I Am as You Will Be: The Skeleton in Art
Cheim & Read
547 West 25th Street
New York City
212 242 7727
September 20 to November 3, 2007
In Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s “Triumph of Death” (circa 1562), hordes of skeletons swarm upon a town, pitilessly inflicting lessons about the transitoriness of life and its diversions. Popular depictions of death have evolved in the centuries since, but death’s grip on our imaginations has hardly lessened. In “I Am as You Will Be,” more than 30 artists, from James Ensor to Andy Warhol and Donald Baechler, arrange bones in almost every possible configuration and medium as they grapple with mortality and our perceptions of it. In this intriguing exhibition, which was curated in part by James Ensor scholar Xavier Tricot, the images of death range from the romantically morbid to the coolly cerebral.
The most intimate and earnest works tend to be the earliest. These includes three Ensor etchings, among them one from 1895 that describes several skeletons in ill-fitting clothes, all vainly trying to warm themselves about a stove; Even death, it seems, has not delivered them from human misery. Edvard Munch’s drypoint etching “Death and Love” (1894) portrays a young woman and a skeleton in a rapturous embrace, her full, naked body contrasting poignantly with the wizened bones.
Some contemporary artists revisit the impression of mortified flesh, and none more effectively than Louise Bourgeois, whose 1997 torso-like construction of fabric, bones, and wire arches painfully inside a glass case. The pathos of death, however, is downplayed or deflected in many other works. Picasso’s 1946 lithograph of a still life with skull, book, and pitcher turns the vanitas genre into an excuse for wonderfully vigorous spatial rhythms and velvety tones. Later pieces tend to analyze attitudes towards mortality instead of the formal components of its depiction; among these, Warhol’s mixed-media self-portrait from 1978 pictures the artist coyly balancing a skull on his head, while McDermott & McGough’s “Flames of Jealousy 1964” from 2007 consists of what appears to be a real skull resting on comic books.
Other works show an almost fetishistic enthusiasm for craftsmanship. Kris Martin’s “I Am Still Alive” (2006), a silvery, life-size skull, glistens like oversized jewelry. (The exhibition catalogue indicates that it was executed from scans of the artist’s own head.) Angelo Filomeno’s ten-foot-tall piece from 2007 is an ornamental tour de force that renders a dagger-wielding, fish-clutching skeleton on silk fabric with embroidery and tiny crystals.
Elsewhere, Marcel Broodthaers’ 1965 piece makes a complex and gritty political statement with simple means: a female thigh bone painted in the colors of the French flag. The gothic title of Jenny Holzer’s “Lustmord Table” (1994) adds a chilling dimension to her tidy arrangement of human bones. Damien Hirst’s “Male and Female Pharmacy Skeletons” (1998/2004) is exactly that: twin life-size skeletons hanging from stands. Hurst’s original contribution appears to be limited to small, cryptic diagrams painted on the skulls, in appropriately pink or blue colors.
Other notable works include Roland Flexner’s tiny graphite drawing from 1995, which poignantly catches the rounding gleam of a skull on a darkened shelf. Jan Fabre’s construction of a stuffed budgerigar, clamped in the jaws of a beetle-encrusted skull (2000), stands out for its exotic violence. The biggest surprise, however, may be three remarkably diverse pieces by Alice Neel. Her painting “Natura Morte” (1964-65) captures a lone skull warmed by sunlight on a kitchen or dining room table; It could be a casual portrait of a studio prop. Utterly different is the ink drawing from 1958, portraying the artist as a ghoulish, screaming skull with stringy hair and bleeding eye socket. Her third piece is one the most modest in the show, and yet one of its highlights. Her small watercolor “Requiem” (1928) depicts two shrouded skeletons reclining on a shore alongside a beached fish. The setting sun filters tangibly through the air, enclosing distant boats and land masses in its ebbing light. Dark glimmers of waves echo the skeletal forms, one of which props a bony head thoughtfully on an arm. What is he/she thinking? We haven’t a clue, but willingly or not, the phantom feels fully alive in Ms. Neel’s dynamic little scene.