An Extreme Painter: Eugène Leroy at Michael Werner
Eugène Leroy: Nudes at Michael Werner Gallery
October, 31 2012 to January, 5 2013
4 East 77th Street, between Madison and Fifth avenues
New York City, 212-988-1623
Almost two decades ago the Pace Gallery presented “De Kooning/Dubuffet: The Women,” showing images which the Times reviewer Michael Brenson found “startling, creepy and sometimes painful.” As Brenson goes on to rightly note, at that time the female nude had become an almost impossible subject for contemporary artists. The era in which Manet, Picasso and Matisse could present their transgressive visions of woman’s bodies had ended. This Michael Werner exhibition reawakened my now unavoidably vague memories of that show. Like de Kooning and Dubuffet, Eugène Leroy loves heavily encrusted picture surfaces. Someone might, I imagine, visit this show, look too quickly and leave unable even to identify their ostensive subject, the female nude. Compared with Leroy, the earlier painters I cited presented their subjects with the immediacy of Ingres. It’s of little use noting that Leroy, born in 1910, only became famous in old age—he died in 2000. For who amongst his contemporaries made paintings anything like these? The female figure is visible in Nu vert (1978), but in most of these pictures, Nu blanc couché au grand visage (1991) for example, you need to take on faith the veridicality of the title. When you step back or move close, do the outlines of a human body fall into view? In the gallery I found that question surprisingly difficult to answer.
But Leroy’s dilemma, as I understand it, lies deeper than some concern merely with trendy ideas of political correctness, which did not, I expect, mean much to him. To survive in a culture swamped by photographic images, figurative painters need some way of defending their traditional manner of art making. Either they can bracket the seductive figurative references of their images, like Luc Toymans; or present ironical erotic pictures- as John Currin does masterfully; or focus on truthful representations of banal subjects, this being the concern of Liliane Tomasko, for instance. Leroy, who uses the heaviest pigments of any artist whose work I have seen– he makes Frank Auerbach’s people by comparison look like those of Alex Katz—pursues none of these options. That description may make him sound like a traditional figurative painter. But what old master or modernist did a painting that looks remotely like Untitled (1994)? When looking at Nu en fête (1996) I think to myself: How traditional were the techniques of Soutine! And if when viewing Marina nue (1997), I recollect Giacometti, that is only to emphasize, by contrast, how unclichéd is Leroy’s style. Leroy is an extreme painter because his technique is extraordinarily original; because his painting has nothing to do with fashion, which too often dominates in our upscale art galleries; and because his paintings inspire prolonged, close looking and pregnant, speculative reflection. No wonder I visited this exhibition twice, and came home baffled, charmed, and ready to return.