featuresRoundtable
Saturday, May 26th, 2018

Jenny Saville ROUNDTABLE: Julie Heffernan, Brenda Zlamany, Dennis Kardon, Walter Robinson, Barry Schwabsky, and Suzy Spence


Jenny Saville: Ancestors, at Gagosian Gallery, New York, on view through June 16, is the British artist’s first solo presentation in New York since 2011. She is also, concurrently, the subject of a survey exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh. 

Installation view: Jenny Saville: Ancestors, Gagosian Gallery, New York 2018, showing, left to right, Fate 3, Fate 1, Fate 1, all 2018. Photography by Rob McKeever. Courtesy Gagosian.

Installation view: Jenny Saville: Ancestors, Gagosian Gallery, New York 2018, showing, left to right, Fate 3, Fate 1, Fate 1, all 2018. Photography by Rob McKeever. Courtesy Gagosian.

DAVID COHEN
Julie, on Facebook you described a painting by Jenny Saville on view in her show at Gagosian Gallery as “the most beautiful painting I’ve seen in a long time” and 150 friends liked or loved that post. In the comments section, Dennis Kardon wrote: “You and David Cohen are going to have an interesting discussion,” referencing no doubt my highly critical artcritical review of her last New York show. Dennis wrote enthusiastically about her work in 1999 (it was his first piece of published art criticism, and was edited by Walter Robinson.) What is it about her new show, Julie that, as you put it on Facebook, “knocked you out”?

JULIE HEFFERNAN
Up to this point I hadn’t been much of a fan of Jenny Saville’s. She’d cornered the market on paint-as-flesh, no doubt, but I never felt like she cared much about what was inside the figures she was painting, or showed us anything deeper than bloated, mottled and dejected skin. But several paintings in her latest Gagosian show blew those notions away and stopped me in my tracks. Her Fate paintings (Fate 1, Fate 2 and Fate 3) went somewhere I didn’t expect – melding abstraction and figuration in a way that furthered the scope of both, and bringing black bodies and white bodies together into new-fangled icons through muscular paint and sheer pictorial power. To my mind these paintings raised the bar on figuration, and that’s rare.

Painterly stylishness had limited Saville up until now, but in these Fate paintings I’m not as conscious of her style as much as her intelligent pictorial choices that give me the sense that she’s gone beyond realism (or expressionism) towards the iconic. Where before she would mask out areas in order to break up the integrity of the figure, and thereby sidestep realism, now she’s using those masked areas to complicate the figure’s integrity, suggest the mess inside, or alternatively provide it with extra appendages to increase its capacity to express multiplicities.

BRENDA ZLAMANY
Maybe because of the peculiar emptiness the ugliness in earlier work seemed manipulative. Many of these new paintings stopped me in my tracks! The scale, color, content and play with abstraction are exciting and original. They refer to so many different things but they’re entirely their own.

This is the first show of hers, I should say, that I’ve had a positive response to. I’m a big fan of abject beauty: I taught myself to paint by viewing cadavers in the medical school and a boyfriend even moved out on me because of the pig’s head (and a few other specimens) in the freezer. I adore Soutine’s still life paintings, Rembrandt’s sides of beef and Lucian Freud’s paintings of Lee Bowery. While I was impressed by the scale, and of course the paint handling, her previous paintings for the most part have seemed ugly in a calculated or gratuitous way.

DENNIS KARDON
Almost twenty years ago I wrote:

Saville simply overwhelms the viewer with paint as flesh. The specificity of her subject matter raises issues about the nature of spontaneity and control in painting. And because these bodies are painted, and therefore inhabited by the artist…they don’t have the distanced quality of the photographic work of other artists who have dealt with body image and gender issues.

As her career progressed however, I became gradually disenchanted with what I perceived as strategic employment of painting conventions that started to feel a bit rote, and an increase in scale for the sake of filling up a mega space. David’s review, though a bit scathing, generally captured my feeling about what had occurred in her work.

My remark about the discussion was a reference to a chance encounter with David and Barry in Chelsea after first seeing the current show. My immediate reaction was that she had redeemed herself a lot, and I had taken a lot of detail shots of memorable moments. But David was so negative it made me reconsider, until at least, he compared her unfavorably to Tracey Emin at Frieze which I am pretty sure was an unmitigated waste of perfectly nice white walls.

Jenny Saville, Vis and Ramin I, 2018. Oil on canvas, 98-1/2 x 137-7/8 inches. © Jenny Saville. Photography by Mike Bruce. Courtesy Gagosian.

Jenny Saville, Vis and Ramin I, 2018. Oil on canvas, 98-1/2 x 137-7/8 inches. © Jenny Saville. Photography by Mike Bruce. Courtesy Gagosian.

WALTER ROBINSON
If it’s beauty, it’s beauty of an abject kind, which has always been her thing — heavy models, grossly presented. A rather ugly beauty, I would say. Lisa Yuskavage is a good pendant here. Beauty also lies in her mastery of an academic drawing style, which recalls a 19th-century formula in service to a classical ideal. Those are her avant-garde bona fides, the rehabilitation of an essentially conservative technique for subjects of contemporary relevance, notably the body and gender identity.

