Naked Truths

For centuries, iconic female nudes were produced by male painters like Titian, Rubens, and Rembrandt. Now a new generation of women is transforming them to reflect their own sensibilities.

Su-en Wong paints herself, in multiples, as a stereotypically exotic Asian nymph in Icy Moon Drops, 2001.


Su-en Wong, 29, paints naked, prepubescent-looking Asian females. They happen to be herself. They tend to appear in multiples on a given canvas, as if there were an army of her. In one painting, she appears somersaulting over herself on a grassy lawn. On pink wallpaper, she’s a motif: a series of coquettes wearing nothing but pearls and high heels. In other paintings, she’s dressed as cute schoolgirls talking on cell phones (wearing only shoes and kneesocks) or as glamorous rock stars wearing little more than go-go boots. “We all want to be that sex kitten we see in the magazines,” says the New York–based artist. “We all want to look and revel in what we see. In my painting—in art—I can, you can, we can do it all.”

Female nudes are certainly nothing new in the history of art. In the past, of course, men depicted most of them. From Donatello to Delacroix to Dubuffet, male artists found the female nude a favorite subject (and a hot commodity). Now, Wong and dozens of other female artists are outstripping them, so to speak. In painting female nudes, Wong demonstrates extreme awareness of the fact that she, and other women, are still being portrayed in terms of a myriad of stereotypes. “In my paintings, I partake of the male gaze,” explains Wong, who shows her work at Deitch Projects. “The depiction of myself presents a conflict of power and vulnerability.”

The female nude has stood for many and often contradictory concepts—chastity and licentiousness, innocence and corruption, empire and colony. Over the past decade, however, a new crop of younger women artists have started using images of unclad females as a means to explore their identities and desires. Results range from pornographic figures embedded in seemingly abstract paintings to unapologetic full-frontal photographs. The present generation follows in the pioneering steps of feminist artists of the 1960s, a time when Valie Export enacted radical performances in which she tried to “free her body from society” and rid it of erotic associations by rolling it around on broken glass. Around the same time, Carolee Schneemann was also making revolutionary work in an effort to have her body be seen as something other than an object. For her iconic 1965 performance Interior Scroll, the then-26-year-old artist stood on a block, unclothed, in front of an audience, as she unfurled a long strip of paper from her vagina. She read aloud the text she had written on it: “Does a woman have intellectual authority? Can she have public authority while naked and speaking?”

Artemisia Gentileschi may have been the first woman artist to render female nudes with a revisionist bent, in the early 1600s, a time when women in Italy were barred from studying the human figure. Gentileschi’s life and work have inspired three fictional biographies and a film, along with considerable attention from feminist scholars and an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last year. The artist had a predilection for spinning traditional religious and allegorical scenes by concentrating on tragic female protagonists and allowing their postures and facial expressions to tell a different tale. In her Susanna and the Elders(1610), the subject is a pained, naked young woman cringing from the attentions of leering, lecherous older men. Her version of the story of Danaí« shows a lovely princess—who, according to myth, was locked up so as not to conceive a son prophesied to slay her father—being impregnated by Jupiter, who is disguised as a shower of gold. The expression on her face is orgasmic.

Today, women artists are still drawing on art-historical precedents, but they also rely on humor and self-stereotyping. New York–based painter Nicole Eisenman, for instance, who shows her work at Jack Tilton/Anna Kustera Gallery, imbues the greatest hits of Western art history with a wry wit, inserting images of women where we are accustomed to seeing those of men. One of her paintings shows a tangle of female nudes—a little like the Greek Laocoí¶n—stringing up a man on a pole and hauling him off. A Paolo Uccello–esque battle scene substitutes naked Amazonian women for men warring against one another. Another painting shows cavewomen chatting and lounging naked by a fire (which it appears they have just invented).

