New York

Rita Ackermann

Andrea Rosen Gallery/New Museum of Contemporary Art

Each painting in Rita Ackermann’s first solo show was organized around a predominant theme (speed, vacation, drugs, doing nothing) and populated by svelte waifs, fashionable nymphs, and other girlish sprites combined and recombined in almost serial fashion, like Minimalist variations of a cube. In Now I’m Gonna Take a Vacation (all works 1994), Ackermann’s figures—all drawn in black outlines and somewhat arbitrarily filled in with color, as in a coloring book—cop typical vacation poses. One girl dives into the water; another skinny-dips; one faces us with her camcorder; another lying on her stomach sunbathes in the nude (a can of Coke beside her, a squirrel rearing up right in front of her face, as though it were speaking to her); yet another seems to be playing with a dolphin that oddly reaches out to her with a (male?) hand. In short, the work combines the pastoral, the nude, and the painting of modern life: Ackermann’s figures are modish Venuses, rave versions of Manet’s Olympia.

If the hallmark of the nymphet, as defined by Vladimir Nabokov, is semiconscious sexual precocity—a special combination of innocence and awareness—then Ackermann’s paintings are not “about” the nymphet phenomenon. To whatever extent the paintings are rave versions of Olympia, they’re done not from the outside-in (i.e., seductive pictures of young girls painted by men) but from the inside-out: the works themselves come off as innocent but aware. The girls in Now I’m Gonna Take a Vacation seem to adopt the poses of starlets at Cannes, suggesting a certain conscious desire to be glamorous and attractive, and yet, as with many of Ackermann’s other works, these paintings are essentially idyllic. Similarly, the work that Ackermann created for the New Museum’s street-level windows this fall oscillates between two poles: the artist imbues her sexy nymphs and guileless lambs with Catholicism’s weird mix of eros and innocence by rendering them in faux stained glass.

If Ackermann’s girlish personae have the Word, however, they’re keeping it to themselves. Even when she poses outright questions (as in the painting on denim Where Did We Come From? Where Are We Going? Who Are We?), it may well be that not only is she offering no answers, but no questions either—merely a reiteration of the title of the famous Gauguin painting, and more girls doing their respective things. There are the sounds of radios playing, waves crashing, dolphins splashing, but not of words being spoken. The girls never address each other, though frequently they appear to communicate with animals (especially dolphins and lambs). Maybe its natural: Ackermann is an artist born in Hungary, trained in Budapest and Vienna, and currently working in New York. Sometimes her paintings (drawings, T-shirts, line of underwear, and skateboard designs, too) resemble Japanese cartoons, sometimes they draw on French painting—or maybe reproductions of French painting in Janson’s History of Art, who knows? In the end, the works have no native tongue: wearing Pumas made in Taiwan, listening to British music on a Japanese radio, the girls in Ackermann’s paintings seduce not by words but through a certain nubile body language. Perhaps it’s the domain proper to them as nymphets—to seduce with words, that’s the domain of the snake.

Keith Seward