New York

Sylvia Sleigh

I have always been guarded in my appreciation of the work of Sylvia Sleigh and the group of like-minded figurative painters around her. I have sometimes suspected that we support the courage of anyone who goes against the mainstream, and in our efforts to be objective in our criticism we bend over backward to be fair; if it looks bad at first sight, we try harder to find something good in it—the Emperor’s New Clothes Syndrome. Yet Sleigh’s recent series of portraits of women artists so offended me that, finally, I turned my back on the pictures to look elsewhere for the reasons for her vogue.

Sleigh showed a group of pictures which would have been more at home in an Art Students League exhibition than in a professional gallery; such pictures can only harm the cause of women in the arts. They have neither the wit nor the eccentricity of Alice Neel; nor the almost decorative simplifications of Alex Katz; nor the eerie, cold discomfort of Philip Pearlstein. I can only see them as what someone who has never painted a portrait before imagines painting a portrait is all about.

When Sleigh was painting her controversial studies of men “as sex objects,” contemporary reversals of such traditional “women as sex objects” pictures as Ingres’ Turkish Bath, she was making an important—perhaps breakthrough—statement about the sexes today. What she had to say through her painting was important, but her painting really was never very good. Take away the message, the shock of recognition and reversal, take away the courageous posture, and you are left with a very mediocre painter.

What Sleigh has to say in these new paintings is neither new, nor interesting. Confronting her large group portrait of the 21 women of the A.I.R. cooperative gallery, one is all too aware of the awkwardnesses and unevenness of her ability. Each figure in this crowded composition is emotionally isolated (even though as portraits they are far better than the individual portraits also exhibited). The painting is more a collage than an integrated experience, which is what it attempts to be. Sleigh has painted other group portraits similar to this, but none so complicated, and while her pluck in tackling such a difficult exercise is to be applauded, the result is sad. The figures slide away from each other, they seem to repulse one another. She is unable to deal with problems of perspective and overlapping planes. The cluttered composition and dry painting conspire to produce a remote resemblance to Ensor’s Self-Portrait with Masks, which, I fear, is only accidental. The perverse claustrophobia displayed in Sleigh’s painting is the result of faulty drawing and a serious inability to deal with figures in space. And I fail to recognize her trademark high-keyed color (which seems to me dull and muddy) and her sensitive handling of the qualities of light touching flesh (nothing special). This picture, which attempts to celebrate the solidarity of women in the arts, doesn’t.

Stuart Greenspan