“Some of my figuration is sexually ambiguous,” says Eisenman, “which reflects my immediate world and extended family of friends who blur gender lines. I have in mind a robust female body type. Michelangelo’s women are idealized after the male form, and those appeal to me because the attitude is one of strength. Those women are heroic.” While Eisenman reinvents archetypes, she also explores her self. “I spend too much time thinking about my body—am I too fat or too something else? It’s so boring.” She continues, “I deal with these fears, and the annoying social constructs of women’s bodies, in my work. I want to do something besides be reactive. I want to propose something different and better.”

Zoe Leonard, 41, also attacks tradition with the spirit of a prankster. “For one season I snuck into all the fashion shows,” she says. “I didn’t know quite what I’d find,” she says of a series of black-and-white photographs of models’ legs, shot looking up their skirts. “They raise a lot of questions: What are you looking at? Where are you supposed to look? Where do you want to look? What are you being shown? These questions are kind of key for fashion, for beauty, but also for art, especially photography.” Leonard, who is represented by Paula Cooper Gallery, also made a pinup calendar featuring San Francisco’s famous knife-juggling bearded lady, Jennifer Miller, posed in a series of recognizable, centerfold-like postures. “I had this idea that we could take the pinup, all those conventions, and turn them upside down,” Leonard says. “Again, for me, it’s about questions: What’s beautiful? What constitutes gender? What does a picture of a naked woman mean to us, now, after all these years of naked pictures?”

Like Leonard, British artist Jane Gang, 37, looks at women who are there to be looked at. She started making sparse watercolor paintings of strippers at work in 1997, when a friend of hers was dancing at a club called Hott 22 in New Jersey. The dancers’ elegant gestures are rendered in a manner reminiscent of Asian calligraphy. “I wanted to paint this fundamental, profound gender dynamic in action,” she explains. “I wanted to capture the beauty of nude or seminude women with the male viewer inthe picture. And I wanted to do it in a way that is nonjudgmental, free of past dogmatic, feminist gender issues as well as the silly perpetuation of the male gaze by female artists. Sometimes I burst out laughing, it’s so much fun to look at.”

The notoriously male-dominated genre of Abstract Expressionism—several practitioners of which famously likened their paintbrushes to phalli—becomes playful in the work of Sue Williams, 48, and Cecily Brown, 33, who have hidden, respectively, genitalia and copulating bunnies in their paintings. The Egyptian-born, New York–based painter Ghada Amer distorts the same genre and complicates it. From a distance, her enormous canvases look like New York School–style paintings, with sweeping slashes of color that drip and get messy. At close range, however, viewers discover repetitive little pornographic images of women, often in fetish gear and masturbating, sewn to the canvas as on a tablecloth. “Only my mother calls what I do ’female nudes,
’” says Amer. “She does not like them. For some reason I never considered what I do as female nudes.”

Lisa Yuskavage, 40, shows her work at Marianne Boesky and also claims that nudes are not her real subject matter. “I never intended to paint nudes,” she says. “I was and always have been interested in depicting intense psychological states. Obviously, nudes are a way to show this. I am working on costumed models at this time, as a way to extend that range.” Her paintings of voluptuous, fecund-looking women in suffocatingly feminine boudoirs do get the bulk of their power from emotional rawness. Her subjects are hypersexualized, vain, tired. They’re bulbous, not girlish, like the women on the back of mudflaps grown up a few years, and are both hard and hard not to look at. Yuskavage’s masterly color and paint handling contrast with her subjects’ apparent powerlessness. One can almost smell baby powder and musk coming off of her canvases’ warm-hued surfaces. Yuskavage assaults and seduces viewers, and confuses them, because her models are not ideal. She claims that she paints aspects of herself with which she is uncomfortable and that she finds difficult to confront.

British artist Jenny Saville, 32, emotionally assails her viewers as well. She makes enormous canvases showing pale, corpulent women looking languidly at viewers with narcotic, detached expressions. Her virtuosic handling of paint is as extravagant as the epic-scale bodies she renders, close-up and monumental enough to hold down Gagosian Gallery’s airplane-hangar-size space. Buttocks, thighs, cheeks, and arms fill canvases in difficult-to-discern heaps. Saville’s main model is herself, and sometimes her face is even identifiable in her paintings. She also incorporates wounds and gashes that she copies from medical illustrations. The droopy, sedate people in her work don’t seem to notice their horrifying lacerations. Saville creates seductive images of women who are generally considered undesirable, and entices viewers to look at types of women who “ought” to be ashamed of themselves and hide.

