New York

John Button, Alice Neel, Lowell Nesbit, Philip Pearlstein, George Schneeman, Sylvia Sleigh, and Rosemary Strider

The School of Visual Arts

“The Male Nude,” an exhibition organized by John Perreault at the School of Visual Arts Gallery, corroborates the claim of the most conservative art historians, that contemporary artists cannot draw the figure. Of course, the second half of that claim, that they therefore make abstract art does not, in this case, follow—although one might wish it had. The artists in this show are John Button, Alice Neel, Lowell Nesbitt, Philip Pearlstein, George Schneeman, Sylvia Sleigh, and Rosemary Strider. Their work all includes at least one (or in the case of Nesbitt, part of one) male nude. The work incorporates a number of aspects which are objectionable, but from the standpoint of the male nude, he is almost without exception badly drawn. This is most apparent in Schneeman’s pale, washed-out painting of two seated male nudes, Lowell Nesbitt’s larger-than-life seated torso in profile, and Sylvia Sleigh’s The Court of Pan (after Signorelli). All these paintings display rather painfully various unresolved problems of anatomy, such as foreshortening. Button’s handling of the figure is somewhat more proficient, but the results, in his gouaches of virile young men on the beach, are beefcake pinups, particularly one which looked like Burt Reynolds. A 1963 painting of male and female models by Philip Pearlstein also looked good by comparison, although it revealed that his drawing and treatment of light and surface have become more particular in more recent work. Strider’s work, which suggests an enlarged fragment of a Greek vase (with two wrestling male nudes on it) being cracked by globs of blue and yellow foam, does not suffer from basic drawing problems as much as it raises much larger questions about the reuse and misuse of earlier art. Like Sleigh’s painting, in which art world acquaintances are used and identified as models, its weakness is one of intention and the use of ideas which are academic and rather offensive. Alice Neel’s portrait of Joe Gould (1933) is the best work in the exhibition. The scrawny, parchment-colored Gould is seated, backed in red and flanked by two male and nude torsos. His hair is wild, his eyes wilder, and he has three sets of genitals. A more recent painting by Neel, a nude portrait of Perreault himself, is also relatively good. (I am not sure whether the fact that it is one of the three best paintings in the show makes its inclusion more or less embarrassing.) In both paintings, particularly the one of Gould, Neel displays a particular and convincing figurative style, which, as is usually the case, has nothing to do with accurate representation. She has managed to understand both the human body and the way she wants to depict it.

Roberta Pancoast Smith