Dutch Master

Through her unsettling portraits of the human figure, south african-born, Amsterdam-based painter Marlene Dumas explores such hot-button topics as race, sex and death. Now a major retrospective brings her unique brand of subtle provocation to America.

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Dutch Master
Marlene Dumas in her studio.

Dutch Master

Through her unsettling portraits of the human figure, south african-born, Amsterdam-based painter Marlene Dumas explores such hot-button topics as race, sex and death. Now a major retrospective brings her unique brand of subtle provocation to America.

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.

The artist’s self-portrait Het Kwaad is Banaal (Evil is Banal), 1984, oil on canvas, 49 3/16″ x 41 5/16.”

“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.”

For a woman whose work commands such high prices at auction (her 1987 painting The Teacher sold for $3.34 million at Christie’s three years ago, setting a record for a living female artist), and whose work draws from a deep well of historical, political and philosophical influences, Dumas is, in person, conspicuously modest and without airs. A bouncy and gregarious blond with a head of wild curls, she’s all dramatic gestures and big laughs. Still, she’s a famously tricky person to interview. Dumas thinks like an intellectual but doesn’t talk like one: Her conversation is a tangled maze of starts and stops, lucid proclamations and stream-of- consciousness digressions that rarely end neatly, if they end at all. “I often do not finish my sentences,” she acknowledges in Afrikaans-accented English. “So people try to finish them for me. There are often misunderstandings.”

Recently, Dumas says, she vowed to adopt a new strategy during interviews: behaving like a pain in the ass. Now 54—“old,” as she puts it—she figures she’s earned the right, like Louise Bourgeois, to be grouchy and difficult around journalists. “I always decide that I’m going to be strict,” she says. But as she offers me a glass of wine and pours one for herself, it occurs to her that she’s about to break her vow. “Every time I sit down with a person, I make the same mistake,” she says. “Because I start to see you as a person and not as an interviewer.”

Dumas has the kind of voracious curiosity that’s typical of people who were raised in bubbles of one sort or another. Hers was apartheid-era South Africa, where she grew up on a vineyard near Stellenbosch and, in the early Seventies, studied art at the University of Cape Town. Strict censorship was still in effect throughout the country (TV arrived only in 1976), shielding Dumas from the larger Western zeitgeist. Still, a few totems of high and low culture belatedly snuck their way into her world. She remembers watching Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad at her university’s film society. “I was totally perplexed,” she says. “But I felt it was important to see how the film broke down the narrative structures, while there was still somehow a love story in it. So you could have the politics and the love story and a reflection on the medium.” She wondered why painters weren’t attempting similar experiments.

Actually, they were, as Dumas realized when she moved to the Netherlands on a scholarship at age 23. She began playing cultural catch-up, devouring not only modern and contemporary art (including Joseph Beuys and Frank Stella) but also centuries’ worth of classical European paintings and sculptures that she’d missed at home. At first, in Holland’s museums, she recalls, “I couldn’t discriminate. I just saw all these Jesuses and angels and stuff—pfft. And then, suddenly I’d start to say, ‘Hmm, this is a fantastic one.’”

Most novel and influential of all, perhaps, were the media images—news photographs, X-rated magazines, billboards—that Dumas saw everywhere. The Dutch students were already bored with pornography, but Dumas, fascinated, haunted Amsterdam’s red-light district. She also began amassing the archive of newspaper and magazine photos, plus her own Polaroids, that serve as her source material. In her paintings, she reobserves the images with a directness that’s both alluring and unsettling. Even her most compromised or grotesque subjects tend to assert themselves boldly and seductively in the frame, as if demanding to know what the viewer is thinking, really.

Before long Dumas had settled permanently in Amsterdam, where a 1985 gallery show called “The Eyes of the Night Creatures,” featuring large, densely hued paintings of friends and acquaintances, first got her noticed on the European scene. Het Kwaad is Banaal (Evil is Banal) (1984) is a chilling self-portrait, its title alluding to Hannah Arendt’s writings on Nazi bureaucracy. The image shows a light-skinned, flame-haired Dumas looking placidly over her shoulder, at who-knows-what awful things. During her first few years in Holland, while apartheid was at its peak in her homeland, Dumas recalls, “I thought that there was probably nothing worse you could be than a white South African.” But as she explored other countries’ hidden political histories (including America’s role in Congo, among other places), her notions of politics, and of guilt, took on a broader scope. “I feel that one is implicated, oneself, in most things,” she says. “I’m interested in what a human being is capable of.”

