Critics’ Picks

Evelyne Axell, Valentine, 1966, oil on canvas, gold leaf spray paint, zipper, helmet, 52 3/8 x 32 5/8".

Evelyne Axell, Valentine, 1966, oil on canvas, gold leaf spray paint, zipper, helmet, 52 3/8 x 32 5/8".

New York

Evelyne Axell

BROADWAY 1602 | Uptown
5 E. 63rd Street 1ABC
April 24–August 25, 2012

Under the tutelage of René Magritte and the influence of Pauline Boty, Belgian-born protofeminist Evelyne Axell produced a body of work that bound together her unconventional artistic education with her newfound investment in the women’s liberation movement. Axell’s erotic paintings and drawings—unabashedly charged with bright, hot colors—exude her heady, vivacious desire to champion the female body as sexual and pleasurable while loading these allegorical images with references to women’s social and intellectual achievements, especially in the realm of space travel.

Valentine, 1966, the conceptual centerpiece of the exhibition, pays homage to Valentina Tereshkova, the first female cosmonaut. Sprayed entirely with gold leaf, the human-scale canvas is playfully adorned with a helmet on the left and a woman’s white, erotically posed silhouette to the right. The figure is slit at the throat and down the center of the figure, and a zipper affixed to the painting is undone to expose a woman’s naked trompe l’oeil body. In the adjacent room, eight framed black-and-white photographs document Axell’s Happening at the Foncke Gallery in 1969, one of several guerrilla performances she did that enlisted the participation of a single female attendee. In the images shown, a collector’s wife mingles with the crowd and later reappears wearing only a space helmet, accompanied by Axell, who proceeds to dress her. Finally, in two images, French critic Pierre Restany is captured emphatically praising “the sexual revolution in art,” as the wall text makes clear.

Today, it is easy to see Axell’s work as negatively charged and highly contentious: Erotic depictions of women’s naked bodies hardly seem to promote a feminist agenda. However, this exhibition offers an arresting and refreshing reminder of the boundaries second-wave feminists were pushing in the late 1960s: Axell’s dynamic pride and pleasure in her own corporeality asserts an internal imagination that translates into an agency for collective social change.