For better or worse, the sputtering art market is losing the power to confer prestige – a painting’s aesthetic worth is no longer set at auction. The Marlene Dumas exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, however, springs from that oh-so-recent time when quality could be expressed in currency: her painting, “The Visitor,” sold for £3.1m at Sotheby’s last July, making Dumas the most expensive living female artist. It’s already time to reappraise. At MoMA, in galleries filled with painted bodies – dead, tortured or writhing in simulated ecstasy – I overheard one insider confide to another that he hoped the economic slump might sweep away all the glitter that has clung to the Dumas brand and reveal her as the great virtuoso she had always been. I was thinking along similar lines but came to a different conclusion. I imagine that once Dumas loses her quantifiable status, she will fade into the nether reaches of art history, a curiosity of the crazy boom years.
Spread over two floors, the show tracks the non-development of an artist who discovered both her style and her subjects early on and then continued to plumb their shallows over ensuing decades. Rather than organise the show chronologically, which would have thrown the poverty of Dumas’ imagination into relief, curator Connie Butler cleverly installed the work by theme. The reality seeps through all the same. Although Dumas tackles the immortal subjects – death, life, bodies and politics – she swathes them in murk, smudging out specificity and seeking a broader profundity that never materialises.
Raised on a wine farm outside Cape Town, South Africa, Dumas moved to the Netherlands in the late 1970s, where she at first tried to adapt to the conceptualist mainstream. (She still lives in Amsterdam.) By the mid-1980s, she had recognised her joint passions for the human body and the sensuous gesture. She started to paint confrontational female nudes such as “Pregnant,” which draws the eye away from the sitter’s grey face and towards the globular white mound of her belly.
The birth of her daughter Helena in 1989 instigated Dumas’ best work. As a new mother, she searched in vain for reflections of the bliss, fatigue and fury of motherhood. Putti, cupids, and little Jesuses all oozed sentimentality. None conveyed a mother’s ambivalence or the creature-from-another planet quality of a newborn.
So Dumas assembled her own nursery of funny-looking beings with scrawny, bug-like legs, gnarled faces, and bulbous tummies. They are adorable monsters, wreakers of havoc and kindlers of tender feelings. Their-larger-than life scale mirrors the enormous psychological space they colonise in the mother’s mind.
Her most successful picture is a 1994 portrait of her own daughter. Fresh from finger painting, the naked young girl scowls at the viewer, hostility radiating from her rigid frame. Her arms are frozen tensely by her side, one hand still coated in blood-red pigment, the other in blue. Her bloated abdomen – she looks pregnant – is also tinged blue, like frozen meat. Dumas stresses the physical affinities between pregnancy and babyhood, the primal merging of mother’s and daughter’s identities; each vies to be the creator, each regards the other with rage and love.
That portrait of Helena is based on a family snapshot that Dumas transformed from innocent episode to menacing metaphor. She applies the same technique to all of her work, finding photographic figures that she then abstracts, placing them against monochrome backgrounds and stripping them of meaning and context. The method succeeds when the sources are personal and the paintings shimmer with private emotions. It’s less potent when she harvests her images from newspapers and magazine to assemble a rogue’s gallery of strippers, terrorists, victims of torture, and dead celebrities. “The source materials,” Dumas has said, “are about the political choices one faces. They are of the time they are made in. They are about whose side are you on.”
She has translated those sentiments into equally platitudinous paintings, reducing individual people and events to generic symbols. Power lies in the particular but Dumas insists on universalising and the result is a vague, turbid blandness.
As a white South African raised in the apartheid years, Dumas has claimed a special relationship to issues of race and identity. Yet her habit of submerging her subjects’ features beneath oozing layers of pigment doesn’t help clarify the issues. Her slushy handling obscures individuality and identity, which might even be her point. Some of her vague, inflammatory pronouncements, quoted in the show’s catalogue, suggest she believes that people are largely interchangeable and that we all share in the world’s collective guilt. “I see a picture of a dead terrorist, hijacker, or kamikaze ... The ‘other’ is also a mirror image of ourselves! Look in the mirror and talk to al-Qaeda.”
Or you might look at “The Pilgrim”, a man with soft eyes, a melancholy half-smile, and a black beard that fills the lower half of the frame, blending with his robe. It’s Osama bin Laden, not as a murderer or a warrior-prophet, but just a man absorbed in thoughts. What are we supposed to make of this sympathetic portrait, or of the simultaneously provocative and impassive panoply of Middle Eastern men, some bound, some hooded, some simply staring out of the frame? Is Dumas really suggesting a moral or literal equivalence between the average museum-goer and a suicide bomber?
It’s hard to tell. She doesn’t articulate outrage, or wallow in disgust, or try to incite global change. Her pictures can be polemical, or pornographic, but they are often pretty, too. She covers some of the same terrain as Leon Golub, whose immense paintings of torturers, war criminals, and massacres argue that only a fine line of circumstance separates victim from perpetrator. Dumas gestures wispily in the same direction but she lack Golub’s rhetorical force. She is a mistress of the limp provocation and the mild shock.
‘Marlene Dumas: Measuring Your Own Grave’, Museum of Modern Art, New York, to February 16. Tel: +1 212-708 9400; www.moma.org