BARRY SCHWABSKY
I’m the opposite of Julie and Brenda in that I’ve always been interested in Saville’s paintings, and sometimes like them quite a lot. People always used to compare her to Freud, and I understand why, but to me that was the wrong analogy. She was more like Anselm Kiefer—I mean the really good Kiefer, the one from the 1980s. The body was to her as the landscape to him. I didn’t find his wounded landscapes ugly, nor the tormented paint by which he depicted it, and I never found her abject bodies or her storms of paint ugly either—quite the opposite. But I didn’t care for these new paintings at all. I don’t like the self-evident “painting of collage” trope, and she seems to be drawing in a more conventional way as well as being more restrained in her paint handling.

BRENDA ZLAMANY
It’s interesting that you compare her earlier work to Kiefer. I agree, they are more Kiefer than Freud because her figures have little physiological content. They were all surface, same as Kiefer. And same as Kiefer, you think they’re about something else and then discover that they’re equally empty.

JULIE HEFFERNAN
It might be worthwhile to keep the discussion to the three Fate paintings since I agree with you all about the other works in the show, but thought those three Fates were of a different order altogether.

WALTER ROBINSON
A generous reading is a good thing. It reminds me of Richard Prince’s goofy brilliant combos of de Kooning and gay porn.

Julie is certainly right about the paint-as-flesh thing, but sections of these works were basically deft contour drawings filled in with even defter Ab-Ex-style brushwork. Interesting, but a bit silly?

I didn’t even notice the race thing, since I was only there a few minutes, and the overwhelming impression is pink. (An artist works for a year on a show; a critic walks in and after two minutes says “it sucks.”) But I’ll go right now to take another look. What about her pseudo-cubist figures? There’s a new move.

DAVID COHEN
I went back yesterday for a proper visit after coming to a comparable conclusion to Walter from two minutes at the opening reception, and I’m afraid that closer examination and doing my utmost to sit openly with the work has not led to epiphanies. I find these to be disingenuous academic machines. Look, there is no question that Jenny Saville has exceptional technical abilities and genuine intellectual ambition, but I suspect that the adulation that has followed from these rare qualities has been corrupting. Her early work married painting chops and youthful feminist indignation to produce startling, if shallow, results, but she has “matured” into a shameless crowd pleaser. I can’t believe such sensitive individuals as the artists here aren’t seeing the wood for the trees. Photos have been projected onto canvases and lines traced; paint has been slathered in gratuitous faux-expressivity to generate effects; images have been chopped up to connote visual deconstruction. But there’s no real drawing, painting or collage going on in these concoctions.

JULIE HEFFERNAN
Well as a painter I was respectfully floored by that piling up of paint, plus wiping, scraping, knowing when to stop and when to pile more on.  That’s not easy!  In her earlier work I knew exactly how she made those paintings, but this new work is so layered and the decisions about when to stop and when to keep going so seamlessly articulated – that’s amazing painting.  You try it!

As for David’s contention that there is no real drawing going on – look at Fate 2  and the deft placement of that thick blue line forming a square right in the middle of the figure, and what it’s doing to cause the whole assortment of body parts to pivot around it. It’s doing so many things: It’s the thing that allows the icon to be both passive and active, asserting the power of that body to suggest a kind of centrifugal movement of becoming, while also exuding a marmoreal presence; it’s also reinforcing the presence of the left breast, now lost to scraping and turned into negative space. That one squiggly line comes totally out of the blue (as it were) but is doing so much to power up the form and reinforce this idea of multiplicities.

Regarding the black and white bodies: Yes, she pulled it off! She deftly insinuated a white body into (onto) a black body, and vice versa. In one, the white body is in the middle of black limbs, (all the heads are either of black women or, in the case of Fate 3, from an African sculpture of a woman) but not overwhelming them or dominating in any way—they’re both equally present in the form. In Fate 3 the “limbs” are more like weird appendages that take the form to places I’ve never seen Saville go. She’s forged an icon of a black and white Shiva-like woman with the many limbs. Glorious!

WALTER ROBINSON
I feel you David but is it really fair to presume success has gone to her head? Artists are always having things in their heads, and success breeds confidence and ambition, etc. And what is “real” painting, drawing and collage, and why privilege it? Collage is giving new energy to abstract painting at the moment, why not figuration?

Installation view: Jenny Saville: Ancestors, Gagosian Gallery, New York 2018, showing, left to right, Blue Pieta, 2018; Chapter (For Linda Nocholin), 2016-2018; Thread, 2017-2018. Photography by Rob McKeever. Courtesy Gagosian.

Installation view: Jenny Saville: Ancestors, Gagosian Gallery, New York 2018, showing, left to right, Blue Pieta, 2018; Chapter (For Linda Nocholin), 2016-2018; Thread, 2017-2018. Photography by Rob McKeever. Courtesy Gagosian.

BARRY SCHWABSKY
You admire her bravura technique, but what is the project at the service of which she puts it? To me, the equations she makes between different kinds of representation and different kinds of abstraction, as well as between different kinds of imagery, seem pretty flat and familiar.

