The four art dealers who trade together as LGDR have opened a gallery on East 64th Street with a preposterous inaugural exhibition — but before you take that the wrong way, remember the etymology. Preposterous, adjective: from the Latin prae-, meaning “before,” and posterus, or “coming after.” Something preposterous is turned the wrong way. It puts up front what belongs in the back. It repositions the posterior as anterior. …
I had better stop; “Rear View,” with more than 60 paintings, sculptures and photographs of human figures facing the more interesting way, invites a preposterous amount of wordplay. This show unites blue-chip buttocks by the likes of Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol, John Currin and Cecily Brown; dorsal drawings and pastels by Degas, Klimt and Schiele; and some market-oriented novelties from Issy Wood, Jenna Gribbon and other undistinguished young figurative painters. The bottoms on display are male and female, nude and clothed, seen from a forensic distance or in fetishistic close-up, but rarely lascivious. All together the show is well-bred and understated, with just a little cheekiness and some pretty good jokes, above all from Domenico Gnoli, the great painter of the postwar Italian bourgeoisie, who depicts the backside of … a painter’s canvas.
Many of the artists in “Rear View” channel their backward glances through the classical ideal. Greek and Roman sculptors lavished care on the backsides of their statues, such as the Callipygian Venus, whose bare bottom has drawn admirers for centuries to the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, Italy. (Callipygian, adjective: from the Greek kalli-, “beautiful,” and pyge, “buttocks.”) In this show, the hushed black-and-white photographs of Harry Callahan show the artist’s wife, Eleanor, in various classical poses: bent slightly at the hips like the Venus de Milo, or lounging bottom-up like the Sleeping Hermaphroditus. Michelangelo Pistoletto, the Arte Povera artist, places a concrete copy of the Aphrodite of Knidos in a pile of trash. Urs Fischer offers a literally waxen redeployment of antique statuary: a candle in the shape of the Three Graces, the central goddess facing backward, their absent heads turned into burning wicks.
Longtime students of the rear view will have other vocabulary to draw from. First fundamental term: Rückenfigur, noun, German, a “figure from the back,” looking away from the viewer, establishing a frontier between the picture plane and the background. The most famous Rückenfigur is Caspar David Friedrich’s “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog” (1818), who gazes out on the overcast mountains and valleys of Saxony in the archetype of Romantic melancholy. That Romantic view of the German landscape would, a century later, be perverted by totalitarian ideology — a legacy taken up by the young Anselm Kiefer in his much-debated “Occupations” photographs, from 1969. A half-dozen prints here depict Kiefer in the same rear view Friedrich favored; he performs the Hitler salute, but with slovenly hair, rumpled clothes, the picture of German failure. In the 2000s, the American photographer Carrie Mae Weems would also take up this politicized auto-Rückenfigur, facing away from the camera as we look through an antebellum doorway in Louisiana, or onto the cane fields of Cuba.
Second fundamental term: académie, noun, French, a depiction of a nude model, made from life by an art student mastering the rudiments of painting and drawing. Models in the traditional academies were almost always men, and by the 20th century the artists who sketched them were losing some of their inhibitions about the curves and volumes they depicted. Paul Cadmus, whose retrograde male nudes are enjoying an unmerited revival in attention, appears here with yet more anemic drawings of standing and reclining musclemen, none more consequential than the gents on a Calvin Klein underwear box. (For what it’s worth, the gay male artists in this show all come out looking second-rate, with none of the perverse intelligence of Degas, Schiele and the other straight bros. Did Michelangelo die for this?) There’s a much finer update of the académie from Barkley L. Hendricks, who in “Pat’s Back” (1968) paints a nude Black model against an empty expanse of white: hips gently widening, shoulder blades gently arced, an anatomy lesson that’s also an ennoblement.
Third fundamental term: contrapposto, noun, Italian, a pose in which the body’s weight rests on one foot, resulting in a dynamic composition that puts the hips and shoulders at odds. All the great bottoms of art history are in contrapposto — the Farnese Hercules, hip thrust out like a soccer goalie’s; Michelangelo’s David, who cradles his slingstone beside his perked right cheek. The same pose is adopted by the most beautiful picture in “Rear View”: a small painting of a female model’s hindquarters by the uptight Swiss painter Félix Vallotton.
In this “Étude de Fesses,” painted around 1884 and a rare loan from a private collection, the right cheek droops inches below the left, which is squared off where the sitzfleisch meets the thigh. The left hip arcs grandly, while the right one nearly disappears into a vertical line. Gentle shadowing picks out small passages of cellulite, and cool, clean vertical brushwork gives his oils the appearance of pastel. Cropped at the waist and the thighs, the study is certainly a fetish object. But the visible satisfaction of the model’s pose — arm akimbo, hand jauntily on hip, bottom thrust out with confidence — also marks a forceful break with the passivity of the female nude.
If you think this is all some museological booty call … well, you’d be partly right. As the art historian Patricia Lee Rubin writes in “Seen From Behind,” her 2018 book on backsides in Renaissance painting and sculpture, artistic depictions of the human rear have always had “a double life”: both base and noble, both desired and disgusting, “at once connected to the highest values of high art” and still “obscene, carnivalesque, comical or villainous.” These are the body parts most haunted by the specter of the ideal, and the derrières of this show might at their best inspire a commitment to finding a little more dignity in vice and a little more comedy in virtue. In my own case I also left committed to doing more leg presses.
Through June 3. LGDR, 19 East 64th St., Manhattan; lgdr.com