Sylvia Sleigh at I-20 Gallery
November 5 – December 31, 2009
557 West 23rd Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, (212) 645-1100
Sylvia Sleigh was so ahead of the curve as a painter that some people are just now catching up. This current exhibition includes sixteen of Sleigh’s portraits from the 1960s and ‘70s and features, among other notables, an amazingly young Arnold Glimcher (founder of Pace Gallery). As vibrant today as they were when they still gave off the pungent smell of oil some forty years ago, they are a potent reminder of everything wonderful about her work. Apparent, too, are the unnerving aspects that make these works as uncomfortable for our eyes today as they were for viewers decades earlier.
Sleigh was often misunderstood at the time these works were made, and even though much of the conventional thinking of that time has been thoroughly rejected, misunderstandings persist. And it must be said that the polite, petite, and ever so British Sleigh broke conventions left and right. To start with, she divorced her first husband and then married a man ten years her junior in 1954. She saw herself as a professional at a time when women were rarely seen as such. She was a representational painter when the intellectual movement favored abstraction. She was interested in painting celebrities, albeit from the New York art world. She painted nudes. Worse, she was a woman who frequently painted male nudes – something our culture still finds extremely difficult to accept. Worse still, unlike the deliciously nasty portraits of Alice Neel or the hermetically sealed nudes of Philip Pearlstein, Sleigh’s figures, whether clothed or nude, are nearly without exception sweetly erotic.
If this were not enough, Sleigh took a proto-feminist approach to spatial representation that was, and sometimes still is, confused with a naïve technique. Take for example Chelsea Garden (1971) in the current exhibition. Typically of the artist’s work, the location is her Brownstone on 20th Street (a few blocks from I-20.) It features a young couple in the foreground and a middle age couple in the backspace. The young man and woman were close friends of the artist, and the couple in the back is actually Sleigh and her husband Lawrence Alloway. While there is an acknowledgement of traditional perspective in the form of the garden fence on right side, overall there is extremely compressed, flat space. Moreover, the figure-ground relationship is handled evenly throughout, with plants, hair, skin, clothes, even bricks and fire escapes all given equal weight. The paint itself is applied in such thin layers that the weave of the canvas support is often visible.
All of this can mislead the viewer expecting a traditional representational painting with the false impression that Sleigh is not in control. Even though the artist frequently quotes the history of painting in her works, her aesthetic goals lay elsewhere. In Chelsea Garden a key to Sleigh’s actual pictorial intent can be found along the top edge of the painting, where the blue and white rectangles of the otherwise unseen awning in the very close foreground are interwoven with the rectangular windows of the building in the furthest back space. This is a highly calculated strategy designed to evoke fabric arts in general and quilting specifically. Fabric creations were, after all, considered traditional woman’s work and not an art but craft. Part of the feminist art movement was to recognize that craft need not be the sole venue for women, and, conversely, that crafts could be an equal art form (see, as only one example, the quilts of Gee’s Bend). It is part of Sleigh’s genius that she created a successful synthesis of these ideas in her work.
Countless contemporary artists as diverse as John Currin, Kehinde Wiley, and certainly Elizabeth Peyton owe something to Sleigh’s vision, whether or not they realize it. At 93 years old, Sleigh – who is still painting – may have little interest as to what others think about the import of her contributions. But for the rest of us, especially museum acquisition committees, it is time to catch up with this pivotal artist.