BRENDA ZLAMANY
That’s such a weird question, Barry, “what is the project at the service of which she puts it?” Put the question aside and approach them more visually. There’s a lot of pleasure to be had and for that might to enough.

DAVID COHEN
Pleasure is never enough.

Julie, I don’t doubt that the pyrotechnics here take bravura and acumen to pull off. But really, we at Gagosian Gallery looking at massive canvases by an international art star for sale at top dollar; it is the painterly equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster. If the movie sucks we don’t applaud the music and special effects.

Walter is right that one should indeed use any device that works if the result is a powerful image. But “real drawing” is where the lines are put down with purpose, where the energy is one of inquiry and/or assuredness. Her line is gimmicky. She generates false pentimenti to make the drawing look “old masterly”. Her paint slathering is like pushing a button in Photoshop marked “AbEx”; they don’t come out of the existential maelstrom of creativity. Her collage is saying, we are made up of this and that; real collage is about opening oneself up to the marvelous and the unknown.

BARRY SCHWABSKY
It’s interesting that you and I, David—the two non-practitioners here—are much less sympathetic to these paintings than the painters here. That’s something that makes me think I should reconsider my response— though I still don’t know how!

SUZY SPENCE
It’s interesting to me that in her piece dedicated to Linda Nochlin is sort of squirreled away in the back, when Nochlin’s ideas should operate as the catalyst for the entire show. Ancestors, yes, Saville seems obsessed with the problematic of “genius”, but rather than destroy that concept she’d rather run a race with every great man who made a mark in the Western canon to see how she measures up. She paints extraordinarily well, but that’s actually beside the point. Chapter (for Linda Nochlin) in charcoal on cotton duck canvas, recalls the particularly beautiful study by da Vinci, The Virgin and Christ with St. Anne. But Leonardo’s women are locked in high-minded, existential conversation and seem incredibly connected to one another whereas Saville’s women are piled on one another anonymously, beautifully drawn as forms with a fullness and accuracy. But I don’t understand who these women are, and why we should care about them.

BARRY SCHWABSKY
I guess I should now take back what I just said about the critics vs. the painters.

SUZY SPENCE
And I agree with David about special effects. Nicole Eisenman steals more effectively and is just as nimble a virtuoso. By comparison I would say Saville is a mannerist, and less able to fully employ the styles she robs, at least not in this show.

DAVID COHEN
The thing that I found especially irritating about the piece Suzy is talking about, Chapter (For Linda Nochlin), is the way she spray painted trompe l’oeil extra sheets at various junctures in emulation of Frank Auerbach (another of her early mentors) who sticks extra paper on when he wants to extend an image or repair a support punctured by incessant correction. There’s no correction here; the image is totally calculated, along with its arsenal of effects.

SUZY SPENCE
Brenda, I never think beautiful paint is enough. Press releases in recent years try too hard to align her with a list of great (dead) white men, which must be some incredible weight for her to bear. I wish Saville would make an escape to the woods where she could return to the introspection she’d invested in earlier. She used to reach into her soul and hand it to us, but I’m not seeing that now.

Jenny Saville, Fate 1, 2018. Oil on canvas, 102-3/8 x 94-1/2 inches © Jenny Saville. Photography by Mike Bruce. Courtesy Gagosian.

Jenny Saville, Fate 1, 2018. Oil on canvas, 102-3/8 x 94-1/2 inches © Jenny Saville. Photography by Mike Bruce. Courtesy Gagosian.

JULIE HEFFERNAN
The so-called project she is serving in these three paintings seems to be of the utmost importance right now, post Dana Schutz and even vis a vis Kara Walker’s show where so many black bodies were made to look as foolish in places as the white bodies looked malign. These Fates are proud bodies and full of fluid possibilities.  I always thought the real reason Dana’s Emmett Till painting didn’t work ultimately was because it wasn’t painted well enough, with the kind of weird surprising paint and drawing that, for instance, her Michael Jackson painting had. We’re not here to go over Schutz again, but it was really interesting to see someone with such good intentions fail so miserably at trying to bridge the race gap, whereas here now with these Fate paintings no one is making any noise at all about a white artist’s right to depict a black body. That’s an important project, Barry

BRENDA ZLAMANY
The problem with Schutz’s Open Casket is that it was decorative to the point of insulting the viewer. I remember at the Whitney opening noticing the painting from the corner of my eye and registering it as an attractive painting but having no feeling for the subject whatsoever. There was nothing about it visually that hinted at the horror of the content. I don’t want to say it lacked empathy but to take a horrifying event and turn it into attractive paint is bad painting at best.

BARRY SCHWABSKY
Making no noise is a great accomplishment? I don’t think so. When the conflict blew up over the Sam Durant sculpture at the Walker, I was surprised when I read that it been exhibited at Documenta, because I’d seen and written about that Documenta and didn’t remember the piece. I read back over what I’d written and confirmed that I hadn’t mentioned it. Then I got curious, and read all the other Documenta reviews I could find online. Not a single one mentioned Durant’s sculpture. That didn’t make me think it was harmless in Germany but volatile in Minnesota. It made me think that the piece was so mediocre no one felt obliged to think about it— until a different context focused a different kind of attention on it. I guess Saville, being British, won’t be included in the next Whitney Biennial, but if she were, there might be some interesting responses. Oh, and by the way, Dana’s Emmett Till painting is a very good work.

