At the Stedelijk, I had a brief chance to see a Marlene Dumas retrospective. Since she lives in Amsterdam it must have been a satisfying show for her. I was expecting to admire her faces, and a wall of ink drawings were as expected, with touching and complex expressions, but these days I can’t shake the feeling of the sameness of art, that the things one sees in museums don’t really change from period to period, despite the modern revolutions, which start to seem superficial. For example, if one looks closely at Dumas’ sensitive drawing, around a pair of lips say, it’s pretty familiar from any number of old
master works, and the blotchy “expressive” color sinks into the background as period style. I’m far from wanting to assert timeless values, in fact I find it a bit depressing to think that there’s a look of art that automatically qualifies certain works. Give me difference and novelty, please. But certain questions remain compelling. Isn’t the figure still important, even of the essence? The ideal would be to realize the central content without using the standard manner. Some artists have done that. Dumas does it in one of her ink drawings of a nude, painted in masses to the degree that it verges on abstraction, which forces me to remember that some of my works move the other way, and figures emerge from the blob. Recognizability or resemblance is still a very interesting problem. But Dumas goes straight to the figure as a source of value, or as a question of value, and she gets there through a very simple and direct kind of painting, which is admirable.