A few months ago, while Marlene Dumas was preparing for her first major American museum exhibit, a midcareer retrospective that opens in June at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, she began worrying that she’d have no new works to show. Dumas, a South African–born, Amsterdam-based painter known for her confrontational images of human figures—blindfolded captives, naked pinups, deformed newborn babies—had been working on a large-scale portrait of her mother, who died last year, but decided it was too dramatic, too pompous. A new series depicting crying women wasn’t progressing well. Then, while Dumas was rummaging through an old file of media images—one of the dozens of cluttered notebooks and boxes with labels like war, couples and porn that make up her archive—out tumbled a yellowed newspaper clipping with a morgue photograph of Marilyn Monroe. The movie star is entirely unrecognizable, with matted hair and bruised, craggy skin. Dumas, inspired, took out a canvas and finished a new portrait of Monroe’s corpse within a few hours.
“So this is sort of my Los Angeles painting, my American painting,” says Dumas in her studio, where Dead Marilyn (2008) is hanging on the wall. It’s a strikingly moody work in splotchy blue-gray, and the artist implies that it’s more about the subject of death itself—her mother’s, her own—than it is about deglamorizing a Hollywood legend or responding to Andy Warhol’s iconic portraits of Monroe. “It’s not that I sat down and thought, Hmm, what should I do now for [America]? I’ll be nasty,” Dumas says. She doesn’t seem concerned that the source photo may be a fake, and she’s pleased that the painting measures only 16 by 20 inches. “The fact that it’s small and intimate is what is so important,” Dumas says.
Visitors to the exhibit at MOCA (or at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, where it moves in December) might inadvertently walk right past Dead Marilyn, which will hang amid dozens of larger portraits that carry a more blatant political charge, such as The Pilgrim (2006), a close-up of Osama Bin Laden. As a whole, the exhibit will give Americans their first comprehensive taste of the unique mix of nuance and provocation for which Dumas’s work is known. According to MoMA curator Connie Butler, who organized the show, Dumas has a talent for dealing with hot-button topics in an unusually nondidactic way. “Marlene is really taking on the issues of our time,” says Butler. “That’s more and more difficult to do as an artist. And yet these images are extraordinarily personal.”