DAVID COHEN
Saville isn’t depicting a black body directly, but an African carving. The flesh montaged over the fetish is Caucasian, as best one can tell—or race is at any event not axiomatic. The incorporation of the carving recalls David Salle to me. These Fates are interesting images. But can we get past white-woman-painting-black-people silliness and just ask what it means, what it is really saying?

JULIE HEFFERNAN
Fate 3 and Fate 2 have heads of black women; they’re not carvings. And what they’re really saying is totally prosaic when put into words: “out of all these multiplicities we’re also one.” How boring is that when distilled down to mere words. But that’s where the art comes in – she’s created a medley of fluid bodies and I revel in it! I so appreciate when an artist takes on big themes, unwieldy problems, and does it unstintingly, and more importantly, without irony! And Barry, you cannot just claim the Schutz Open Casket is a good painting without saying why.

BRENDA ZLAMANY
Suzy, I don’t think she was reaching into her soul in the earlier works and they were not beautiful. By putting aside the content of the previous work and focusing on the excitement of the paint, I think she has a chance of saying something less calculated and more authentic and in the end, more ambitious. I agree with David though, the drawing is a bit flat.

David Salle is a good comparison, and not just because of the African carving, but also because of the random layering of images. When I made etchings with David, we would print the plates, each with different images on them in various combinations until something happened. When they worked, they worked. But we were not asking what they were saying.

Jenny Saville, Propped, 1992. Oil on Canvas, 213.5 x 183cm. The Saatchi Collection, London

Jenny Saville, Propped, 1992. Oil on Canvas, 213.5 x 183cm. The Saatchi Collection, London

DAVID COHEN
Salle is a formalist to his fingertips; they “worked” because they clicked into something startling and satisfying in equal measure, no doubt. But Saville isn’t a formalist. She’s always been interested in themes. I take issue with the dismissal of her early work – the fat self-portrait in Propped and the liposuction paintings. They were totally authentic in the personal and political urgency of their issues and persuasive in marrying painterly marvel and bodily discomfort.

BARRY SCHWABSKY
Thank you, David. I agree with what you say about Saville’s earlier work!

DAVID COHEN
Dennis assumes, incorrectly, that I must have been joking in finding Tracey Emin’s figuration more convincing than Saville’s. I think both artists, in their latest works, are dealing with the body through mark making. Both are mannerists, but Emin is served well by restricting herself to mannerisms of abstract expressionism. She was channeling Roger Hilton, an English abstract painter who struggled with – and exploited – alcohol addiction in his figurative experiments. There’s plenty to fault in Emin’s results but it is a kind of escape to the woods, in Suzy’s sense, that Saville isn’t up for.

SUZY SPENCE
Brenda, her early paintings seemed distinctly feminist to me and feminist artists are Man Repellers by nature. In her early work there was no willingness to please; she wanted to repel you with her fleshy body and suck you in with her painting technique at the same time. That tension no longer exists, and so the work is flat as Barry says.

WALTER ROBINSON
Julie’s mention of Schutz is apt since Dana especially activates the decorative quality of her paint strokes, which are little masterpieces in themselves. In the meantime, objections to these works because of an absence of “soul” is, well, retardataire and romantic. Postmodernism is about a human world without such constructions. Some viewers prefer the art without the mystification! Do we look for “soul” in Salle or Sherman, for instance?

SUZY SPENCE
Well then you should love this work Walter! It’s perfectly postmodern and cold.

BARRY SCHWABSKY
Not cold enough by a long shot! The depiction of faces in particular seemed to invite empathy in a really blatant way. And how sentimental the use of the pietà idea!

DAVID COHEN
Yeah, especially that schlocky pietà of a guy coming out of a war zone with a sexed-up infant in his arms, pure pompier.

BRENDA ZLAMANY
Wish I hadn’t seen that one.

DAVID COHEN
To return to Walter’s question, Salle and Sherman spare us any quest for “soul” because of their knowingly constructed style. Their tropes arrive and function intact. Saville isn’t deconstructing anyone else’s technique at this stage, she is merely tapping into effects. I agree with Julie that they are free of irony. They are anything but art about art, which is why their mannerisms are all the more egregious.

JULIE HEFFERNAN
Yes she has a lot of effects in this show but towards a more interesting end than in earlier shows she’s had. Would you consider the wings and appendages in Fate 3 to be mere “effects”? Because to me those are essential components of the structure of the work, acting boldly to move it in space, to suggest hybridity and composite bodies, all necessary for the bigger project at hand.

DAVID COHEN
By wings to you mean the smudged arcs over the left shoulder of the amalgamated figure? I am reading drawing on a wall in the studio (pace the baseboard behind the pedestal) that serves the functional purpose of saying that the figure is an artificial studio-bound creation.

