No Sex Please
Martin Herbert on why art isn’t getting any
You’d never believe it, but once there was a time when American licentiousness could shock the French. It’s 1973, and the New York-based Photo-Realist painter Betty Tompkins is sending two paintings across the Atlantic for exhibition in a Paris gallery. Collectively entitled the Fuck Paintings, they are based on surreptitiously obtained hardcore pornographic magazines, feature gynaecological close-ups of penetration, and are painted in an extraordinary and gorgeous monochromatic palette that makes the folds of skin around the participants’ genitalia looked like the buckled metal of a John Chamberlain crushed-car sculpture. This is sex, but on an Olympian scale; it’s a distanced and far-from-dumb view of heterosexual coupling, but none the less erotic for that. Too dirty for the French in the early ’70s, anyway. A customs agent takes one sneaky peek, decides the paintings are un peu de trop, and impounds them.
What happened next? Not much; over the next 30 years, the Fuck Paintings (1969–74) made a couple of appearances in group shows and small retrospectives but, after Photo-Realism’s star faded, mostly they stayed rolled up under Tompkins’ pool table. Still, anyone familiar with the current no-stone-unturned cast of the curatorial mind won’t be surprised to hear that, slap-bang in the middle of the recent Photo-Realist revival, they were rediscovered by an enterprising New York dealer, Mitchell Algus, who put them on show in 2002. Surely as a result of this exposure, they were also included in the 2003 Lyon Biennale a move which constituted a belated apology on behalf of the French. All of which must be gratifying to Tompkins; yet this secondary efflorescence of the Fuck Paintings, and the fact that their charge is still uncommonly electric some three decades on, also points up a curious situation in contemporary art. Sex hasn’t changed much in 30 years – sex hasn’t changed much in millennia – but our capacity, or willingness, to represent it has. In the purely visual register, we don’t really do sex-as-sex anymore. Now, why is that?
A first response might involve a rhetorical question: have you ever made love in the ironic position? I’m guessing not. Though Woody Allen might disagree, sex and irony don’t really go together, and it’s taking contemporary art a long time to shed the pair of massive, inflatable, and profoundly unsexy inverted commas it donned in the early ’70s with the advent of postmodernism (around the time when Tompkins put down her pornographic magazines). You don’t want to feel that someone’s playing with you when they put sex on display, which is why, say, Made in Heaven, Jeff Koons’ 1990–91 series based around inkjet images of himself in flagrante with his then-wife La Cicciolina, seemed enveloped in a cloud of tactical numbness. (Koons’ statement that the images were designed as a way of inserting himself into the ‘collage structure’ of his work was, in this respect, suitably distanced).
But those images comprised a rare recent example of art getting into serious, legally-obscene, borderline-pornographic territory. I dimly recall an exhibition in a warehouse space in Camden Town in the early ’90s composed entirely of ‘art of a sexual nature’– it had an over-18s-only disclaimer on the door, but this turned out to be a ploy: much of the work would not have turned the head of a pre-teen. Nowadays, not only do most dealers not want to get into trouble with the law, but artists are making sure the issue doesn’t come up. Nobody is closing down shows by John Currin and Lisa Yuskavage, two contemporary painters who deal with awkward-for-some aspects of eroticism (although one reviewer of an early Currin exhibition did suggest that viewers ‘boycott this show’). And, indeed, there’s not much reason to do so. The former scans the sexual arena for flashpoints of discomfort (bad-breath professorial types and nubile Lolitas; pock-faced, huge-breasted girls bonding while trying on brassieres; faux-Cranachs with contemporary faces; and, lately, pointedly clichéd versions of gay domestic happiness) which, as in his recent Serpentine retrospective, passively encourage the viewer to stand in the centre of the gallery, pivoting around and looking at each work from a safe distance; the latter paints gauzy, soft-core fantasy girls, laying around in half-light and sometimes pleasuring themselves. This is not hardcore.
