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Indepth Arts News:

"Marlene Dumas' First Drawing Retrospective"
2002-02-23 until 2002-06-02
New Museum of Contemporary Art
New York, NY, USA

The New Museum of Contemporary Art presents Marlene Dumas: Name No Names, a major drawing retrospective and the first solo exhibition in a US museum of work by this acclaimed Amsterdam-based artist. Name No Names features over 80 of Marlene Dumas' works on paper from 1970 to the present. Her expressive drawings of human figures and faces have established her as one of the most prominent European artists today. Often rewriting art history from the perspective of the model, Dumas' startling, frank and subtle figurative works explore love and desire and the dynamics between artist, image and spectator.

Marlene Dumas' work is inspired by a wide range of imagery from film stars and fashion models such as Brigitte Bardot and Claudia Schiffer to art historical icons like Manet's Olympia and Vermeer's Woman with a Pearl. Rather than using live models, Dumas chooses to paint and draw from photographs-either gathered from magazines, culled from reproductions, or taken by herself-and her work mimics the cropping, blurring, and flattening effects of this medium. Many of her drawings have an informal look; the paper, cut from a large roll is often scratched, stained and torn. Events in Dumas' personal life transform subject matter common in literature, film, and popular culture to reveal the ambiguity and complexity in human relationships. Arranged chronologically and thematically, the exhibition tackles issues ranging from art and religion to family and the artist's native South Africa.

From 1976 to 1983, Marlene Dumas' work consisted mainly of large collages of drawings in pencil, ink, and crayon combined with text, clippings from newspapers and magazines, and the occasional object. Emblematic of this early work is Don't Talk to Strangers (1977): along the work's edges are salutations from letters including Dear Marlene or Dear Miss Dumas followed by phrases such as How are you getting on? and Please answer me quickly. The center of the work is left blank, as if the viewer were asked to fill in the empty space. This early work signals Dumas' lasting interest in human relationships often laden with uncertainty, anxiety, sexual tension, and desire.

Frequently allying herself with humanity's dark, female, sexual, sublime, or seductive sides, Dumas uses drawing as a subversive means of expression. For example, the eight drawings in the series Defining in the Negative (1988) form a critique of the way artists have treated the female body and the human figure. Next to sketchily drawn nude figures are notes such as I won't pose for Mr. Salle and I won't be hung upside down for Mr. Baselitz. With a touch of humor, Dumas asks if the female nude, having been excommunicated by feminist theory, can continue to be a model for the artist. As with most of her paintings and drawings, Dumas suggests a wealth of possibilities, but rarely offers a definite answer.

The nostalgia present in Dumas' early works about Africa, such as the three Homesick drawings (1976), give way to biting criticism in Self-portrait as a Black Girl (1989) and An African Mickey Mouse (1991). This group of works culminates with Black Drawings (1991-1992), a small slate with 111 portraits done in inkwash and watercolor. Dumas regards this work as an interactive piece that sparks different feelings, reactions, and questions from the viewer. She says, What interested me was how the subjects looked at the camera, how the sunlight hit their faces, how the scale of the faces was quite small…and what different people could and would read into them.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Marlene Dumas produced an extensive group of works about babies and pregnancy. In these drawings, Dumas, who became a mother in 1989, explores the enigmatic relationship between existence and its origins, both in terms of human life and of art. The Foetus Tree (1987-1991) depicts a large tree set in a wasteland that bears fruit in the form of fetuses at different stages of development. Dumas avoids a romantic depiction of mother and child and instead presents monstrously heavy pregnant woman and babies that have been described by curator Jonas Storsve as elderly aliens from outer space.

Marlene Dumas, who was brought up in a family and culture steeped in the Dutch Reformed Church, begins to address religious subjects in the early 1980s with Jesus is Boos (1983), an abstract portrait of Christ emerging from a purple cloud. Jesus Serene (1994), completed ten years later, depicts Christ in a series of 21 portraits drawn from artistic representations of Christ as well as from contemporary faces one might encounter on the street. Dumas' first full-length drawings of women feature the Christian saint Mary Magdalene. Magdalena (de eerste) [the first] (1996) and Magdalena (met de grote borsten) [with big breasts] (1996) were both inspired by supermodels' bodies and poses from old paintings of women and are endowed with a monumental and sculptural quality.

Dumas' more recent standing figures are charged with eroticism. Josephine (1997), West (1997), and Morningdew (1997), representing Josephine Baker, Mae West, and Pamela Anderson, form a triptych of female sex symbols from popular culture. While Male Nipples (1998), Pink Erection (1988), and Things Men Do (2001), are obviously inspired by pornography, Dumas' blurry contours and hazy shapes reveal the sensuality in her male nudes. These works exemplify Marlene Dumas' use of, as she has said, second hand images and firsthand emotions to alter the relationships between artist, image and viewer. Throughout her work, Dumas draws the human face and body in order to explore the essential themes in life: birth, love, sex, religion, and death.

Marlene Dumas
Mixed Blood (detail) (1996).

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