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Marlene Dumas ~ Her Paintings Sell for Millions . . But Are you pro-Dumas or anti-Dumas?

MARLENE DUMAS’S STUDIO occupies an underheated, underfurnished ground-floor apartment on the southern side of Amsterdam. She can customarily be found in her studio at 2 or 3 in the morning, and her desire to record experience in its most extreme forms — she paints birth, sex, death and violence, for starters — has failed to bring her one inch closer to observing or recording the famed Dutch light. Tellingly, she does not like to travel, even across town. For all their moral gravity, Dumas’s paintings have led a separate, rather flashy existence in the more commercial precincts of the art world.

As Dumas, at 54, remains in Amsterdam, her career in America has been advancing on its own. The first major survey of her art in the USA opens at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles next week, before traveling to the Museum of Modern Art in New York in mid-December and finally ending at the Menil Collection in Houston. “Marlene Dumas: Measuring Your Own Grave,” as the show is titled, might sound more like a do-it-yourself funeral than a foray into the optical pleasures of painting, but one trademark of the artist’s work is her ability to conjoin nerve-racking subject matter and elegant brushwork. She is one of contemporary art’s most compelling painters, taking people from newspaper photographs and turning them into agents in a psychological drama who might shut their eyes on us or look out at us with a gaze that says, “Don’t go.”

 The facts of Dumas’s biography — she grew up in South Africa under apartheid — can encourage a viewer to read her work as unadorned social commentary. Significantly, the retrospective in Los Angeles, which was organized by the curator Cornelia Butler and consists of about 70 paintings and 35 works on paper, will be arranged along loose thematic lines touching on topics like race relations and terror. Taken together, Dumas’s portraits might seem to constitute the face book of a bungled imperialism. On the other hand, the figures in her paintings are pleasingly complicated — there are babies who look like dictators and brides in wedding dresses lined up like zombies — and they hark back to the days before big questions about life and death and evil gave way to the drone of gender theory and identity politics.

In February 2005, at Christie’s in London, “The Teacher (sub a)” (1987) — a large, horizontal group portrait that turns a sentiment-laden class picture from her own childhood into a bruising reflection on authority — sold for $3.34 million. Virtually overnight, Dumas became “the world’s most expensive living female artist,” as the blogs reported, a status she maintained for one year, until Louise Bourgeois sold a sculpture for $4 million and captured the top-art-girl crown.

“The Teacher (sub a),” as it turns out, was purchased by the Acquavella Galleries, which occupies a stately town house on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and, three years later, still owns the painting. “We bought it for ourselves,” Nick Acquavella, who is 30, told me, explaining that he and his art-dealing father attended the auction not to bid on behalf of a client but rather in the hope of adding Dumas’s painting to the family collection, which abounds with Picassos, Giacomettis and other staples of European modernism. “It is difficult to find Marlene’s work on the market,” he said. “She is not very prolific, and most of her work is in European collections where people don’t want to sell.”

It was announced that Dumas is leaving her longtime dealer in New York, Jack Tilton, and signing with the David Zwirner gallery. “It literally took four years before Marlene committed fully,” Zwirner told me, during which time he visited her in Holland on two occasions, met her in Venice on two others and assembled an ambitious show of her older works. In the end, Dumas was probably won over less by Zwirner’s charming attentions than by her affinity with the artists he represents. They include art stars like Luc Tuymans and Neo Rauch, who possess a seemingly inborn talent for depicting nightmares, particularly of the political variety, and have made European painting feel newly urgent in New York.

One of Dumas’s most enduring subjects is her daughter, Helena, who was born, as her father told me, “the year the wall fell in Berlin.” Dumas has painted Helena from infancy, at times retrospectively from old photographs, in an intermittent series of portraits that are among her most discomfiting. “The Painter” (1994), which is owned by the Museum of Modern Art, depicts a blond toddler as a miniature stalker. The little girl faces the viewer, nude and glowering, her blue stomach looking less decorated than discolored. Her hands are stained up to the wrist — her left hand carmine red, the right venous blue — and you cannot be sure whether she has spent the previous few minutes finger painting in the playroom or dousing her hands in blood.

You can see “The Painter” as Dumas’s manifesto, a definitive image of ruined innocence, rendered with her customary thin, washy, my-first-draft-is-also-my-final-draft style. The painting is the anti-Cassatt, with none of the sentimentality, the softly lambent flesh, the powdery radiance you expect in a portrait of a child. The little girl, unlike the countless trophy infants and children in art history intended to plug their mothers’ supposed benevolence, knows she’s a morally flawed individual. Even the purest among us mess up, the picture seems to be saying.

