironic stance and that is one of the hallmarks of current "avant-garde" art.

For Thomas Lawson, who does see Salle's representations of woman as "at best ... cursory and off-hand; at worst they are brutal and disfigured," Salle represents nevertheless one of the hopes for the survival of painting, painting as the "last exit" before the despair of "an age of skepticism" in which "the practice of art is inevitably crippled by suspension of belief."

This school of art accepts and revels in the loss of belief in painting except as a strategic device. The images of painting are representations of representations, not of a suspect "reality." Belief in any meaning for an image in this age of reproduction is dismissed as naive.

However, if all images are equivalent, as indicated by the constant juxtaposition of female nudes with abstract marks, bits of furniture, and characters from Disney cartoons in Salle's work, then why are male nudes not given equivalent treatment, not just drawn occasionally from the back, but literally drawn and quartered as female nudes are? If images have been rendered essentially meaningless from endless repetition in the mass media, what is the motivation for the one choice that Salle clearly has made, which is to mistreat only the female nude? Salle does not mistreat the male nude; therefore, he is sensitive to the meaning of some imagery.

Much is made by critics of the refusal of the paintings to render their meaning. Lawson writes that the "obscurity of the work is its source of strength." "Meaning is intimated, but finally withheld." Donald Kuspit writes of a "strangely dry coitus of visual clichés." In withholding their meaning, the paintings are like Woman, the mysterious Other. In withholding his meaning, the artist is an impotent sadist.

The source of this anger is to be found in the intertwined associations among painting, woman, meaning, and death, which form the core of Salle's work. These are clearly expressed in his 1979 manifesto, "The Paintings Are Dead": "The Paintings are dead in the sense that to intuit the meaning of something incompletely, but with an idea of what it might mean or involve to know completely, is a kind of premonition. The paintings in their opacity, signal an ultimate clarification. Death is 'tragic' because it closes off possibilities of further meaning; art is similarly tragic because it prefigures itself an ended event of meaning. The paintings do this by appearing to participate in meaninglessness." For "the Paintings" and "art" one can read "woman," who can only seem to be "known," then returns to the self-enclosed "opacity" of her sex. The meaning "intuited" is that, in the words of Simone de Beauvoir, "to have been conceived and then born an infant is the curse that hangs over [man's] destiny, the impurity that contaminates his being. And, too, it is the announcement of his death." The opacity of the Mother, the calm enclosure of the promise of his own death seems to incite man to fantasies of the rape of woman, and of art.

It is significant that the illustration to Salle's manifesto is an installation shot of the dunce cap pictures. It is also significant that in response to the seemingly obvious offensive nature of this image (Autopsy), Kuspit writes that "to put dunce caps on the breasts as well as the head of a woman, and to paint her with a mechanically rendered pattern ... is to stimulate, not critically provoke—to muse, not reveal." This brings to mind Cane (1983), in which a woman, hung upside down in one of the traditional poses of Christian martyrdom, is impaled by a real rubber-tipped cane resting in a glass of water on a ledge. The cane represents the phallus of the artist, as well as being an art-historical notation, as the painting and the woman are screwed; as befits a "strangely dry coitus" she may die of peritonitis but she won't get pregnant.

Salle uses woman as a metaphor for death; woman has become a vehicle for the difficulty of painting. Painting, with the potential sensuality implicit in its medium, has become a metaphor for woman, and, also, a vehicle for the subjugation of woman/death. In Face in the Column (1983) a naked woman is pressed down by a hand that cannot be her own, by a slice of orange, and by a black band of shadow that straps her down to the ground or bed. A drawing of a woman sitting on a toilet is superimposed so that her ass is directly over the larger woman's face, a further reminder of her disgusting physicality. A white profile of Abraham Lincoln acts as a representative representation of honest male activity distanced from the physical functions of woman, for, to quote Salle, "the ass is the opposite end of the person, so to speak, the most ignoble part of the person and the face is the most noble, the site of all the specificity." As the butt of the ironist, woman is "trapped and submerged in time and matter, blind, contingent, limited and unfree."

Carter Ratcliff comes close to grappling with Salle's treatment of women, admitting that "to glamorize cruelty is the pornographer's tactic." But "Salle's images of nude women" are "not exactly pornographic. He brings some of his nudes to the verge of gynecological objectivity." Perhaps Ratcliff means veterinary gynecology, because I have only seen dogs take poses remotely as contorted as the one a naked woman is forced into in a 1983 Salle watercolor: flat on her back, her thighs spread apart, her legs up. Footless, armless, helpless, she serves as the base for a set table in a pleasantly appointed room. In Midday (1984) a woman is on the floor of a similarly decorated room. Flat on her back, legs up, she holds up her hands as if to help her focus on, or protect herself from, the actively painted face of a man floating above her.

