Willem de Kooning, the Dutch-American painter of lurid, owl-eyed women, declared in 1950 that "flesh was the reason oil paint was invented." Using that famous sentence as its cornerstone, "Paint Made Flesh" gathers 43 figurative paintings by artists from the last 50 years, including de Kooning, Picasso, Philip Guston, Francis Bacon, Jenny Saville, Eric Fischl, and John Currin--most of them "painterly" painters. But the show's purpose is not just to revel in the physicality of oil and acrylic.
Consider the name of the show, "Paint Made Flesh." It echoes the phrase "Word made Flesh" from the gospel of St. John and thereby reminds us of what happens after the Incarnation: the Crucifixion. As inferred by this title, flesh is presented here as weak and transitory, subject to time, war, sickness, fear, even the cosmetic surgeon's knife.
How does an artist depict this sort of body? As Mark Rothko observed, after a time as painful as World War II--indeed, the starting point of "Paint Made Flesh"--it was impossible to paint the figure honestly without mutilating it.
The wall text by curator Mark W. Scala encourages us to regard the body as a sort of painted punching bag for these various negative forces. One says the show "traces figure painting's powerful personal and social commentary--beginning with images that convey a feeling of existential despair following World War II and culminating with recent paintings that reflect how individual identity has been altered by the forces of globalism, science, and technology."
Granted, there is truth in that statement. On the back wall of the first room, for instance, there hangs a giant work on unstretched, unframed, unprimed canvas by Leon Golub, "Napalm II" (1969). The two men here, one fleeing and one crumpled on the ground, have raised skin; their bodies look like scars from fire. On the facing wall, there's a painting of a bloated, toe-shaped head by Philip Guston, "Web" (1975), crowned with spiders--an illustration of anxiety for sure.
The next room, featuring Neo-Expressionist works by Germans and Americans in the '70s and '80s, contains further examples, such as Julian Schnabel's "Corine Near Armenia" (1984). In it there stands a young blonde woman, nearly nude, between two mountains on a field of crushed porcelain dishes, in which Schnabel says he hears "the sound of every violent human tragedy." An upside down figure by the German artist Georg Baselitz--"Nude Elka II" (1976)--captures the effort of trying to maintain poise in the midst of chaos. She falls upside-down through space while sitting, as if on a chair, with arms resting on her lap and knees neatly bent.
But the guiding idea of the body as an expressive victim does not always hold, even among the works chosen for this show. In the first room--devoted, the wall text tells us, to pictures about the horrors and aftermath of World War II--there's a scene by Richard Diebenkorn, "Woman by a Window" (1957), parted into blurry patches of blue and green in which a lady calmly sits. Instead of post-war angst there's composure, peace.
The artist whose works are perhaps most in line with the show's double aim to capture the anxiety of the flesh and to celebrate the physicality of paint is Jenny Saville. Her art adorns the show's Pepto-Bismol-pink brochures, and her monumental painting "Hyphen" (2002) dwarfs all other works here and is visible from multiple rooms. This statement, perfectly pitched to the show, is printed beside "Hyphen": "When you see the inside of a body, there's a realization that it's a tangible substance, so paint mixed with a flesh color suddenly became a kind of human paste." She calls paint "tins of liquid flesh," too.
"Hyphen," a portrait of Saville and her sister as infants, does show how she marshals paint on a canvas--like a surgeon, working in layers as thin as skin tissue. But still, the choice of "Hyphen" is curious, for it's not representative of Saville's acute taste for the grotesque. She is famous for depicting massive women with words cut into their bodies, half-awake obese hermaphrodites with spread legs, people with Elephantiasis, and so on, often against clinically blue-white backgrounds. She takes Polaroids of women's bodies crisscrossed with Sharpie lines before liposuction. And when Elton John asked her if we live in an ugly world, she replied, "Oh, fantastical--fantastically ugly."
There are other British artists represented in the show, including Saville's contemporary Cecily Brown and the older heavyweights Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon. Their works in "Paint Made Flesh" constitute the strongest, most coherent part of the show--partly because altogether they span the whole half-century that's surveyed here--but also because flesh plays a leading role in their art. Their works in "Paint Made Flesh," like "Hyphen," seem to be chosen not to propel us into sensory overload, even when they are made by artists (like Saville) famous for doing just that.
Prominently featured in the show's final section, mostly on contemporary American art, is John Currin, who like Saville has been overpraised as a savior of painting for making oils relevant and stylish again. His works in "Paint Made Flesh" mix the sex appeal of contemporary advertising with German Renaissance painters. One depicts a pin-up hobo wearing invisible underwear; and the other, a fully nude, cantaloupe-bellied Lolita reminiscent of a Lucas Cranach Eve. Again, these are the more PG-rated parts of his ouevre, which contains several girl-on-girl scenes and women measuring each other's impossibly large breasts.
Scala's tendency to choose tamer paintings keeps "Paint Made Flesh" from becoming sensationalist or explicit and thus veering off from the contemplative tone it strikes from the beginning with the idea of the post-World War II body as a victim. Too much is missing from the show for it to be considered a full-fledged retrospective of figurative painting from 1945 onwards. Nonetheless, "Paint Made Flesh" achieves much in under fifty works and asks us to consider whether the body is more sound and substantial in flesh or in paint.
"Paint Made Flesh" is on view at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, until September 13.
Katherine Eastland is an assistant editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.