Marlene Dumas


I wasn't in the Museum of Modern Art to see Marlene Dumas' show there. I was there, along with apparently half of everyone in New York City, to see the Van Gogh show on its second-to-last day. While I was waiting for my Van Gogh ticket time to roll around, I wandered through the building, starting with Marlene. Why not? I'd expected to really dislike it. I've seen her work online and it looks like something I'd despise. Jerry Saltz said it was dreary.

The first thing I thought of at the show was Jasper Johns. The work reminds me strongly of Johns, particularly the recent Gray. One thing Marlene has in common with Jasper is their touch: Marlene has a lovely painterly brushstroke at times, the kind of gestural calligraphy that cries out "I'm a serious painter!" It's the kind of thing that makes me realize why some painters are lauded in excess of their gifts -- if you don't know anything else about painting, if your eye is completely blind to real quality, this kind of brushstroke can appear to be genius.

Marlene Dumas, Self Portrait at Noon, 2008, oil on canvas

Marlene Dumas, Self Portrait at Noon, 2008, oil on canvas

Another thing Marlene has in common with our old pal Jasper is contempt for other people. It radiates off of everything they do, a disapproving frown hanging over all their work. However, Jasper's disdain results in paintings that have little or nothing to do with humans at all -- no relation to their concerns, feelings, or thoughts. In fact I feel his paintings float out in this intellectual vacuum with crystallized vapors of composition and color theory hanging around them in the void.

Marlene's contempt instead seems to have made her very angry. She seems determined to paint the ugliness of people, whether dead or alive, young or old. Her anger even affects her colors: I got the feeling that she looked at the beauty and subtlety of pure, unmixed pigments and thought, "I can't paint the horror and agony of human existence with these. I must make them as unpleasant as possible!" That's how these works are like Jasper's Gray show: Every color has been dragged down towards the low end of the chroma scale. They've all been pounded flat and lifeless, the better to portray the existential anguish of being human.

In this, Marlene is lucky: In the current art climate, ugliness equals honesty. Because her paintings are unabashedly nasty and unpleasant -- even images of babies and pregnant women, and really how much must you hate people to make even them grusesome? -- her work can be freely embraced as being honest, expressive, dripping with meaning, drenched in content, and, as she's female, larded with commentary on the state of bourgeois male-dominated society.

Sadly, this all appears to me to be a pose. If it's not a pose, then it's pathological: Marlene needs Prozac. And if she's not depressed or faking it, then I'd have to say maybe she's just not that good a painter. Maybe this is a case of someone making ugly work because it's the best they can manage. The online verbiage actually uses the phrase "extraordinary technical quality" which is either hilarious or very sad depending on how you look at it; either our civilization's declined so precipitously no one knows what quality looks like any more or the verbiage writer went batshit crazy trying to make Marlene sound fantastic. There isn't even the hint that Marlene can draw very well.

But there is that touch, that brushstroke. It's nice. When it's working for her, it can be quite evocative, elevating yet another painting of a dead distorted person into something, while not exactly beautiful, at least approaching bearable. When the touch is absent, however, the work melts into a distasteful morass of bile.


I don't get the contempt-for-other-people thing at all. If anything I think her work sentimentalizes vulnerability - a kind of stiffling maternalism. On the other hand, when she blurs differences between S&M porn and political torture, between proportion and physique in child development, abnormality and miscegenation, there most definitely is discomfort, as there is in a Bacon, Balthus, Goya or Golub.Art does this, on occasion.This is anything but contempt. It's making some uncomfortable connections about supposed 'normative' practices in our culture, that in an age of widespread child porn and paedophilia, are worth acknowledging, that in an age of growing authoritarianism and right-wing politics, register crucial symptoms of a deeper malaise. Technically, her work is sort of gimmicky, in that it relies on certain unusual applications and constituencies of paint, but I see nothing weak or incompetent about her drawing. If anything it's too academic, too timid, given her stern gaze elsewhere. I don't think she helps her cause with all her clever feminist blather in press statements, catalgoue essays etc, either. The 'strong woman' bit looks decidedly selective or capricious in the circumstances.

