Whatever it says in “The Wasteland,” from an art critic’s point of view, August is the cruelest month. Even the lingering group shows, the staple summer fare, peter out in the weeks before Labor Day. After Labor Day, la deluge, but when New York newspapers that usually don’t venture north of 90th Street start to run features on the museum scene in Massachusetts, the drought has reached red alert status.
To my relief, then (or is it a further sign of desperation?), the cover of W, the seriously outsize if only slightly offbeat fashion glossy, beckoned from a shelf on the cornerstore the other day. “The
Triumphant Return of a Superstar” announced a 40-page portfolio of Kate Moss by a roster of artists and fashion photographers. The first few names happen to be three, to my mind, of the world’s most serious painters of the human form: Chuck Close, Lucian Freud, and Alex Katz. I may be philistine enough to prefer the blonde beast modeling Victoria’s Secret in the advertisements, but men at the forefront of contemporary taste, it transpires, are confirmed Kateophiles.
And for some reason, men it is: W thought only to enlist two women in their line-up. Lisa Yuskavage photographs Ms. Moss kneeling on a sheepskin rug, naked but for bead panties (familiar from her recent painting show at Marianne Boesky) and stripey socks. Ms. Moss touches herself suggestively while coyly holding a fine porcelain cup and saucer in her other hand. While the model once dubbed “super waif” has filled out in her dotage (she is pushing 30), she is still incongruously un-Yuskavageish in body type. Only her snub nose is reminiscent of the iconoclastic painter’s warped aesthetics.
The other female perspective comes from Inez van Lamsweerde, who is half of a creative duo with Vinoodh Matadin; they are also among nine photographers responsible for the variant Kate Moss covers of the September issue. Variance, it seems, is the essence of Ms. Moss’s appeal. The nine covers could be as many models, testifying to an almost feline malleability.
Ms. Moss was a rule breaker in a profession dominated by “ball-breakers.” At a time of culturally diverse Amazons (leader of the pack was the half-Danish, half-Peruvian Helena Christensen) along came a pale, wan 5′ 7″ girl-nextdoor type from a south of London suburb.True, mixed in with her Anglo-Saxon ubiquity is a trace of something Asiatic – high cheekbones and pointy eyes suggest a splash of Tartar – but as Alex Katz, who was a confirmed fan before his invitation from W arrived, put it: “She’s completely ordinary. That’s what makes her extraordinary.”
Ms. Moss is a natural for Mr. Katz, as the realist master chooses sitters that are often at once quirky and glamorous. He usually casts downtown friends in his bohemian fêtes champetres, but he is no stranger to high style: he once painted Catherine Deneuve and has created a modern American icon out of his wife, Ada.
W follows in the footsteps of British Vogue, which in May 2000 ran an homage to Kate by seven “Young British Artists” (as the nation’s It-generation of neo-conceptualists have been dubbed), including the Chapman brothers,one of whom was linked romantically to the model. The spread said as much about the intellectual aspirations of the YBAs as it did of their muse’s. One painter of this generation, Gary Hume, had already immortalized Ms. Moss in a nearabstract portrait that dealt poignantly with the impossible challenge – at least to painting as practiced by Mr. Hume – of finding some equivalent to the aura of a supermodel. (And how clichéd “immortalized” now seems in relation to a visage mechanically reproduced many millions of times.)
An American counterpart to the YBAs is the conceptualist-abjectionist Tom Sachs. For W, he has created a squalid logo-lowlife scenario in which Ms. Moss stars as the attendant of a rather scruffy, improvised, mobile McDonald’s. Mr. Sachs has built his career out of politically excessive vilifications of corporate identity. For the Jewish Museum’s notorious self-hate fest last year, “Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art,” Mr. Sachs casually collided Prada and Tiffany packaging with Holocaust accoutrements. (Memo from an art lover to the multinationals: Please sue and put this prankster out of business!)
On the subject of McDonald’s, it looks as if Ms. Moss was put on a diet of cheeseburgers and Mars bars especially for her meeting with Chuck Close. The cruel coldness of his lens, with its overload of dermatological data, shatters illusions of natural beauty – unless my own prejudice merely reveals the extent to which airbrush-happy photo-editors have corrupted taste. Recall how the French actress Emmanuelle Béart lost her contract with Dior after appearing at a human rights demo sans make-up (and looking gorgeous!), and it could be argued that Mr. Close is a better advocate for cosmetics., His singularly unflattering images of Ms. Moss get right up to the raw facts that linger beneath the false surfaces generated by the beauty industry. He has given Ms. Moss a kind of defiant white trash beauty that recalls Dorothea Lange’s classic depictions of impoverished migrants.
The image that launched this whole project was a nude portrait by Lucian Freud. (W’s claim that it’s published here for the first time is untrue: It was featured in London’s Daily Telegraph in August 2002.) The story goes that Mr. Freud was reading the fashion magazine Dazed and Confused, which was then edited by Ms. Moss’s boyfriend, Jefferson Hack, and discovered in an interview that the model’s one unfulfilled ambition was to pose for him. Contrary to the norm in fashion shoots, she was happy for protracted sittings, as she was pregnant.
It might seem incongruous for Kate Moss to end up in a Freud painting: His aesthetic, so redolent of the miserabilist, earnest, existentialist postwar period in which he came artistically of age, seems a far cry from the slick, trashy, ephemeral pop culture epitomized by the cult of celebrity models. But Mr.Freud is ever the slumming lord of high art, socializing with teenagers and all the while vying with the old masters. He now exhibits in London at the trendy gallery that represents the young turks who had already adopted Ms. Moss as their muse.
Unlike fellow model Jerry Hall, who also once sat for Mr. Freud, Ms. Moss kept her appointments, collaborating in what looks (I haven’t seen the picture “in the flesh”) to be a strong and accomplished work. Telegraph critic Martin Gayford reported that the sitter’s pregnancy had hurried Mr. Freud along: Notoriously, his paintings can take dozens, if not hundreds, of sittings. The result in this case is untypically smooth brushstrokes. A suitably model-like serenity of surface contrasts with the zitsy Chuck Close daguerreotypes and Mr. Freud’s own often tortuously blotchy impasto. But, as in Alex Katz’s image in this portfolio, the model has been stripped of her defining individuality to conform with the painter’s visions, needs, interests. Which is fair enough – that’s her job.