New York

Jörg Immendorff, Gestatten. Mein Name ist Geschichte! (Permit Me, My Name Is History!), 2005, oil on canvas, 59 × 51 1⁄4". From “Vile Bodies.”

Jörg Immendorff, Gestatten. Mein Name ist Geschichte! (Permit Me, My Name Is History!), 2005, oil on canvas, 59 × 51 1⁄4". From “Vile Bodies.”

“Vile Bodies”

Michael Werner | New York

The bodies in this group exhibition may have been vile—they certainly weren’t classically ideal—but they were absolutely distinctive. “Vile Bodies,” which extended to the gallery’s London branch, was full of various stylistic persuasions. Take, for instance, the linear clarity of Lucio Fontana’s drawing Nudo (Nude), ca. 1956–59; the bawdiness of Joseph Beuys’s sketch Josephine, 1954; or the expressionistic zeal of Don Van Vliet’s gouache on paper Untitled (Woman), 1986. Yet its major through line, as the title of the exhibition made clear, was a roiling contempt for the human form. Women, in particular, were treated with a morbid curiosity (all of the works were by male artists, many of whom seemed to have a jaundiced view of the opposite sex). Thus Beuys thrusts his subject’s vulva in our faces, spectacularly announcing his castration anxiety while defending himself against it by turning its owner into an abject insect, à la Kafka’s Metamorphosis, or something out of Wolfgang Lederer’s 1968 book The Fear of Women, a treatise on the depiction of women by men in art and culture throughout history. Other examples included Enrico David’s painting, Untitled, 2017, in which a woman is made into a specter, bound up within a grid, and Jörg Immendorff’s Gertrude, 2001, a bronze figure who has stones bound to her feet and is thereby forced to walk with a pair of canes. Eugène Leroy’s Untitled, 1980, was a drawing of a chthonic female built up with smears of charcoal, pastel, and gouache. And in Hans Arp’s sculpture Figure recueille (Self-Absorbed), 1956, one could locate a vaguely sinister quality in the object’s serpentine form and phallic head.

But there were works in “Vile Bodies” where abstraction and fantasy are what do the human figure injustice, such as James Lee Byars’s ironic and self-deprecating sculpture Self-Portrait, ca. 1959, in which he renders himself as a plump stick figure sitting dejectedly on the floor, with a tiny dark ball for a head. Luckily, Byars’s effigy got a subtle lift by being in close proximity to another Immendorff piece, Gestatten. Mein Name ist Geschichte! (Permit Me, My Name Is History!), 2005. The painting reproduces an illustration of a flayed man from Andreas Vesalius’s multivolume anatomical study On the Fabric of the Human Body (1543). The work’s incisive and confrontational renderings of organs and muscles appear in sharp contrast to the blue-gray form painted right next to it—an almost primoridial figure that nearly vanishes into the background. Hitler would have called everything here “degenerate art.” The show accurately laid out that the body is no longer as praiseworthy, to use Aristotle’s conception of it, as it once was. It has lost the nobility and dignity, the godlikeness, it had in classical art. The necessary interrogation of the human form in modern and contemporary art has led to an estranged—or rather, warped—relationship to our own bodies. The desperation this has yielded is palpable, despite all the (seemingly useless) “wellness” movements currently in vogue. The body, as Freud wrote, is the first, or foundational, ego. We have lost this foundation because the body is believed to be incurably sick, as “Vile Bodies” made disquietingly apparent.

Donald Kuspit