Magazine article Artforum International

Lucian Freud

Magazine article Artforum International

Lucian Freud

Article excerpt

ACQUAVELLA CONTEMPORARY ART

Look at Lucian Freud's grand image of the late Leigh Bowery: perched on a box or table, his body extends, tapers, reaches (pictorially if not physically) up to a skylight, graceful in its awkward pose. Full frontal nudity. There's a penis, but also a face, feet, and hands - all given the same degree of detail. Is this uninhibited realism, or artistic indecision? If it's hard to tell, perhaps the painter is waging psychological war against philistines and aesthetes all at once. Freud's portrayal of Bowery - a performance artist renowned for costumes, cosmetics, and prosthetics, not nakedness, and for affectation of feminine characteristics, not masculinity - violates decorum while also countering current fashions in artistic transgression. The penis is indecorously present, yet deadpan, inactive as cultural icon; it hardly makes a statement, one way or another. Much more remarkable is the sense of stretch and compression in this nearly ten-foot-high picture, which nevertheless conveys corporeal closeness. The effect is not derived from Bowery's actual bulk, but from scale, perspective, and the trackings of Freud's brush.

Whatever a society regulates - for instance, sexuality and the public display of the body - vigilant critics will notice, often at the expense of everything else. In a pseudointerview conducted by Bowery shortly before Freud's 1993-94 Metropolitan Museum retrospective, the painter preempted questions that nevertheless still pursue him: "In your work the pictures of naked women are always of straight women, while the pictures of naked men are always of gay men. Why is that?" queried Bowery. The reply was flippant, yet a plausible guide to future critical genius: "I'm drawn to women by nature and to queers because of their courage." So Freud has consistent principles. Indeed, to be seen at his recent show at Acquavella were the same kinds of pictorial and psychological gestures (and one of the very paintings) that had brought on the carpings of philistines and aesthetes alike at the Metropolitan.

Leery of salaciousness yet willing to bite at sexualized bait, a number of prominent reviewers, including Donald Kuspit and Linda Nochlin (in the March 1994 Artforum), had doubted Freud's status as maverick original. "We have seen it before," wrote Kuspit, evaluating studio portraiture by a standard more appropriate to medical illustration: the painter's dispassionate representation of "purely anatomical sexuality" never reaches "complete, clinical exposure." While Kuspit regarded Freud's realism as de-mystifying but ultimately restrained and something of a modernist or verist cliche, Nochlin responded as if the Metropolitan exhibition were promoting exhibitionism. She particularly emphasized those instances where Freud went (nearly) all the way with "head-on crotch views - male and female beaver shots." This proclivity, she argued, generates sexual mystification and, especially with a penis in evidence, "visual sensationalism." Deciding whether the painter's depiction is constrained (Kuspit) or excessive (Nochlin) actually makes little difference, since both critics turn their vision straight to the genitals, as if these bits of anatomy were Lacanian (not Freudian) traps set by Lucian to lure the literal-minded eye, leaving it to other eyes to see the bigger picture. Kuspit and Nochlin both judged Freud's art lacking, their vigilance caught by the groin.

Perhaps Freud is an artist American critics love to hate because he defies classification, caring neither to update himself as postmodernist nor to master the more tasteful conventions of modernist materiality (he idolized the unruly Francis Bacon, after all). …

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