JULIE HEFFERNAN
I mean the chair-like appendage (in Fate 3) attached to her shoulder to the right, and the lobster claw shape to the left — those are essential components to the icon’s whole structure. The smudges behind the form just reinforce the integrity of the overall monolithic shape she’s trying to create. Notice also how the big strokes of yellow paint within the big reddish brown shape to the bottom right reinforces the horizontal ankle attached to the foot, that is also another pedestal for the icon, as well as a pivot point for the whole structure above, and also causes the mars red shape to turn in space, and thereby shift the plane of that shape from horizontal to vertical, like a chair. So it’s a multiplicity of things – a chair-like thing, a cape-like thing, a drooping wing-like thing: super interesting!

WALTER ROBINSON (from the Gallery)
Standing in front of the paintings, my second look, I have to say they’re awesome. The sense of play is overwhelming — the artist in the studio, making pictures one at a time, doing this and that — a big hand expertly tendered here, some scratchy Twomblyesque marks there, a witty pose overall — amusing herself, pleasing herself — it’s just so good — artists have an alibi, all they really have to do is represent the individual subject, not be the World Shaper.

BRENDA ZLAMANY
Wow, great Walter! But what about the pietàs? Blue Pietà is icky in an Odd Nerdrum way.

BARRY SCHWABSKY
I wish we could be having this discussion in front of the paintings.

But I want to go back to something said a little while back and register the fact that I don’t understand the idea of saying one artist is a formalist and another is something else. A combination that works for David Salle is one that conveys a certain feeling, I think. Why is that “formalism”? What made Saville’s earlier paintings work for me were formal aspects— these conveyed her themes in ways that worked for me. The themes without the forms wouldn’t have done that.

BRENDA ZLAMANY
That’s an important point, Barry.

WALTER ROBINSON
Somehow, David, I don’t think they’re projected. If they are, she’s definitely unparalleled at it.

How a viewer sees these things is totally parti pris. They can seem kitsch or heartfelt. You know the head in the pieta is a kouros. And four-armed dead body carried from the ruins by the chap in Seventh Seal garb is too clean by half. Other works look like her friends posing nude together — warm and real, and a real subject. In the end, she’s an artist; she can do what she wants, and the hell with piffle from the critics!

BRENDA ZLAMANY
Hear! Hear!

DAVID COHEN
Hmm. Well, I certainly don’t like to project moral outrage at any means employed if the results are convincing.

WALTER ROBINSON
These people…

Jenny Saville, Delos, 2017-18. Detail, photographed by Walter Robinson

Jenny Saville, Delos, 2017-18. Detail, photographed by Walter Robinson

DAVID COHEN
OK, well let’s talk about that scribble in and underneath. What is it trying to say? Are these automata from Westworld and this is the machinery where their viscera should be? I don’t think so. Did she do some scribble underneath to get her juices flowing, and then started her beaux arts painting on top of that and then Gagosian came and whisked the picture off before she could finish it? No, this is effect. a way of saying this is a contemporary painting, not the academic, anachronistic figure painting it would otherwise look to be, because squiggles are modern. That’s mannerism at its worst to me. But if someone could offer me a reading of the use of this device that energizes their understanding of the image, I’m all ears.

SUZY SPENCE
Walter and David, I don’t think they are projected onto canvas. I imagine an athletic event that called for giant easels and enough space and light to study her subjects who she actually asked to recline on pedestals and chairs. I think she’s working from life; I imagine a string of models, most of whom appear in her studio the way actors come in for an audition. I sense she doesn’t know many of them, as there is such similarity of body type and age, like she’d advertised the project on Craig’s List. People in their late 30s, some black, mostly white. My favorite piece was Vis and Ramen I, who are both in recline like Manet’s Olympia. They sink deeper into their pedestal than her other subjects, their genitals almost touch, and I was fascinated by her decision not to establish that contact.

BRENDA ZLAMANY
Suzy, I don’t think that’s true. In the 2003 press release from her Migrants show it mentions that she prefers to work from photographs rather than living models. “Saville calls herself a scavenger of images.” Her studio is a repository of images from old medical journals of bruises, scars, images of deformities and disease. In this sense her relationship with her subject matter is more Salle then Soutine or Freud and it’s evident in this newer work.

DENNIS KARDON (returning to the conversation)
Sorry to weigh in so late. I got sidetracked.

Although I am sure she couldn’t possibly be working from life, even twenty years ago I was unsure how she got from the photo to the canvas, though now it seems obvious computers are involved. Even then Saville seemed to challenge the improvisational constraints of either grid or projector. Both then and now the paint seemed spontaneously slapped on, but without the flatness of most paintings made from projected photographs. It is what makes them look so contemporary. They have all they dynamics of spontaneous paint handling, and the specific sureness without any of the uncertainty of where to put the paint. Something that Walter, can surely attest to. But though it would certainly indicate a super human talent if they were painted from life, I think it hardly matters conceptually how she manages to accomplish her paintings.

I think beauty, abject or otherwise, takes us nowhere productive.