In addition to issues of race, Dumas’s later works also tackle sex, torture, childbirth and disease. A recent series depicting blindfolded captives was inspired by news photographs from the Gaza Strip. To some it can appear as though Dumas is working from a checklist of divisive current-events topics. “People look at the work, and they see ‘tits and ass,’ or they see ‘dead,’” says painter Jan Andriesse, Dumas’s companion of 20 years. (The couple has a 19-year-old daughter, Helena.) What takes longer to grasp, Andriesse says, is the technique and theory that inform each brushstroke: “Marlene hits you with a sledgehammer, but it’s a very subtle and sophisticated sledgehammer, wrapped in velvet.”

For Dumas, one crucial way to influence the discourse about her work is to write about it: She has penned dozens of essays, poems and musings to accompany her paintings in exhibits and catalogs. Not surprisingly, the texts often introduce new layers of ambiguity. In 2003, pondering the unreliability of pictorial representation, she wrote: “Now that we know that images can mean whatever/whoever wants them to mean, we don’t trust anybody anymore/especially ourselves.” Dumas also likes to give her works clever titles that further subvert snap judgments. One of her well-known paintings from the mid-Nineties, a period when her work often addressed the role of the female in the male-dominated contemporary art world, shows a row of nude women leaning over a wall while presenting their buttocks to our eye. Dumas called it Group Show.

One of her main goals all along, she says, has been to “problematize the portrait,“ to question what it means to depict a human being on a rectangular canvas. “Yes, I paint portraits and I use the human figure, but actually I want to paint what you cannot see,” she says. “More the spirit of things, or the relationships and the dialogue between them.” The fact that she works from existing images and is not beholden to a sitter allows her a certain freedom. While discussing this, Dumas suddenly stands up and does a hammy impersonation of Lucian Freud—squinting and grimacing as he moves around his subject, examining how the light falls from various angles. She doesn’t work like that, she says.

Her own process usually begins late at night in her studio, where she likes to spread out on the floor, surrounded by dirty brushes, rags and tins of half-dried paint. “Marlene is messy,” says Butler. “Painting is a really physical process for her.” Andriesse contrasts Dumas’s technique with that of more precious painters who work only with choice pigments from Winsor & Newton. Though a skilled draftsman, Dumas grabs whatever is lying around. “She’ll use residue paint, thinned to the point where it’s almost turpentine,” Andriesse says. “She’ll paint with toilet paper.”

As Dumas shows me around her studio, a large ground-floor space in a nondescript part of town, it becomes clear that not all of her works take shape with the same speed and certainty of Dead Marilyn. She’s “a little bit stuck” on some paintings leaning against the wall. One, inspired by a photograph of a mummy, shows a spooky greenish figure with an extralarge head and spindly limbs, seemingly floating in midair. “This one feels a bit too E.T.,” Dumas says with a guffaw. Another, sourced from the album cover of the For Whom the Bell Tolls soundtrack, shows a tearful Ingrid Bergman, her cheeks dotted with oil paint that Dumas diluted with water. “I don’t know if I will exhibit this now,” she says. “Maybe it’s okay.”

In the next room are the shelves containing Dumas’s archive, a loosely organized set of binders jammed with everything from nude Polaroids of herself and Andriesse to a photo of Adolf Hitler’s mother. Dumas takes out a centerfold of a big-breasted Suzanne Somers look-alike that inspired a bawdy portrait called Miss January (1997). “This feels to me like a creature from outer space,” Dumas says. “In art there’s always this thing about ‘the other.’ Well, I’m a woman, but this still feels to me like some strange creature.”

Also in the studio are the source images for her recent series “Man Kind,” which may spark some controversy in the context of an American museum show. The paintings are close-up portraits of North African and Middle Eastern men, some based on posters of Palestinian suicide bombers, though Dumas has removed any culturally traceable details such as background and clothing, directing the viewer’s focus toward the men’s facial features. As much as the paintings seem to deal with issues of race in Europe, where waves of Muslim immigration have sparked new rounds of discrimination, they also clearly conjure 9/11 and Westerners’ perception of terrorists. Butler acknowledges that there was some nervousness at the museum about including the Bin Laden portrait in the exhibit. “First and foremost I think it’s a really beautiful and powerful painting,” Butler says. “And I think within that series of works it was important to include one or two of the more recognizable figures. With the more anonymous figures, you start reading them in terms of their ethnicity. There’s a kind of profiling that goes on. Meanwhile, the ones that you do know become strangely more anonymous and neutral in this context. And that tension is what’s so interesting.”

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.”