What is it, then? In each case, there seems to be a structural reason for the work’s existence – it’s a tactical insertion into an extant discourse, a testing of the limits of bourgeois taste – and that fact takes precedence. Neither Currin or Yuskavage make flat-out erotic images, nor appear to want to. But then they’re well-schooled; their work is concerned with the procedures of looking even while it seeks to reframe those procedures – and create a sense of distance from them – through ticklish acts of bad faith. Since the faceted post-structuralist critique of the 1970s took hold, we all know what we’re supposed to think when we see sexual images in visual culture; that someone is getting exploited here on the artist’s behalf, that such images inhabit the pandering realm of the spectacular, that enjoying them merely underlines our scopophiliac tendencies (to the point where, for instance, a male critic considering writing an article like this would be wiser not to). Currin and Yuskavage know all that and are toying with it, but they don’t want, or aren’t able, to go so far into the unspeakable as to reconnect art with Eros. Meanwhile, halfway-houses between the sexually polymorphous and the expressionistic – from Carroll Dunham to Marlene Dumas – still feel exactly that; there’s enough contrasting and contradictory content in these artists’ respective works for viewers to walk around their shows without thinking, as equine ’70s rocker Todd Rundgren once asked in a gap between album tracks, ‘Don‘t you think about anything but sex?’
So much for painting, then. In contemporary photography – which, despite the brackish verbiage that has grown up around it, theoretically has the best crack at an unmediated view of anything – it’s interesting that some of the most outwardly erotic images have come from gay photographers such as Wolfgang Tillmans, Jack Pierson and the late Mark Morrisoe; work that again, at its inception, could be recuperated by the artworld within a substructure of otherness, loss, or lack of other agency than the sexual, although Tillmans for one has worked to make the erotic simply one of many categories with which he is fascinated – has laboured, that is, to corral it. In other words, we can talk about sex, so long as we talk about something else at the same time.
The mistake here, though, might lie in looking for images that put libidinousness ahead of tactics and not, instead, seeking sublimation – something art is very, very good at. (What do we mean, for example, when we say a painting has a ‘lickable surface’? What was de Kooning talking about when he said that, famously, ‘flesh was the reason’ that oil paint was invented?) ’Twas ever thus; look at Bernini’s Ecstasy of St Teresa (1647–52). When one looks at such works a feeling comes pulsing through, and it is not an innocent feeling; but because it’s not exactly visible, not precisely there in the iconography for no-one to argue with, we are able to accept it without comment. Stage an image of two people having sex, however, with little apparent ideational mediation – that is, put up an image of something that is necessarily a massive part of contemporary existence (and that is used as the motor of advertising, drives product lust, and as such, despite the grand deconstructive projects of recent decades, apparently still requires some serious coming-to-terms-with) – and you’re just being crude and obvious. So put it away, and bring back that finish-fetish West-Coast ’70s minimalism (or Colour Field painting, or contemporary variants thereon) already. Sublimation is smart and sophisticated, whereas putting it all on display in art is as stupid as putting it all on display in conversation.
Under-inscribed eroticism in art is still problematic because – as a French customs official with no understanding of developments in post-photographic painting would tell you – it’s hard to distinguish from pornography, unless it’s in a gallery. And sometimes even then: Duchamp might have argued that the gallery setting virtually guarantees artistic status, but tell it to the judge. And if it’s not in a gallery but in a customs-and-excise office, well... The very fact that it’s hard to be smart and freshly thoughtful about sex – to frame it lightly and intelligently, as Tompkins did, yet not sacrifice its potency as a fount of visual imagery – may yet make for interesting territory for the future, or it may not. But in the meantime the indubitable fact is that, somewhere in the interim between the Fuck Paintings and now, an unspoken and centuries-old bonding of art’s iconography to the viewer’s erogenous zones via the eye has been severed; has been somehow repressed in contemporary practice. And, since we all know what happens to the repressed, perhaps it’s a useful thing that adventurous gallerists are still trawling the blocked-off erotic avenues of the past.
Martin Herbert is a freelance writer and critic