Barry squarely solves the problem with his question about content, because this kind of analysis is the error that takes us away from what is actually happening in the paintings. This what has confused me. I will look at the paintings and be totally taken in, and even studying the details, I am amazed at the frisson between spontaneity and specificity. Then I get home and try to answer analytical questions about “to what end” and the project starts to fall apart. Walter had the perfect response, he was dismissive at first, in his critical self, but when his painter self went to study them again, was impressed.

I have to say when all is said and done, in all probability the details are stronger than the sum of their parts. They direct us to considerations of emotions that are constructed out of touch, rather than conception. I think David Salle is an apt referent, but because of the authenticity of the paint, they do not have the distance and irony of Salle, who does (a la David Cohen) see paint as a mere illustration of itself.

Jenny Saville, Fate 1, 2018. Detail, photograph by Dennis Kardon

Jenny Saville, Fate 1, 2018. Detail, photograph by Dennis Kardon

DAVID COHEN
Dennis and Walter prove that you can make better images by photographing bits of Jenny Saville than Jenny Saville can in a completed canvas.

DENNIS KARDON
This is where we disagree David, I don’t sense those “scribbles” are supposed to have meaning in the representation sense, but in the sense of trying to marry an arbitrary spontaneity with a mark making that is directed to represent stuff and break down the moment when one kind of gesture transitions into another. As Walter mentioned, Manet could do this flawlessly on all levels, no one has been able to attain that complexity since (except Matisse, but in a different way).

BRENDA ZLAMANY
In spite of the authenticity of the paint, I think one can still judge the work with the same criterion that one might apply to Salle, and they’re better that way. Besides, I never felt much emotion in her touch.

DENNIS KARDON
The emotion is not in the touch itself but the construction of what the touch conveys. Like the hand touching the leg. It’s in the economy of gesture, and specificity of the shape of the mark. Manet is what the ideal looks like, but again, old fashioned compared to contemporary issues of representation and scale:

DAVID COHEN
I wonder what’s contemporary about painting on a huge scale, considering the fact that we actually process images on small screens in this era, and outside of art galleries and museums have very few sacred and civic spaces in which we look at large oil paintings. Saville’s command of size is certainly impressive, but what value does blown up charcoal drawing convey, beyond the acrobatics of its delivery?

DENNIS KARDON
I have been concerned with your willingness to demean what Saville does by cavalierly referring to “acrobatics” or “blown up charcoal drawing” when what I, Walter, and others in the discussion have constantly pointed out is thought in action. The whole point of painting is confronting the physicality of an image in the world and its relationship to the body of the viewer. How it metamorphoses as it is approached, the scale of a mark to one’s own body as an image breaks apart upon close inspection. It is why the overall conception, as seen as a coherent image is so up in the air in this work. It is easy to use language to name and then devalue, but I think what is really good about Saville is that she seems to be constantly trying to go beyond any singular idea or conception.

WALTER ROBINSON
Many of our pros and cons show how easy it is to marshall any kind of argument against any kind of thing, especially with aesthetics. Why not praise Saville’s works for going counter to digital socialization, for instance?

You could also say that she graffitied her own work so the taggers won’t have to.

BARRY SCHWABSKY
You’re right! and of course the opposite is true too, if you are good with words you can use them to make any old thing sound good or interesting. I would really like to be convinced to like these paintings but it’s not quite happening.

WALTER ROBINSON
This person — so nutty!

Jenny Saville, Vis and Ramin II, 2018. Detail, photograph by Walter Robinson

Jenny Saville, Vis and Ramin II, 2018. Detail, photograph by Walter Robinson

DAVID COHEN
Really? I don’t see the person as nutty at all. It is a very nice, respectable old-fashioned 19th-century painting done after a photograph of a woman over which the artist has inscribed some red dashes and black hatching. Half the students in the New York Academy of Art MFA show that opened last week could have knocked out that head, though none of them would have done the dashes on top

BARRY SCHWABSKY
That would be the first thing they’d try after leaving the Academy.

DENNIS KARDON
There is no NYAA grad student (or few painters anywhere really) that could accomplish what she has accomplished.

WALTER ROBINSON
Yeah, you overestimate the skills of the NYAA grads. And you object to the random marks? It’s all marks, at any rate, and they’re nutty in the way they’re deployed — since Manet painters have toyed with the codes of representation of facial features. But we all use the codes — Saville just keeps to the academic conventions more than most. Still, there’s play, and I think it works.

As for the rest of the chazerai, it’s functioning in several ways, as we all know. Animates the surface. Stands in for entrails. Enlivens the academic figuration. Represents the triumph of humanism over abstraction (as Donald Kuspit might argue).

My original reaction was that the marriage of academic and modernist elements was a failure. I like my quotations clean and unfussed with, generally. But then I decided I didn’t care.
BRENDA ZLAMANY
This one is much ‘nuttier’.

Jenny Saville, Vis and Ramin II, 2018. Detail, photograph by Brenda Zlamany

Jenny Saville, Vis and Ramin II, 2018. Detail, photograph by Brenda Zlamany

BARRY SCHWABSKY
As a detail, it does look pretty yummy. But is there a painting in the show that does that as a whole?

