Lisa Yuskavage: New Paintings
On ViewDavid Zwirner
September 9 – October 23, 2021
Lisa Yuskavage’s exhibition Wilderness has just closed at the Baltimore Museum of Art. The display, in four rooms, was epic, with large paintings that traded in apocalyptic fantasy, exquisite and exciting brushwork, fulsome bodies, and the artist’s customarily astonishing color. I went with my wife and fifteen-year-old son, and afterwards we ambled into the museum’s fabled Cone Collection where I showed him Matisse’s Blue Nude (Souvenir de Biskra) (1907). His response was immediate and clear: “I can’t believe people think this is better than Lisa’s paintings.”
Matisse, among other Old Masters, gets the full Yuskavage treatment in her show of 14 new paintings at Zwirner, displayed in two rooms. The first features some small canvases: a prismatic set of six oils on the entry wall and two near-grisaille works on the west wall including The Fuck You Painting (2020), a bust-length woman with a fiery expression flipping the world the double bird. On the adjacent wall is the large, vividly brushed Scissor Sisters (2020), with three partially clad confrontational women (one with a gun) in an amalgamation of Charlie’s Angels, a similarly titled picture of a duo (2019), and Yuskavage’s hippie pictures dating back to 2013. The trio bears a buccaneerish, Daisy Duke swagger, but will brook no bullshit. On the final wall is Bonfire Tondo (2021), a rare format for the artist but containing a familiar image: a woman behind an immense fire about to bring a long weapon down on an unimaged victim. The gorgeous blue sky behind the molten foreground glow belies the ferocity of the motif.
It is then surprising to find that the grand second room has but one large work on each wall. This is a shift from Yuskavage’s last show here, wherein ninety-some small pictures ringed the entire space, and in contrast to the exhibition in Baltimore, with its multiple smaller rooms with numerous works, most featuring a panoramic scope, deep landscape backgrounds, and high skies. Here, the four pictures all retreat to interior settings, with rear walls parallel to the picture plane, and defined spaces. On the entry wall Pink Studio (Rendezvous) (2021) is, at 70 by 77 inches, just slightly smaller than a picture made exactly 110 years earlier, Matisse’s Red Studio at MoMA, its clear predecessor. But whereas Matisse painted his studio as an off-kilter, somewhat wall-less, nearly unvariegated crimson showcase for his most recent productions, Yuskavage gives us a glimpse into a space that is more utopian in spirit, closer to the French artist’s Bonheur de Vivre (1905-06), one that collapses past and present. An oculus somewhere above produces a ring of light across much of the composition, like that which you experience in the Pantheon in Rome. It illuminates an interior chock-full of paintings, tools, globular multi-colored balls that are either lights, fruit, or those massive translucent grape/fish-egg-like spheres that women feed each other in Yuskavage’s paintings (inspired by the druggy-colored fare in Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights). Lupe and Lola Levenstein, posthumous portraits of her pet chihuahuas, lounge on a dog bed, while in the right foreground an idle cigarette trails smoke into the air. In the background and continuing the illusionistic orthogonals of the Albertian concave space, stands a scarlet version of Home (2018), the artist’s standout work from her last show of new pictures, at Zwirner’s East 69th Street location. Other paintings strewn about mark the long arc of her career, such as Big Blonde with Hairdo (1994) and Dude of Sorrows (2015).
