Dumas, for her part, notes that Bin Laden looks a bit like Jesus Christ, and wonders how our preconceptions influence our way of looking at an image of, say, Hitler or Richard Nixon: “If you did not know what a person was supposed to stand for, would you still read the same things in their face?”
Although Dumas’s work has long been a fixture at prestigious biennials and museum shows in Europe, in America it’s her multimillion-dollar auction prices that have made headlines in recent years. This bothers the artist for a number of reasons. “The best works do not necessarily get to auction,” Dumas says. “I like to draw, so maybe I give you a little drawing. And then eventually it ends up at auction. And then critics say, ‘Oh, that’s a bad drawing!’ Well, I didn’t say it was so wonderful.” Moreover, as someone who takes her politics seriously, Dumas regrets that works sometimes get into the hands of “all kinds of people you’ve got nothing to do with.” She once wrote a poem comparing artists to prostitutes: “You can’t get away from/the people you don’t like/because they pay for you.”
Dumas gets involved in all the minutiae of every exhibit, down to the catalog captions, and on the day we meet she’s overloaded with faxes and FedEx packages from MoMA. Butler, who half jokes that she won’t be surprised if Dumas shows up at the museum opening with new paintings in her purse, is resigned to the fact that there will be errors in the catalog, since Dumas will be playing around with the show’s content long after the printing deadline. Last year Dumas had two other major retrospectives, in South Africa and Japan, and as she rushes around the studio sifting through the stacks of papers, one gets the sense that the preparations are taking a toll on her.
It’s dark outside now, and when Dumas looks at the clock, she realizes that our interview has gone three hours past its allotted time. She wanders over to her answering machine and listens to the messages that have accumulated during the afternoon.
“I’m always so sick of myself after a show,” she says. “And I always think, Okay, I don’t know how to paint, and I will never make a painting again. So I can just as well go and retire.” That is, of course, unlikely. Dumas says she has always been jealous of Marcel Duchamp, who blithely abandoned his art career in his mid-30s, mainly to play chess. Then again, she notes, Duchamp was probably more of a theoretician than a painter.
“He never really loved painting, so it was easy for him to give up,” she says. “I can’t do so many other things.”