New York

Paul Waldman

Leo Castelli Gallery

The limbless, headless, naked bodies in Paul Waldman’s new paintings a restuffed into tight corners, as if into plastic bags. The paintings are sectional, repeating long, narrow shapes that, when read together, remind one of progressively longer spikes or knife blades. Each panel is dominated by extended expanses of pink, baby blue or pearly gray, and the bodies complement this fruity arrangement by appearing more apricot than flesh-toned, in order to make them more “luscious.”

The spiked-shaped panels are right-angled on the left, and severely diagonal on the right; one painting may consist of a small number of these shapes in succession, with both length and severity of the diagonal element growing progressively more extreme. This suggests that some external, mathematical proportion is being imposed; but the system is not clearly defined and there are not enough elements to divine the nature of the proportion. The excessive diagonal cuts on the right side deform shape so much that any specific relations are obscured except for the simple observation of “lengthening.” The area of stuffed torsos also gets longer as the panels grow, but not much, as if the lavish attention that the artist must have paid them could not be sustained over a very substantial period.

To capture the confusion under which these paintings operate, one resorts to hyperbole—characterizing them, say, as a marriage of Don Judd and Larry Flynt. This might indicate the pure disingenuousness of Waldman’s work—how nothing seems organically related to anything else, how nothing he decides to shove into the picture is the consequence of serious thought. But the viewer assumes him to be serious. Only a large dose of irony could have saved Waldman’s paintings: without humor, they are unfelt and slick. Someone suggested they looked like trial cosmetic logos, and this is not far from the mark. As an obsequious bow to an audience denied “sexuality” in art, Waldman paints naked bodies—but as sexual things, not sexual people—torsos as unreal as putti flitting around in a clear blue Fragonard sky. No matter how much Old Master technique is expended on the flesh’s proper representation, it never comes alive—these paintings make Pearlstein’s meat-rack beasties look downright inviting. The areas of pink, blue and gray have a cold, hard airbrushed look. This surface does not contrast with the human flesh depicted; on the contrary, they are identically cold and hard. That these are sexist paintings implies a verdict of bad faith. Before doing so, one would like to know how accurately Waldman has judged his audience; perhaps this is exactly what they want.

Never is the relation between painting and morals clearer than when values one holds deeply are so flagrantly violated. The idea that a painting can be “good” or “bad” on this level supersedes questions of “quality.” One would like to know, all the same, if a painting which is unethical can still be good art. Psychologically oriented critics would want to ask about Waldman as a person, to understand what kind of symptoms these paintings are, and what they are symptoms of. Critics more formally inclined would only see the paintings. At present, the viewer has the paintings alone; considering their formal emptiness, it would not seem unjust simply to pick on the artist.

Jeff Perrone