Dana Schutz doesn’t paint things that exist so much as things she has to imagine. Especially early on but in a more understated way still today, she has been (as Robert Enright once noted in these pages) the great painter of “what if?” “If the face had wheels …”— the title of Schutz’s 2011 exhibition at the Neuberger Museum: What a thought! Apparently, this wondering-if has always been part of Schutz’s art. Jarrett Earnest, in his catalogue essay for her mid-career retrospective at Denmark’s Louisiana Museum, mentions seeing in the artist’s studio a snapshot of a painting of someone wearing a t-shirt with Courbet’s L’Origine du monde on it—a painting Schutz made as an undergraduate. “I was thinking,” she explains, “what kind of shirt would they not sell at the Musée d’Orsay?” The paintings present an alternate reality but with the emphasis on reality— things have to imaginably hang together. What would the last man on earth do? And not only that, but “How do you know what this person looks like? There’s no other person around. How do the paintings get out there? How do they get back? And what are the paintings?”
In 2018, Schutz started making sculpture, and four of them are on view at the Louisiana. But as Anaël Pigeat points out in the catalogue, sculpture has long been a subject of Schutz’s painting. One of the earliest works on view here is New Legs, 2003. Its single naked, legless figure—white, with long blond hair but of no determinate gender—is ostensibly crafting a pair of replacement limbs, but honestly, those dark, gnarly things look more like a couple of Giacometti-esque semi-abstract humanoid figures than anything you could hope to stumble around on. The protagonist of Twin Parts, 2004, is constructing something— maybe reconstructing itself—out of an array of both body parts and stones or other random matter. If “the first man was an artist,” as Barnett Newman declared, Schutz chimes in that so was the last man, and the last may once again be first. And as for what Newman said of himself and his allies in their approach to art—“we are making it out of ourselves”—Schutz adds that maybe we’ll have to make ourselves out of it. In any case, Schutz has more often figured the artist as a sculptor than as a painter, but she has always figured the artist as simply a human struggling, not always wisely or well but persistently, to survive by renewing its material existence.
In a way, that’s to undermine the modernist doctrine of the specificity of the medium—it says instead that, while a work always depends on a “sustaining support” (to borrow Mel Bochner’s phrase), that support may be chosen or accepted based on availability and chance as much as through intention, let alone conviction. And indeed, as late as 2012, Schutz, whose work at that time still consisted exclusively of paintings, drawings and prints, was inclined to disown the idea of paint as essential to her art. “I don’t like this sense,” she declared, “that somehow I am so enamoured with the paint—I feel like sometimes I actually don’t really notice or think about it as ‘paint’ while I’m painting.” In that sense, her arrival at the point of eschewing paint to work with clay—then cast in bronze—seems strangely belated. Her art had always been vividly haptic, and fluently painterly as it always was, nonetheless far from purely optical in its appeal.
So far, in any case, Schutz’s sculpture remains fundamentally pictorial—most obviously so in Couple with Wave, 2021, which might almost be called a freestanding relief, insofar as the wave that rises up behind the two figures forms a kind of background plane, ensuring that this work, like any two-dimensional image, offers only the frontal view. But taking up sculpture was not Schutz’s only big new move around 2018, and perhaps not the most consequential one, for at this time—as “Between Us” made clear—Schutz changed her manner of painting. Compare any one of the paintings she made that year (for today, my favourite of those in the show is probably The Visible World, in which a big-eyed, confrontationally unpretty female nude lounges on some seaside rocks while dipping a finger into the water as a longbilled seabird perches on her thigh with a giant red berry in its beak) with those from earlier years and the difference is palpable: Schutz’s paint has become consistently thicker, juicier, glossier, more opaque, and the forms it describes have become consequently more volumetric; the space has more depth. While Schutz has always painted with great zest, one now senses greater gusto for the paint itself: I would submit that whatever she felt in 2012, she now distinctly notices, thinks about and revels in paint as paint.
What brought on the change? I asked Schutz directly, and without giving a definitive answer, she suggested it probably had to do with her having taken up sculpture. She seemed to imply that her tactile engagement with clay had fed into her way with paint. I’d guess the causality was the opposite: her deepening engagement with paint as matter led to her desire to work matter independently of its relation to colour. Schutz might just be exploring the latest of her quirky speculations: What if painting turned out to be just the flattest form of sculpture? And yet, talking with this show’s curator, Anders Kold, Schutz claims not to work like that anymore. “Now I will have an idea that might start with a notion of something abstract, and over time, it will grow and become more fleshed out.” For certain, the flesh of the painting has never been more vivid in Schutz’s work than it has been in the last few years. ❚
“Dana Schutz: Between Us” was exhibited at Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, Denmark, from February 9, 2023, to June 11, 2023, and will travel to Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris from October 6, 2023, to February 11, 2024.
Barry Schwabsky’s recent publications include a monograph, Gillian Carnegie (London: Lund Humphries, 2020), and the catalogue for the retrospective exhibition “Jeff Wall” at Glenstone Museum, 2021. His new collections of poetry are Feelings of And (New York: Black Square Editions, 2022) and Water from Another Source (New York: Spuyten Duyvil, 2023).