The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum

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Important Update

June 6, 1999, to September 12, 1999 | Old Hundred

The Nude in Contemporary Art

Since the very origins of art, people have been rendering the unclothed human form. Although the human form is a perennial subject for art, the cultural attitudes surrounding it perpetually change. The work of the 45 artists in this exhibition explores themes including the mundane body, the grotesque body, aging, identity, the celebration of beauty, and cultural norms and prohibitions that surround the body. If art is a reflection of the time in which it was created, then an investigation of the contemporary nude is certainly a reflection of today's attitudes toward the most personal and essential aspect of our existence — our bodies.

Installation Images


The nude is an inescapable subject in the history of visual art. As Kenneth Clark states in his comprehensive 1959 book, The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form, " remains our chief link with the classic disciplines." Artists pursuing the subject inevitably make reference to its historical precedent.

John Currin's Three Friends (1998) looks remarkably familiar at first glance, although a singular reference cannot be found. The subject matter recalls classical mythology, as in Rubens' The Three Graces, or the Elder's The Judgement of Paris. The anatomically impossible bodies of women might remind us of Cranach's sixteenth century contemporary Albercht Dürer, whose detailed engravings of nude women show small, tightly-rendered breasts and extended lumpy torsos. Here, Currin has placed three oddly-proportioned young women against a darkly-glazed background, petals scattered at their feet. The three figured lean affectionately on one another, their illuminated hands drawing attention to the breasts of the two coquettish standing figures. Despite the many historical references, Currin's painting is decidedly contemporary in its free use and exaggeration of an assortment of styles.

John O'Reilly humorously places himself into art historical settings in photo-collages like Dutch Bedroom and Posing for Bonnard. In Dutch Bedroom, we recognize the maid and the arm of the bather from Rembrandt's Bathsheba (1654), which O'Reilly uses as a starting point for his piece. O'Reilly overlays the pensive bather in the original work with his own nude self-portrait. He transforms the picture into an erotic image where the subject of sensuality is made more explicit than the original work allows.

Jacqueline Hayden plays off art history in her digitally-altered photographs of ancient statuary. Hayden cleverly creates discomfort in the viewer by adding body hair, wrinkled and cellulite to the idealized nude of antiquity. Her alterations to the statuary remind the viewer of just how idealized most nudes are and how accustomed we are to accepting them as representations of real bodies.


"Art clothes my nakedness," - John O'Reilly, "A Dialogue: John O'Reilly and James Tellin," Self-Portraits 1977-1995 (Howard Yezerski Gallery, 1996).

In his book, Kenneth Clark devotes an entire chapter to the discussion of nude as opposed to naked. Naked, he suggests, is to be deprived of clothes, implying embarrassment. Nude, however, has no uncomfortable overtone and implies a balanced, prosperous, confident body.

The artist's studio and the life drawing class have traditionally been places where the unclothed body becomes nude because of the tradition in art of using models as aides in rendering the human form. Karen Finley's installation Go Figure brings the tradition of life drawing class into the Museum for public viewing. A museum is certainly not a place one is accustomed to seeing live unclothed models; the simple relocation of the life drawing class stimulated questions about the comfort level we have with a living and breathing nude person, beyond the visual representation of one.

In similar vein, Tina Barney's photographs of nude men and women in domestic settings highlight the sometimes mundane qualities of the nude. Barney's models appear not to be affected by their own or other's state of undress. The mood of the photographs is blasé. The unclothed body within the home is common place, as in Steven DiGiovanni's Coin Toss. The naked man in this painting stands in his living room before a clothed figure watching television; cats play at his feet. The image is a comfortable and familiar one, not nearly as political or unnerving as the unclothed body in a public space. Sherry Camhy, Lucian Freud, and William Beckman demonstrate a similar frankness and matter-of-fact quality in their depictions of the human form. None of the figures in these works appear self-conscious about their nudity. This confidence is evident in the pose and straightforward eye contact of many of the subjects.


In his catalogue essay, director Harry Philbrick raises the question of why, when our culture is accepting of the numerous suggestive images of the body in films, advertising, television and the internet, does the body's depiction in a work of art provoke such anxiety? The fact that viewers still expect more from a work of art than they do from popular culture is gratifying, he goes on to say, but it doesn't explain why we are still uncomfortable with the depiction of something common to all of us. Several of the artists in this exhibition have come under fire in recent years for their sues of the body in art. The controversy around this work reveals that our culture has a difficult time separating the nude body from the sexually exploited body. These social constructs are explored from several points of view in this exhibition.