The trouble I have with your analysis is one I run into frequently when discussing this kind of art, which is confusing that which is merely ugly and unpleasant with that which is disturbing and discomfiting. Just because I find Dumas' work ugly doesn't mean it's achieved its desired objective of making me feel uncomfortable about normative practices in our culture.Bacon, Balthus, and Goya are good examples of artists whose work may be disturbing but isn't necessarily ugly. Well, Goya's work is often ugly, particularly his court portraits; from what I've read at the time they were sincerely received as straightforward and well-made, but to my eye they seem like something Goya's heart wasn't in. I can't say much more about it, though, not being familiar with Goya originals.Balthus, however, I just saw -- with Franklin -- a few weeks ago, that big painting of his in the Met, and that's undeniably beautiful; any discomfort we might feel of considering the beauty of a young nude girl is generated by us, the viewers. It's interesting.Bacon, again, I'm not deeply familiar with his originals. But what I have seen is strongly felt, not what one would call classically beautiful or mainstream, but nevertheless not ugly. Weird, discomfiting, disturbing, but with elements of sublimity.Meanwhile Dumas is merely ugly. Feeble Painting, as Mark Staff Brandl calls it. Self-hating -- as the Dumas self-portrait seems to be -- and seemingly hating the very medium of painting.So, ultimately, the trouble I have is that it's all too easy to generate apologists for this kind of work when it's really merely nasty and contemptuous -- contemptuous of other people in general, of painting audiences in particular, and of all the millions of painters who have come before and actually put some effort into it. By saying it's about ugliness, rather than actually embodying ugliness, you can get people to pretend it's profound, when in fact it's just not very good.I see Dumas as part of the problem, not someone commenting on it.

Hi Chris!Just checking out your blog. I was amused to find your review on Demas. I didn't see her show but I'm quite familiar with her work, and I had read Roberta Smith's review of her show in the Times, and from her description, I was reminded of Jasper Johns! Did you read it? It's brutal. "Ms. Dumas’s painting is only superficially painterly. The photographic infrastructure is usually too close to the surface, which makes it all look too easy. Worse, it makes subject matter paramount." Ouch! didn't see the John's show, either, but from the Met's site, I gather that it was one of those meaningless thematic shows that desperate museums put on. Gathering a painter's works from 50 years just on the theme of one color is like, collecting all the Beatles' work written in A minor. Any how, I was reminded of Johns because, both Demas and Johns do possess the gift of a painterly hand, but this gift is easily turned into a curse if not cultivated carefully. Johns was discovered by Castelli very early and was made a super star overnight only on one painting: the Flag. Ever since then, in my mind, Johns' career was nothing but a struggle (obviously not in financial sense). His huge retrospective in early 90s? was so painful. Most of his paintings after the initial flag/ target/map phase made me cringe for their self-consciousness, especially when he tried to be like his effortlessly bad and beloved buddy Rauschenberg. He would've continued to grow and mature if it weren't for his early stardom. It's a loss to all but those who cashed in on his name.Demas, too, I think would've continued to grow, but her case is probably more complicated with her being a woman and having grown up in South Africa. I don't feel sorry for her like I do for Johns, because like you and Smith point out, it is an arrogance that she chose to use as her defense. Any way, that's my rambling for today!keiko

I thought of a better ending for my comment. I don't feel sorry for her like I do for Johns, because I don't see Dumas as a victim of external circumstances to the same degree that I see Johns, but that's probably because I don't know her story.

We were discussing Dumas over at Franklin's and I happened to bump into this video MoMA has up of Dumas talking about her work. I wrote:"She's a ditz, a total airhead. I'd rather hear Edith Bunker discuss her art." "Good lord, she even botches a quote from T.S. Eliot.""I actually feel a little bad for her because that video makes it amazingly clear that she's completely bewildered and bamboozled. She has absolutely no idea what she's doing. I thought her paintings were pretty bad when I thought she was doing them on purpose that way. Her rambling makes it clear she's not even painting badly intentionally like DeKooning; she just doesn't know any better.""Even for a painter who can't talk, Dumas makes herself look bad. I understand that some painters are cantankerous and communicate mostly in grunts. That's okay. But being willing to talk aimlessly and heedlessly about fluff, that's bad.""It's not her fault she's in waters too deep for her. On the other hand, she isn't turning them away. No one forced her to blather on idiotically for the camera. No one is making her sell her crap paintings.Cezanne was known for destroying his paintings. Sometimes even ones he'd sold. He'd get them back to 'fix' them and fix them by burning them.This is what Yeats meant when he said the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.""If her art were fantastic, she could be an idiot savant for all I'd care. I might be amazed, but it'd be fine.I just think I was happier with my mental image of her as a depressed brooding spectre angrily beating on her canvases with ugly paint because the world sucks. Instead she's a deluded bimbo. Very sad."So there's my collected thoughts on Marlene Dumas, Feeblist.

i just saw the video. i must say i agree with you, esp. with your last paragraph. and i, too, feel sad. i guess we're still hopelessly romantic and idealistic.

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