Sylvia Sleigh, David Bourdon, 1969, oil on canvas, 30 x 21".

Sylvia Sleigh, David Bourdon, 1969, oil on canvas, 30 x 21".

Sylvia Sleigh

Sylvia Sleigh, David Bourdon, 1969, oil on canvas, 30 x 21".

The salon-style hang accorded the paintings displayed on the green walls in the single large gallery that housed Sylvia Sleigh’s recent retrospective at Tate Liverpool may have given the impression of an oldfashioned sort of exhibition, particularly since her works are figurative, often portraits. But the cozy hang belied the artist’s progressive attitude, which immediately became apparent upon closer inspection. Dead center on the main wall were two life-size portraits of Philip Golub, a young, lean man with long, curly hair—one showing him dressed and the other naked. Sleigh, who died in 2010 at the age of 94, wanted to confront the male gaze and counter it with a female point of view, and her solution was to paint men in the nude.

Born in Wales and educated at the Brighton School of Art, Sleigh moved to New York in the 1960s with her second husband, the critic (and later Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum curator) Lawrence Alloway. Given his position, Sleigh’s social circle was very much that of an artworld insider. Like with that of Alice Neel, a kindred spirit, Sleigh’s work also amounts to a portrait of a scene, a milieu, and not just of certain individuals.

This exhibition (at Tate Liverpool, the second stop on a four-venue tour) is Sleigh’s first retrospective in the UK and her first show in this country since 1953, and it puts forward both a personal and social version of the artist. The paintings on view here ranged from small, moody landscapes, still lifes, and studies from her English youth (she grew up in Hove, Sussex) to the large group portraits of fellow artists and students she made as a mature painter. Typically, Sleigh treats the little details and patterns of the surrounds with as much importance as her sitter’s hair follicles and facial features. This contributes to the sense of a bright, sharp light that pervades her images and creates a slight flattening effect; together with the occasional odd compositional angle, these traits bring out a certain awkwardness in her naturalism. One small, intimate portrait, David Bourdon, 1969, depicts the critic in a green ruffled shirt and round spectacles, sitting by a garden wall. Though he is dressed festively, Sleigh has created an impression of unease by hemming him in with a tightly framed composition, his arm almost resting on the bottom edge of the canvas.

Well regarded in the 1960s and ’70s and exhibited in such feminist cooperatives as the A.I.R. Gallery and SOHO20 (she cofounded the latter), Sleigh’s work emerged in a scene focused on Pop and abstraction. Her style probably seemed anachronistic in those days, but in retrospect, Sleigh seems to have made her point with such charm and grace that today her paintings remain confrontational in their own subtle way. She once said that she wanted to paint people she was “rather in love with.” This seems humble in comparison to the politicized narrative her work courted, evidenced, for example, in a series of paintings that revisit familiar compositions from art history but that replace naked women with nude men. Yet this distinct personal approach is what distinguishes Sleigh’s vision. Her subjects, often painted in domestic settings, seem vulnerable and uncomfortable with their nakedness. Perhaps this disquiet is something Sleigh brought instinctively to America from the still quite Victorian Britain into which she was born.

Sherman Sam