Working with the opposite body type is Vanessa Beecroft, 33, who filled the rotunda of New York’s Guggenheim Museum with 20 nearly identical fashion models one April evening in 1998. Some of these ideal female specimens were naked, except for their Gucci stilettos. Most wore burgundy, rhinestone-encrusted bikinis. They stood around, staring into space. Actor Leonardo DiCaprio went on record about the event, declaring “This is dope.” In the art world, the debate over whether or not the event was sexist began on cue and fizzled out fairly quickly. Critic and artist Collier Schorr, often turned to for her cutting-edge feminist perspective, did not get riled but instead wrote verse about the event: “They won’t sit, and they won’t talk. They won’t listen, and they won’t stop.” Beecroft, who was raised by a Communist, feminist mother who forbade her to read Vogue, claimed that the group was conceived as an army to empower women. Roberta Smith, reviewing the exhibition in the New York Times, suggested that Beecroft’s installation was intended to make “one’s mind… feel like Faye Dunaway’s face in the famous slapping scene in Chinatown.”

“Everyone’s sick of everyone getting hysterical over the issue of objectifying women,” says Thelma Golden, chief curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem. “Of course, you get into the sticky area of ownership and authenticity when women represent themselves, their own bodies. There’s this sense that if you make the image, you own it, you control it.” Golden mentions Susan Smith-Pií±elo, who makes video caricatures of hip-hop music videos by making her own, basically cheerful music videos full of scantily clad ghetto girls shaking it. Golden continues, “It’s more about self-expression.”

Japanese photographer Yurie Nagashima documents a certain youthful subculture in a manner that suggests, in the tradition of Nan Goldin, that her life is her art. She says that she is just doing what pleases her, and has made a number of nude self-portraits but never intended to make nudes. Some of her work, like a photograph of her in the shower, dripping wet and looking over her shoulder at the camera, is sexy. There’s also a black-and-white close-up of her urinating, which reminds viewers of the fact of bodily waste.

Nagashima has also shown an extremely striking image of herself with scrappy cropped hair. She is pregnant, smoking, wearing nothing but a black leather jacket and panties, flipping off the camera. About this, she says, “Yes, of course, that photograph shows an attitude of ’fuck you’ to the idea that pregnant women are peaceful and docile objects that pervades both Western and Eastern culture. But I don’t have any strong reasons for making nude self-portraits. In general, I simply like nudes. I have so many nude self-portraits because I’m too embarrassed to ask someone else to undress without having a cause.”

New York–based photographer A. L. Steiner chronicles her female lover as well as several of her friends in C-prints that tend to be graphically strong and color driven. “Whether the naked women in my photographs are standing next to their fathers or showing their crotches,” she says, “they are in no way meant to arouse you. I look for something my subjects want to do naturally.” Working by instinct, Steiner manages to do something rare: make respectful, sensual images of naked women that, more than anything, seem to document a not-unpleasant life in which self-possessed females appreciate one another and don’t necessarily attach issues of sex or morality to having their clothes off.

Steiner’s photographs offer an assertion similar to that expressed in the performance works of Schneemann and Export more than 30 years ago: that a woman’s body can be portrayed as other than a sex object or symbolic void. The female nudes being made by women now come off as less caustic than those made in feminism’s heyday. They are like trophies from a life well lived or unflinching investigations of what, exactly, the body signifies. From Steiner’s everyday people and Eisenman’s gallant warriors to Yuskavage’s brooding sexpots and Beecroft’s Stepford vixens, the female nude’s significance is more open-ended than ever.

Sarah Valdez is a freelance writer based in New York.

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