A DUMAS PAINTING is easy to recognize. It typically shows a face or a figure in dramatic close-up, isolated against a neutral ground. Put another way, the people in her pictures are not sitting in a cafe or strolling the avenue, and they seem to have sprung from some infernal realm where personal memories are constantly colliding with public traumas. Her subjects include her daughter, her mother, terrorists, drowning victims, hanging victims, Emily Dickinson, the South African poet Elisabeth Eybers and the model Naomi Campbell. In addition to her oil-on-canvas output, she is prolific on paper and specializes in inky watercolors that use a meltingly sensual style to conjure disturbing scenes, among them strippers standing with their backsides shoved at us or the impassive heads of blindfolded male prisoners who may or may not be alive.

Dumas, by contrast, does not work from models, and most of the people in her pictures have already posed for someone else’s lens. She is part of a generation of figurative painters who find their subjects, as if by default, in photographs culled from newspapers and magazines. Still, Dumas manages to put photography to expressionistic ends. If her point of departure is an in-focus photograph, she proves that pixels aren’t everything in paintings that inhabit a realm somewhere between figuration and abstraction, between outer and inner worlds.

I asked her if she saw a difference between European figurative painting and its young New York cousins, exemplified by artists like Elizabeth Peyton, with her dreamy, jewel-like portraits of rocks stars and friends. “For me, that is not cruel enough,” Dumas said. “I like it a bit crueler. Francis Bacon once said that is why he went for figuration against abstraction — he didn’t like Pollock as much because he said abstraction couldn’t be cruel enough for him. I did get things from Francis Bacon — the fact of the figure in an abstract background. It is a figure, but where is the figure?”

Over the years, Dumas’s work has remained fairly consistent. Asked about the trajectory of her development, she mentioned that her handling of paint has grown more assured: she has become adept at making pictures with less and less paint. “It’s almost Alex Katzy,” she said of one of her recent works, referring to the New York figurative painter known for his Spartan and effortless-seeming surfaces.

IN 1976, AFTER PORING OVER countless pictures in art magazines, which provided her only glimpse of the latest art coming out of New York, and earning a degree in art at the University of Cape Town, Dumas left South Africa to study abroad. She had won a two-year scholarship to Ateliers ’63, a small, progressive, unaccredited art school in Haarlem, now known as de Ateliers and located in Amsterdam. Ateliers ’63, one of whose founders was Jan Dibbets, the influential Dutch artist fond of measuring the movement of shadows and other fastidious calculations, was a bastion of conceptual art, and Dumas tried to play along. “I was quite fascinated by all these conceptual artists,” she said. “It looked so intelligent. It looked like modern art. Who wanted to paint a naked figure?”

In 1984, Dumas did something radical — she started painting heads and figures. She was hardly the only painter in the early ’80s to go back to traditional figure motifs; many artists were then trying to find an alternative to the paper-white coolness of conceptual art. But unlike Francesco Clemente, Georg Baselitz and the other neo-Expressionists who were causing a sensation in New York, Dumas was in no hurry to exhibit her work in America, and she wasn’t part of any group. Her first all-painting show was held in 1985, at the Galerie Paul Andriesse in Amsterdam, and it brought together nine portraits. Three of them, curiously enough, depicted women named Martha — one the artist’s grandmother, another Martha Freud, the third a servant.

IT HAS BEEN 18 YEARS since Dumas made her American debut at the Tilton Gallery in New York, and the critical response to her work has been divided, more or less, among those who admire her earnest theatricality and those who deplore her theatrical earnestness. An art-world blog, Anaba, has taken to listing the names of Dumas’s supporters and detractors as if they were election superdelegates charged with putting an artist into office. Are you pro-Dumas or anti-Dumas?

On a wall where Dumas had pinned up postcards, I noticed a reproduction of a canvas by Ode aan Coorte, a recently rediscovered 17th-century painter of miniature still lifes whose show had just opened at The Hague. It was a compelling image — red cherries and a bundle of asparagus glistening against shadow — and it seemed to say something about the Dutch temperament, with its famous affection for the everyday things of this world.

This, of course, is precisely the world that Dumas has banished from her art. Her paintings can be defined in terms of what she has rejected from her surroundings. She strips away anecdotal detail — the asparagus and the tulips and the light slanting down on red bricks — until all that is left is a haunting gaze. Together her pictures have a cumulative power, and at moments they seem to stare out at us as if emblematic of everyone who has ever disappeared, and with the knowledge that one day, we, too, will be among the missing. Which is not to say that Dumas is ready to completely embrace the abyss. “I still want to try before I die to paint a tree,” she said. 

Via: Deborah Solomon NYT


June 18, 2008 - Posted by | Art Exhibitions, Artists, News, raw art gallery |


  1. I suppose I’m not in an position to moan about pinching a complete article off the New York Times, but I do feel that if you do run it complete, without even acknowledging the source, it’s a bit bad. That article ran word for word in the NYT of June 15; not even the punctuation changed.

    Comment by Munich Ratforth | November 8, 2008 | Reply

  2. The way M.Dumas sees and paints form,her most complicated and beuatiful vision of coulor puts her up to the top,the best of the best.

    Comment by Olga Beskoff | December 4, 2008 | Reply

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