Los Angeles

Paul McCarthy, Performance Drawing Notes, 1975, ink on paper, 24 × 19".

Paul McCarthy, Performance Drawing Notes, 1975, ink on paper, 24 × 19".

Paul McCarthy

Hammer Museum

In the 1960s and ’70s, art in America was radicalized—mostly by women, many hailing from the West Coast—to skewer normative constructs of gender; sexuality; the family as a social unit; and the home as a site of control, a microcosm of the authoritarian state. A particularly anarchic strain of feminist art production, by turns indicting and emancipatory, was a crucial influence on Paul McCarthy’s practice. Salient in this regard are the performances of Linda Montano, Barbara T. Smith, and, in particular, the artists involved in the Womanhouse project, which was mounted in a residential home in Hollywood in 1972. In his performance and video work, McCarthy, too, has been drawn to those domestic settings in which we are assigned our identities and has consistently sought to upend our prefabricated roles through methods of travesty, burlesque buffoonery, and over-the-top sexual caricature. From the most ingrained and commonplace aspects of everyday experience, he extracts a quantum of libidinal volatility, which over the years has steadily intensified in explosive force.

Perusing this exhibition of drawings spanning the length of McCarthy’s career, viewers gain an intimate perspective on the workings of the artist’s mind. Immediacy has always been the promise of drawing, whether referring to a preparatory sketch or a finished work, yet McCarthy insistently blurs that quality with his free-form modus: The most provisional doodles consort freely with fully realized depictions, sometimes collaged atop each other; scrawls on scraps are enlarged to a monumental painterly scale and vice versa; some drawings anticipate and storyboard his performances; some are composed before the audience, in the course of performance; some are executed after the fact, attending to the psychic fallout of performance. All are performative in their own right, but the question of what exactly is recorded in these drawings, and where it lands on an overarching timeline of production, is very deliberately confused. From a technical standpoint, as well, every line of aesthetic development is thwarted, seemingly on principle. Between the refined study of McCarthy’s wife, Karen, reading a book naked and spread-eagled on a bed (Karen Life Drawing, 1965–66) and the ultra-brut, bathroom wall–inspired “Wallpaper Drawings” series, 1991–92, there extends a wide gulf. This stylistic chasm is typically bridged not between eras of production but within single works, as moments of bravura line work suddenly plummet toward atavistic regression. It would seem that what happened once seems to keep happening, all the more insistently if it has undergone censure of any kind. It is to the credit of the exhibition’s curators, Connie Butler and Aram Moshayedi, that this aspect of McCarthy’s oeuvre is attached to the notion of historical recurrence in the most de-spiritualized sense, as a repetition compulsion that only becomes more extreme on every go-round. On this point, the artist is utterly consistent. From 1963 to 2019, his drawings summoned a seemingly unstoppable proliferation of “naughty bits”: sexual organs, many severed or gouged, multiplying like mushrooms from the mother mold of repression. The cruel logic of this incremental exacerbation is here plainly on view.

A large part of the pleasure afforded by this show is derived from wondering what others are thinking while taking it in. McCarthy is sometimes described as a feminist for indulging his male fantasies to the point of collapse, or else for more critically “working through” his assigned gender role in search of polymorphous beatitude. One might add that the strength of this work is that it does not beg any such ethical redemption. It is essentially a machine that runs itself, energized by its own exhaust, metastasizing output without plan or preconceived purpose. The sadomasochistic currents that motor productivity as such in America, which this work may have once served to expose, no longer need to be; they flare up everywhere. This nation, which has now inarguably lost the plot that McCarthy ripped up ages ago, is met with an increasingly undistorted reflection in his work. The only difference remaining—and it makes all the difference—is that this work continues to reflect on itself as well.