Karen Finley's installation is a simple idea with intricate political ramifications. Go Figure invite anyone who walks into the Museum to take part in a life drawing class. Novices will quickly learn the difficulty inherent in rendering the human form and the value of working from a model. But what also becomes evident in the drawing class is the endurance of this art practice and the absurdity that something so traditional can be considered controversial when taken out of context of a school.

Jock Sturges's photographs (of adolescents in particular) have been the target of repeated criticism. In 1991, his San Francisco studio was raided by the F.B.I. on charges of child pornography. His portraits of girls in transition to womanhood boldly reveal a stage of life usually considered private.

Joe Cavallaro humorously emphasizes the importance placed on the sexual nature of our bodies. His cartoon-like figures have exaggerated sexual features, wide eyes and big smiles. Harriet Leibowitz and Paul Cadmus allude to the lack of male nudes in art history and popular culture, though in very different ways. Paul Cadmus draws the made nude as an almost daily exercise and Harriet Leibowitz glamorizes the male nude as an object of beauty, the way female bodies have been objectified throughout history.


"Just as the headlessness of my body makes it more like any other man's body, so does its nakedness remove the body from the specificity of time. Unclothed, my body belongs to the past, present and future. it is classes, without patriotism, unencumbered by specific language and free to wander across cultures at will... 'oldness' is a taboo in American society, which tends to worship beauty and your, consequently the aging of old bodies must be hidden from view, for they are imperfect, very often diseased, and soon perish." - John Coplans, Nude, Naked, Stripped (Hayden Gallery, 1985)

Joh Coplans reminds us that the body is the site of mortality, and a record of our age. Like Copland, Anne Harris has documented the changing appearance of her body over several years' time. Her meticulous renderings are at times almost clinical in their description of each vein in her changing body. The paintings she created during her pregnancy record both physical and mental changes. Her bulging belly increasingly becomes the focus of her paintings, her face disappearing into the background with an expression of helpless submission. In a small drawing also shown here, Harris reveals the fruit of her pain, the wrinkled and vulnerable body if her newborn son, Max.

Much like Sturges's controversial photographs, Manabu Yamanaka's photographs of nude elderly women depict a transition time in life. The nude depiction of the aged body is considered taboo in many cultures. His works are a shocking reminder of our own mortality.

Curated by Harry Philbrick, Richard Klein, and Jessica Hough

Artists: Laura Aguilar, Tina Barney, Lisa Bartolozzi, William Beckman, Brett Bigbee, Paul Cadmus, Sherry Camhy, David Carbone, Harriet Casdin-Silver, Joe Cavallaro, Eteri Chkadua, Chuck Close, John Coplans, Renée Cox, Meg Cranston, James Croak, John Currin, Steven DiGiovanni, Jeanne Dunning, Karen Finley, Lucian Freud, Philip Grausman, Chris Habib, Anne Harris, Jacqueline Hayden, Kinke Kooi, Peter Krashes, Daniel Ladd, Jacob Lawrence, Harriet Leibowitz, Michael Leonard, Melanie Manchot, Denise Marika, John O'Reilly, Hanneline Røgeberg, Karin Sander, Jenny Saville, Andres Serrano, Robert Stivers, Annelies Štrba, Jock Sturges, Robert Taplin, Spencer Tunick, Manabu Yamanaka, Lisa Yuskavage

Public Responses

The Aldrich's summer exhibition, The Nude in the Contemporary Art, is either remembered as revolutionary or problematic. Prior to the exhibition's installment in Ridgefield, the Whitney Museum of American Art was set to open an exhibit entitled The Great American Nude, but it was abruptly cancelled. The Whitney claimed it was to cut costs, so they could put more financial resources into their "Project of America" series which showcased American art in the 20th century. However, this "decision was announced days after Ms. [Karen] Finley and three other performance artists lost a case before the United States Supreme Court, with justices voting 8 to 1 to uphold a decency test for federal arts grants," and Finley's performance was going to be on display.

"The Whitney said the cancellation had nothing to do with the court case and that the show might eventually even be rescheduled. But Ms. Finley and other artists criticized the Whitney's move as a form of censorship and predicted that it would make it more difficult for them to receive backing from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and other agencies" (The New York Times, Mel Gussow).

This is when The Aldrich stepped in.

For months leading up to the exhibition, the museum received a mix of responses from the public. Many large newspaper publications praised The Aldrich for absorbing the exhibition while many residents begged Harry Philbrick to reconsider its installment. Despite the amount of push-back the museum received, it generated necessary discussion surrounding the concept of the nude as well as the philosophy of free speech.

Below, in the "press" section, explore the different reactions towards the exhibition. Consider the publications' audiences, who the authors are, and the reasons for their concern or praise. Even though it's not all great press, each response towards The Nude in the Contemporary Art generates an important artistic, philosophical and societal discussion all pointing towards the human condition.



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