For Ratcliff, Salle is "like a self-conscious pornographer, one capable of embarrassment." A repentant rapist then, who can be excused from culpability. However, Ratcliff continues, "to see his paintings is to empathize with his intentions, which is to deploy images in configurations that permit them to be possessed." It is crucial to emphasize that this form of possession implies a male spectator and is condoned by the male art critic. Linda Nochlin writes that "certain conventions of eroticism are so deeply engrained that one scarcely bothers to think of them: one is that the very term 'erotic art' is understood to imply 'erotic for men.'" The hierarchy of erotic art is clear: "the male image is one of power, possession, and domination, the female one of submission, passivity, and availability." Carol Duncan stresses the violence with which "the male confronts the female nude as an adversary whose independent existence as a physical or a spiritual being must be assimilated to male needs, converted to abstractions, enfeebled, or destroyed."

Salle's reduction "of woman to so much animal flesh, a headless body" seems, in part, to be a response to the radical avant-garde feminism that he was exposed to while a student at the California Institute of the Arts in the early seventies. The Feminist Art Program at CalArts, created and led by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro, which I was part of, aimed at channeling reconsidered personal experiences into subject matter for art. Personal content, often of a sexual nature, found its way into figuration. Analyses and quotes (i.e., "appropriation") of mass-media representations of woman influenced artwork. "Layering"—a technique favored by Salle—was a buzzword of radical feminist art and discourse, as a basic metaphor for female sexuality. The Feminist Art Program received national attention and was the subject of excitement, envy, and curiosity at CalArts. Even students, male and female, who were hostile to the program, could not ignore its existence or remain unchallenged by its aims.

The history of this period at CalArts has been blurred, for instance in the curating of the CalArts Ten Year Alumni Show (1981), which excluded most women and any of the former Feminist Art Program students. In Craig Owens' review of that show, he mourned the resurgence of painting by artists nurtured in the supposed post-studio Eden of CalArts. His point may be well taken on the nature of the sellout by certain artists, but he does not probe beneath the given composition of the show to see that the Feminist Art Program, excluded from the retrospective, was truly radical and subversive in daring to question male hegemony of art and art history, whereas post-studio work at CalArts often simply continued an affectless commentary on art history.

Salle's lack of belief in the meaning of imagery is in striking and significant contrast to much work by women artists. From Paula Modersohn-Becker, Florine Stettheimer, and Frida Kahlo to Eva Hesse, Louise Bourgeois, Nancy Spero, and countless other artists working today, women artists have shown a vitality that shuns strategy and stylistics in order to honestly depict the image of the core of their being. A comparison of two artists' statements speaks to this difference in belief, and, parenthetically, of motivation:

I am interested in solving an unknown factor of art, an unknown factor of life. It can't be divorced as an idea or composition or form. I don't believe art can be based on that.... In fact my idea now is to counteract everything I've ever learnt or ever been taught about those things—to find something inevitable that is my life, my thoughts, my feelings.—Eva Hesse

I am interested in infiltration, usurpation, beating people at their own game (meaning scheme). I am interested in making people suffer, not through some external plague, but simply because of who they are (how they know).—David Salle

Salle's abuse of the female nude is a political strategy that feeds on the backlash against feminism increasingly evident in the national political atmosphere. The current rise of the right in this country puts issues pertaining to female organs and women's freedom or loss of choice at the top of the right's list of priorities. It is not surprising that in such an atmosphere Salle's theater of mastery of humiliated female Fleisch (the title of a Salle painting) is so acceptable despite its bad-boy shock value.

Just as the black leather trappings of the Nazi SS have become trivially eroticized, so too it is possible for some critics to openly succumb to the cult of the artist as magical misogynist. Michael Krüger describes a day spent with Salle in the snow-covered Alps: from a patio, the two consider the "breathtaking scenery" before them, as they drink "a dry Swiss wine from inexhaustible bottles," and Salle smokes "one of those excessively long cigars which cause one to wonder whether they can ever be brought to a successful conclusion." Salle draws an imaginary picture on the view, and then, apparently, a real one in the snow.

And then he did something that left me completely perplexed. I had always assumed that a painter begins his picture in one corner, for example, top left, if he is right-handed, bottom right, if he is left-handed. But, without removing the cigar from his mouth, David concentrated his attention on the center, where he placed the gigantic figure of a woman, naked, her thighs spread wide apart. And he did all this in such a convincing matter-of-factness that the obsceneness of the gesture with which he had drawn so quickly in the snow only struck me as my view, still dazzled by the sunlight, slowly began to penetrate and rapidly melt.... The most obvious explanation that occurred to me was that David was using a symbolic action to liberate the instrumentalized body from the constraints of economy, to return it to nature. So there was this splendid body before us, several hundred meters across, and there were the skiers, their tiny bodies wrapped in the most incredible disguises, registering naked shock.... The route back down the valley obligated them to desecrate this naked figure.

Excerpted from "Wet: On Painting, Feminism, and Art Culture (University Museum Symposium Series; 6)" by Mira Schor. Copyright © 2013 by Mira Schor. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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