THE POSTMODERN NUDE
by Corey Postiglione
Ever since an anonymous artist sculpted the “Venus of Willendorf“ some
twenty thousand years ago, the human form has been an enduring
subject for art. The nude as a genre of artistic practice has been
represented in a myriad of styles and media down through the ages
from the Egyptian’s severe stylizations, to the ancient Greek’s
idealized figures, to the naturalism of the Romans. This fascination
with the human body continues to be explored even into the 21st
century and the epoch commonly referred to as the postmodern.
So what is it that constitutes a postmodern representation of the
female or male nude, that classical subject that has so endured
over time? What establishes this new visual and philosophical view
of the nude figure that in some way breaks with the past of this
well rehearsed subject, and even goes beyond the recent
experimentations of the modern tradition?
There are certainly seminal moments in the history of the nude
that stand as benchmarks that help to shed light on changing
attitudes of figurative representation. It is interesting that a painting
of a nude woman should stand as one of the most important works
signaling the modern movement. In the Salon of 1865, Manet’s
“Olympia,” so shocked the French public with its dramatic pictorial
innovations and provocative content, that later critic and historian
Clement Greenberg would refer to it (and Manet in general) as the
beginning point of modern art.
Early in the 20th century, Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”
(1907) broke new ground in both form and content, and singularly
initiated the most important movement of that time: Cubism. Picasso’s
women, with their radically altered anatomies and the introduction of
African masks, swept in a whole new visual language for representing
the human form.
In the early 1950s, Abstract Expressionist painter Willem de Kooning
even surprised Greenberg with his reintroduction of the female figure
in his “Woman Series.” In fact, what inspired de Kooning to paint
this series of strong and frightening women was his interest in the
prehistoric “Venus” figures as he referred to them. Of Course,
de Kooning’s women were painted in his signature style of aggressive
painterly gesture so that the figures seem to emerge from the brush
So we have witnessed many approaches to the nude as a subject over
time with many epochal changes in style and attitude. With the
ushering in of what we now term the postmodern we aught not be too
surprised that the genre continues to be investigated by a new breed
of artists in new ways.
What could we rightly call the new features of the postmodern nude?
There are several categories I would submit as possible ways of
structuring this new sensibility. Firstly, there is the penchant
of postmodernism to critique certain modernist tropes. For example,
questions surface: how have women been represented in the past, not
only in art but in the modern media of film, and television, and mass
culture in general—ie., so-called men’s magazines (Playboy, Penthouse),
the fashion world, glamour mags, etc. Pop artist Tom Wesselman mined
much of this cultural turf in the 1960s with his “Great American Nude”
series in which he depicted advertising’s use of the female figure as a
sex object to sell products. In fact many historians and critics position
the beginning of the postmodern with the advent of Pop art and its
relentless forays into mass culture.
In the 1980s, artists such as Barbara Kruger and Cindy Sherman
created works that explicitly deconstructed the status and
representation of women in society. Sherrie Levine, through a series
of overtly appropriated works (she copied them) of famous male artists,
has challenged the hegemony of the modernist cannon and its exclusive
Men’s club. Another tendency of postmodernism is its use of pastiche,
that is, its endless borrowing of past styles only to empty them of
their original meaning. (Noted cultural historian Fredric Jameson has
described pastiche as blank parody.)
Eric Fischl has successfully returned to Manet’s quasi realist style to
comment on suburban angst and the ennui of sexual practice in the late
20th century. David Salle explores images of misogyny in his overtly
graphic paintings of women in compromising positions (often his
What makes the postmodern nude interesting and problematic is its
ambiguities: Salle has been charged by some feminist critics as
exploiting the female image. Postmodern themes of anachronism and
nostalgia inform the strange paintings of Odd Nerdrum with his faux
historic and mythic scenes of some past (or future) parallel universe.
A host of other painters like Ronald Cohen and Marino Marini have
been drawn to ersatz historicism in the style of Italian Mannerists.
An even younger generation of figure painters has emerged to further
explore the possibilities. John Currin and Lisa Yuskavage have
morphed a hybrid style of Pop and Neoclassicism (read Jacques
Louis David), romance novel illustration and Rococo (Wateau) to
create paintings that are at once lush and erotic, campy and satiric.
Cecily Brown has revived de Kooning’s tact with her large abstract
expressionistic like canvases that depict, albeit abstractly,
writhing orgiastic bodies involved in numerous sexual situations.
This exhibit focuses mainly on 2D media, drawing, prints, painting,
and photography, for logistical reasons. There are obviously many
works in other diverse media, both sculptural and time-based art
that reflect recent developments with the nude as subject.
Nevertheless, we have brought together what we feel is an exciting
collection of works that from one of the aforementioned perspectives
exemplifies the current interpretations of this enduring subject.
Corey Postiglione is a painter, critic, curator, and teacher living in Chicago.
In addition to a Professor of Art History and Critical Theory at Columbia College
Chicago. His writing has appeared in numerous publications including Artforum,
The New Art Examiner, C-magazine, and Dialogue.
Copyright ©2003 Brad Cooper Gallery. All rights reserved.