DAVID COHEN
Nuts being the operative word, Brenda. But isn’t this just the trope of unfinish? We are to read the (oilstick?) marks underneath as an armature, and then some figure bits are in grisaille, and the testes are then nicely worked up with shadows in place, behaving properly. The whole concoction is saying, I’m an old master, I’ve got the chops

BRENDA ZLAMANY
That might all be true, David. But as Barry says, it’s still ‘yummy’. And I think the red dashes are good in this passage. Why not just enjoy it? And I think the Fate paintings do it as a whole.

DAVID COHEN
Brenda: You misread Barry I think. He’s saying there are lots of corners of pictures that are appealing in their dispatch, but the overall images don’t convince. If you follow the curate’s way of eating eggs you’ll end up in the emergency ward.

BRENDA ZLAMANY
Ha!

SUZY SPENCE
Much as I love her ambition, I really wish she’d find new artists with whom she’d like to be compared. The genius thing needs to go.

BARRY SCHWABSKY
Like if she started channeling Florine Stettheimer? That would really throw an interesting money wrench into things.

SUZY SPENCE
Yes it would.

WALTER ROBINSON
What about the scarlet skewed halo? That’s new. Also, relative to the notion that this stuff is familiar and tired, don’t forget she totally owns this niche.

DAVID COHEN
I think she has some competition, actually: Odd Nerdrum, Adrian Ghenie, others whose names I didn’t feel a need to remember. There is a big market for this kind of thing, especially beyond the Urals.

BARRY SCHWABSKY
Odd Nerdrum is almost completely detached from modern painting. But Ghenie and some of the other Romanians do have more in common with her—maybe also some of the Dresden school. But none of them have this fascination with the corporeal, which is what’s made Saville’s best work so compelling.

DAVID COHEN
Cecily Brown at her best marries paint and flesh more convincingly, though neither of them is Rubens

BRENDA ZLAMANY
I hate Rubens, except for the small studies.

DAVID COHEN
OK, enjoy Jenny Saville then.

By this stage, Julie Heffernan and Suzy Spence have signed off.

DENNIS KARDON
I need to interject another issue which seems new in this work. It seems she is taking a piece of sculptural representation and trying through paint to capture the living aspect of what the sculpture was originally trying to represent. The bringing of the visceral to the constructed has always been her territory, and she is now trying to expand on the ways signifiers of bodies moving and being represented in the world convey actual feeling. And she is really trying to break it down brushstroke by brushstroke so that it is totally appropriate to focus on the details of moments in her paintings where she is getting her hands dirty. I don’t even know if we can evaluate the total effect of these paintings yet. That’s their provocative moment. This whole discussion of how the micro becomes macro is not just a trendy concept. It is crucial to how we move and represent in the world, and the heatedness of the discussion reflects the divides she is trying to bridge. Anything that provokes this much disagreement must be elucidating something important.

DAVID COHEN
I think we are all agreed that the Fates series attempts and achieves something new and substantial, and is the highlight of the show (yummy details notwithstanding).

These composite images remind me strongly of early work by Richard Hamilton, which itself was a Pop extension of earlier Dada strategies. What stands out in Saville is that she is doing it all in paint, but ultimately, so what? A photomontage based on paintings, a painting based on computer-generated collage: it is just a technical distinction.

I don’t think one can play with issues as loaded and potent as racial identity, gender representation, the lived-in body etc. in large, resolved public images and not have a forceful message one is ready to stand behind, or that others who admire the results can express coherently. Saying that these images are provoking a debate and we can’t decide what they mean yet doesn’t cut it for me. We don’t have to have a definitive interpretation, but the onus is on defenders to offer a start.

BARRY SCHWABSKY
I disagree about the Fates series. They are not as bad as the pietàs, but that’s it.

WALTER ROBINSON
I would want to cite the group of British artists who took illustrative techniques and tricked them out with painterly effects — R.B. Kitaj, Allen Jones, even Hockney, along with Hamilton.

DAVID COHEN
Yeah, she is totally a footnote to School of London painting, both the grubby existentialist end of the spectrum (Freud and Auerbach) and the Pop end (Hamilton and Kitaj). But she chickens out of the middle point, which is where she actually needs to concentrate her efforts if she wants to paint rivers of flesh: Francis Bacon.

BRENDA ZLAMANY
Just back from a break. Did anyone mention George Condo?

DAVID COHEN
Someone should have done, with the African statue. This is what irony-free George Condo looks like, Julie. Pastiche minus irony equals kitsch.

DENNIS KARDON
One problem here seems to be that David sees what Saville does as merely facilely co-opting a kind of historical mark making. Yummy sticks in my throat as well. While I hate yummy, I don’t think Saville is that, nor do I think what she does is facile. In my experience of the paintings I have seen, it doesn’t seem like that. But it is the conflict of everyone’s own imagined histories, which for the painters in the group, is how we construct our own genealogies that make this discussion so confounding. I can easily see how David and Barry might find this work deficient, yet when I look at it, I don’t think so. On some level all painters at this point could be considered pastiche, and yet nevertheless, no one really, despite the many comparisons, looks like Saville. So to attack her for her method seems beside the point, and why authenticity reared its ugly head.