The absorbing quietude of the works signals a new intention in this room, although their invitational nature is familiar. In some ways the necessity of constricting our individual movements under COVID feels related to Yuskavage’s shift in subject to the place where artists, over the past year and a half, likely felt the most freedom—the studio. In her previous work there are very few such images: her emphasis has always been more on models, of a kind, the studio implied. Now, in Yuskavage’s 86 by 120-inch Night Classes at the Department of Painting and Drawing (2018-20), finished suburban backyards of pictures such as The Art Students (2017) have given way to a capacious studio, suffused with numerous shades on the pink-to-red spectrum. Two mostly nude female models share the space with a boyish man—he has Donatello’s David’s adolescent pot belly. He wears spectacles and sports a curving Magrittian calabash pipe in his lips that parallels his flaccid penis below. At the left, the composition is framed by an impressive stack of audio equipment and wires. In the rear, a model with a garland of flowers in her fair hair squats on a sheepskin, her downcast head framed by a canvas on an easel featuring a vivid lemon underpainting. She is similar to the woman seen in the artist’s Braque’s Studio pictures (2010) and is awash in directed light that controverts the titular time of day of the picture, a diagonal splash of Yuskavagian illumination more conceptual than naturalistic, like that in Caravaggio’s Calling of St. Matthew (1599-1600). At the right, a standing woman wearing only high striped socks and a fabulous turban marked by iridescent blue highlights that matches her eyeshadow is also framed by a primed canvas on an easel, here a scene of a blue sky with wispy clouds. She looks down at that curly-haired man, who gently and deliberately runs his fingers along her ribcage, while a trail of smoke rises from his pipe. In the foreground, a block of wood bears two standing nails, with two others lying nearby, another reference, perhaps, to Braque, and his Violin and Palette (1909) at the Guggenheim, where the nail on the upper wall on which the painter has hung his palette casts an illusionistic shadow, a visual pun against the hard-won, faceted, analytic cubist formal language of the rest of this studio-based picture. Stuff gets built in studios. There will be nails. Among other instruments of the passion.
In Yellow Studio (2021) a single female figure sits on a draped stool just left of center. She looks down at her left hand fiddling with her right foot, which rests on her left knee, thus adopting the reverse of the famous pose of the Spinario, the boy removing a thorn. Dating back to the Hellenistic era, this sculpted genre character has had a surprisingly robust afterlife, known from many Roman copies, and then adopted by sculptors and painters since the early Renaissance. It is likely because, like the contemporaneous Dying Gallic Trumpeter (Dying Gaul), ancient examples were in well-known collections, and both were easily adapted to models’ poses in life-drawing classes in art academies from the 17th century, though unlike the doomed but determined Gaul, the Spinario bears little reference to the larger human condition. Yuskavage nonetheless imbues this common scene with vividity and humanity. This may be through the example of Seurat, whose grandiose Les Poseuses (The Models) (1886) in the artist’s hometown of Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation, also features the pose, modified, in the pensive semi-nude model at the right pulling on her stockings. The Post-Impressionist pointillist lent these working-class women a gravity matched to their monumentality, and only one of them seems aware of the artist/viewer in that picture. Yuskavage’s model in the Yellow Studio is similarly unaware of any other presence in the room. She resembles one of the artist’s familiar nel’zias figures, nebbishy and buttoned-up female spirits who linger in Yuskavage’s imagination in the studio and at the margins or backgrounds of her pictures, supposed checks on her baser instincts, but thankfully almost always disregarded. Here the nel’zia is unguarded, the image of rectitude removed, her hair escaping her head scarf. With a glowing turquoise towel painted in Michelangelo’s proto-Mannerist cangiantismo, against the overall mango tonality of the picture, she recalls a scale and pose that combines the musculated ignudi of the Sistine Chapel ceiling with the grand sibyls on the ceiling’s sides. Her flexed left foot, with its pronounced big toe, is a dead ringer for the foot of the Libyan Sibyl, the sketch for which is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, my favorite drawing in the United States.
Delectable lollipop colors. Divine use of light—a light that caresses. The practice of making fictions that sustain us. Complexity and retrospectivity. What is Yuskavage after in these works, with their comparably reserved painterly virtuosity and broad splays of near-seamless color? I can only say what they recall to me. And it is so very much. This feels like the most confident room in Chelsea, as bold, in its own way, as the astonishing array of pictures from 1969-1979 by Philip Guston (one of her heroes) presently at Hauser & Wirth. Witness Yuskavage’s range of reference, mastery of her materials, the large scale of the works, the willingness to strip-mine her own oeuvre, the complete control of the entirety of the color spectrum, the way these pictures encourage both absorbed contemplation and aerobic viewing, moving back and forth and back again. The thrill of turning around to see them across the room in the perfection of natural and artificial light in the Zwirnerian Salon Carré. The stories still beg to be told. The female bodies bear the Yuskavage cool command, and they productively unsettle, the women’s interactions with men remain unclear, power relations see-saw, and the time period is unspecified, somewhere in “the sexual aesthetics of the 1970,” in Helen Molesworth’s assessment. You make culture out of the old and the now. In your own inimitable way. Matisse could hardly head her, now.