12/15/2009

In the Flesh - painter Harold Stevenson, Andy Warhol Museum, New York, New York

Art in America, April, 1999 by Michael Duncan

Rarely exhibited since it was painted in 1962, Harold Stevenson's "The New Adam," an extravagantly scaled, nine-panel male nude, was recently on view at the Andy Warhol Museum.

The expression of desire is central to the identity politics that have recently commanded so much attention in the art world. Surprisingly rare, however, are works of art that take as their subjects real-life objects of desire. The art world's addiction to cool, along with its fear of sentimentality, generally preclude love objects as possible subject matter. With the exception of Robert Mapplethorpe, whose sexually explicit photographs unmoored the art world from the American mainstream a decade ago, contemporary artists have generally disguised the specifics of their love lives. For them, as for most of our neopuritanical society, desire is still best expressed through allegory, displacement, metaphor or irony.

So it is with a shock that contemporary viewers confront Harold Stevenson's 8-by-39-foot recumbent male nude The New Adam (1962), a sumptuous painting that unabashedly fills an entire wall with the artist's object of desire. Unseen for years before a 1992 revival exhibition at New York's Mitchell Algus Gallery, the painting was recently on view at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. It was the centerpiece of a select show of works from the 1960s by the 69-year-old artist--his first solo exhibition in a U.S. museum. Extending across nine panels, the sprawling painting was meant as a testament to Stevenson's love relationship with its subject, Lord Timothy Willoughby, the grandson of Nancy Astor (the first female member of Parliament). Using the actor Sal Mineo as a stand-in model for the figure in Willoughby's absence, Stevenson created a work intended, as he puts it, "to be beyond captivity, beyond containment, where flesh is endless." The Pittsburgh exhibition, curated by Mark Francis, also included a gridded 21-panel portrait of Willoughby along with several related paintings, studies and documentary material.

A native of Idabel, Okla., where he still resides part of the year, Stevenson is a wildly unlikely yet somehow apt product of the American heartland. A largely self-taught artist, by the age of 20 he showed in New York with Alexander Iolas and by 30 lived in Pads, where he exhibited at Galerie Iris Clert. His grand-scale projects include a 48-foot-high painting of the bullfighter El Cordobas (1964)--originally installed on a platform in the Eiffel Tower--and The Great Society (1967-68), a cycle of 100 Oklahoma faces presented first in Idabel and then in Paris. He was often included in '60s Pop exhibitions, such as the breakthrough 1962 show "The New Realists" at Sidney Janis. A close friend of Warhol, Stevenson was the subject of the Pop artist's film Harold (now in restoration), which premiered as part of a 1964 exhibition of The New Adam at L.A.'s Feigen-Palmer Gallery.


Ebullient, charismatic, an indefatigable storyteller, Stevenson the personality always threatens to overwhelm his art. Yet beyond the anecdotes about Warhol, Yves Klein and Gloria Swanson lies a lifelong experimentation with the sensual possibilities of figuration. The exaggerated scale in Stevenson's depictions of isolated body parts immerses viewers in a delirious physicality that few artists have dared approach. Photographers like Edward Weston, John Coplans and Jeanne Dunning have used extreme close-ups of the human body for various abstract, psychological or uncanny effects. Stevenson's enterprise, however, melds large scale with the expressionistic qualities of paint to simulate the experience of emotionally charged physical contact.

The New Adam marks a crucial development in the depiction of the male nude. The painting is the culmination of the homoerotics of a previous generation of gay artists that includes Pavel Tchelitchew, Jean Cocteau, Jared French, George Platt Lynes, Paul Cadmus and Christian Berard, and it also presages the current explosion of interest in the male body. With its swoony romanticism, the work is an embodied landscape crowded to its edges with flesh. The model's chin is braced by his right shoulder, and his head is tucked tightly into the picture's framing edges. His compact torso and thighs stretch out, filling the canvas. The vista of smooth, roseate flesh is punctuated only by nipples and genitals, interspersed with wispy, calligraphic strokes evoking body hair.

The painting's variously sized panels are self-contained units, each with its own compositional coherency. In the third, rather narrow panel, the left nipple floats planetlike above the pinkish sheen of pectoral muscle and ribcage. The panel to the right features only a thin trail of body hair across the wide, moodily shaded midriff. The genitals are structurally downplayed by being divided horizontally into two panels. In the rightmost panel, the broad expanse of light along the upper leg reads as an abstracted, hazy sunrise opening over a dark horizon line formed by the crevice of the thighs.