I think kitsch is becoming one of those words like beauty and soul, that people use to justify value or non-value, which pretend to be objectively agreed upon concepts but are really just an attempt to universalize an opinion. To me Bacon seems emotionally overblown kitsch, and yet he is immediately recognizable. I must, despite the condescending Nochlin groans, feel that a male painter would not come under so much negative scrutiny. I don’t believe Larry Rivers, who was genuinely facile, got this dismissal.

Asking the questions, “what is it really saying?” or “to what end?” sounds like critical thinking, but are not really applicable to artists or their work. They are questions viewers might ask of themselves but not of the artist. The ability of an artist or work of art to embrace ambiguity and not provide definitive answers to those kind of questions is a mark of quality to me. After her first show Saville faltered in this area for me, but seems to have regained her ambiguous footing in this one.

WALTER ROBINSON
Saville is also taking real people sitting in front of her and immersing them in a whirlpool of painterly effects on canvas. A pointed, literal definition of what her painting is, and an uncommon one.

BARRY SCHWABSKY
What Dennis said could start a whole new round. But rather than going there, I just want to point out that “to what end” (which I said) and “what is she saying” (which I would never say) are utterly different things. “Content is a glimpse,” said de Kooning; “to what end” means, What is that thing she’s got a glimpse of and that she is pursuing? It’s nothing to do with a verbally paraphrasable message (such as one that came up in this discussion, “We are all one,” I think it went). In the end, we can only agree to disagree, but the thing Saville seemed to glimpse before— I feel that she’s lost sight of it here.

DAVID COHEN
There’s a kind of sophistry in hitting on innocent phrases like “she is saying such and such”; we are all adults here, we know that intentions aren’t the final arbiter of anything, that artists at their best generate ambiguities of intention as much as form. But Saville very deliberately, pointedly, and publicly deploys rhetorics of style and method in ways that I find completely removed from any historically or psychologically informed understanding of their value.

Dennis, in your writings on artists you are hardly shy to interpret, including – rightly – ambiguous or unintended elements in the finished works. I was simply asking Saville’s defenders to take a stab at interpreting images in ways that make sense of her methods. I think only Julie began to do that in her reading of the Fates series.

DENNIS KARDON
All of my reviews are certainly about how the work speaks to me from my perspective of a painter and not an attempt to explain ultimate meaning. I do think Saville, in my interpretation, is trying to address the gap between representation and life. She starts with painting a lifeless statue, substituting real people using our criteria of realness, photography illuminated by paint, trying to turn stone to flesh, and then turning to a remake of cubism to address how that metamorphosis is unsuccessful. This may seem, in the ideas department, not original, but it has always been pertinent and comes out of her work. In Barry’s terms what she is “trying to reach for” is the connection of real humans to representations. She probably fails as this distance really cannot be bridged, but in her case her insufficiency is where her art lies. Which is why the details are important to me, as I think trying to capture the complexity of looking at her work through one reproduction of an entire work on our devices is bound to be reductive of the experience and demean the enterprise. Salle takes the impossibility as a given and the “irony” that everyone perceives is just trying to make those failures expressive. While I think Saville is frustrated by the failure.

I think we disagree about the stylization of the “pentimenti,” which to me are not pentimenti exactly, but underpainting. Since they do not seem like actual attempts to describe the final subject, it seems arrogant not to give her the benefit of the doubt about the why of their existence. They might be part of an unseen aspect of the image, or a change of mind about the image, but I feel she doesn’t use them to call attention to her mastery, but the artificiality of what is left on top. This is where I think you question her sincerity, and I simply won’t make that call. You may be totally correct and the whole thing is completely contrived. I don’t feel that is the case, but I couldn’t say.

WALTER ROBINSON
To Dennis I would say representations are reality, and to David I’d exclaim, “values? I don’t need no stinkin’ values!” That is, she puts plenty of intention in her paintings, not the least of which is libidinal play and, as yet another afterthought to our colloquium, a challenge to Hirst and Kapoor, her bloviating male colleagues on the new “British Rich List.”

Jenny Saville: Ancestors at Gagosian Gallery, 522 West 21st Street, between 10th and 11th avenues, New York City, gagosian.com, May 3 to June 16, 2018.

David Cohen is Publisher/Editor at artcritical.com. Julie Heffernan is a painter, represented by P.P.O.W. Gallery, New York. Dennis Kardon is a painter who shows at Mitchell Algus Gallery, New York.Walter Robinson is a painter, represented by Jeffrey Deitch, New York.Barry Schwabsky is art critic of The Nation, a poet, and author of The Perpetual Guest and other works. Suzy Spence, Executive Publisher at artcritical.com, is a painter, represented by Sears Peyton Gallery, New York. Painter Brenda Zlamany’s most recent commission was unveiled in 2018 at Davenport College, Yale University, and her series of watercolor portraits, 100/100, will be shown at the JCC, New York, in the fall. 


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