The interpretation of sexual symbols in art is everywhere. But what we view as erotic often tells us less about the artists than it does about our own sensibilities.
More than 30 years ago, critic Leo Steinberg wrote in Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Artabout an unidentified major American art historian who had asserted: “Michelangelo’s sex life is, quite frankly, none of our business. We can’t treat him, try him or confess him. His physical pleasures, whatever they may have been, have no importance for his art.” What was astonishing about the historian’s words, observed Steinberg, was a “modern scholar’s assurance that a great artist’s sexual life could be so divorced from his personality as to remain irrelevant to his art and therefore to us.”
How things have changed. Today, says John Elderfield, chief curator of painting and sculpture at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, “one could argue the climate has moved way to the other side.” Paul Schimmel, chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, agrees: “There has been a sea change in terms of there being a willingness to read iconography, which in the heyday of formalism you had to ignore.”
Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings. Robert Rauschenberg’s stuffed goat encircled by a tire. Jeff Koons’s appliances. In today’s hypersexual art world, one hardly needs graphic images to stimulate sexual interpretations.
With this critical shift has come the freedom—for both artist and viewer—to conflate the iconographical with the autobiographical. Sometimes artists add erotic elements, but just as often viewers do. As Richard Shiff, a professor of art history at the University of Texas at Austin, notes: “Some artists play with sexuality. They can’t resist sticking something in. They know most people won’t recognize it. And they can laugh about it with their friends later.” But other times a viewer can perceive eroticism an artist never intended. “That which obsesses you, you will see everywhere,” says Michael Findlay, a director of Acquavella Galleries in New York. “If it’s there to take out, maybe you put it in.”
For millennia artists have imbued artworks with symbols and representations of genitalia, copulation, and eroticism. The prehistoric caves of Lascaux and Altamira are etched with images believed to represent genitalia. Old Masters are thought to have infused musical instruments and flowers, among other objects, with erotic meaning. As art historian Volker Kahmen once observed, “Erotic art has always existed—if not officially tolerated, then it has been concealed. Art has even succeeded in outwitting those who want to suppress it.”
Part of the fault, of course, lies with Sigmund Freud. His psychoanalytical work at the turn of the 20th century “led to the development of an extraordinary array of sexual symbols that have now become part of our vocabulary when we look at images,” writes Alyce Mahon, a lecturer in modern art at the University of Cambridge and author of the recently released Eroticism and Art. Think of Roy Lichtenstein’s Bread in Bag (1961), an image of a woman’s hand slipping a baguette into a paper bag. Or Meret Oppenheim’s Object (Le déjeuner en fourrure) , 1936, a fur-lined teacup and spoon, which Mahon describes as a “symbol of the female sex, and drinking from it a symbol of oral sex.”
Over the years, artists have infused a broad array of objects with sexual significance. Man Ray took a picture of an eggbeater in 1918 and called it L’ homme (Man). Alberto Giacometti conveyed a state of perpetual desire in his kinetic sculpture Suspended Ball (1930–31) by dangling a swinging cleft ball just out of reach of a supine wedge. In Louise Bourgeois’s sculpture Twosome (1991), two mechanized gasoline tanks appear to copulate atop a railroad track awash in a pulsing red light. Sarah Lucas, meanwhile, has enlisted everything from melons and kebabs to fried eggs and buckets to construct sexual scenarios.
Picasso, who propagated the notion that sex and art are the same thing, called his paintings a series of “cock-and-bull stories.” The sexual puns in Picasso’s works are so prevalent, says Robert Rosenblum, a professor of art history at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, they become like “nonstop jokes.” In Le ríªve (1932), for example, the artist, age 51 at the time, planted an erect purple shaft in the upturned face of his then-21-year-old mistress, Marie-Thérí¨se Walter. According to Picasso biographer John Richardson, the artist perceived his young blond lover “in terms of his own penis.” Las Vegas casino mogul Stephen A. Wynn, who owns Le ríªve, told ARTnews, “My take on the sexual aspect of the picture is if you are a 51-year-old man and you have a 21-year-old girlfriend, the fantasy is Picasso’s, not hers. Any 51-year-old man would be wishing or hoping that she was dreaming of his body parts. If you take this view,” he continues, “a more appropriate title would be Prendre ses désires pour des réalités, translated as Wishful Thinking.”
Such hidden erotic content in artworks can lead to embarrassing situations. Richardson recalls visiting a Park Avenue collector when he first came to the United States in the 1960s. “I sat down to a lady who had behind her a great Miró,” he says. When he commented on it, she told him that she had decorated her daughter’s room with images from the work—oblivious, apparently, to the picture’s depiction of “penises twirling in the sky and vaginas flying around like kites,” says Richardson. “Here was this nice Republican lady sitting in front of a lot of genitalia, carrying on as if it were a Renoir behind her.”
As Rosalind Krauss, a professor of art history at Columbia University, has observed, “Miró probably drew more ‘dirty pictures’ than almost any painter one can think of, at least up until the very recent past. Vulvas litter his canvases of the ’20s, triumphant penises urinate fulsomely, the imagery of copulation is endless.” The artist’s symbolic language enthralled Rosenblum as a “precocious kid in New York” in 1941. “I bought a color reproduction of MoMA’s Composition (1933), tacked it on my bedroom wall, and remained riveted by the upright red form,” Rosenblum once wrote. “Could it be a penis?”
The phallic nature of Constantin Brancusi’s Princess X (1916) got it banned from being shown in Paris in 1920, despite the artist’s protests that it was simply a portrait of an anonymous woman. The problem with all symbolism, says Eugene Glynn, an art historian and psychiatrist, is determining “when is it a symbol or allegory and when is it a real thing painted for itself.” In some works—like Caravaggio’s The Musicians (ca. 1595), which depicts three men cavorting in a tavern while a violin in the foreground invites the viewer to join in—musical instruments, and depictions of music-making in particular, can represent sexual intercourse, says Glynn. Certain objects in still-life paintings, like gourds, worms, and vases, can also carry sexual connotations. Then again, says Glynn, “sometimes a still life is just a still life.”
Georgia O’Keeffe is associated with the erotic depiction of the flower, one of the most potent symbols of sexuality in art. In Old Master pictures, a woman is often identified as a prostitute by her holding a flower, says Glynn. In Rembrandt’s Flora (ca. 1654), a woman offers an apron full of flowers near her crotch. According to Glynn, the flowers are “clearly an erotic sexual symbol.”
Jeff Koons used flowers to represent sexuality in his “Made in Heaven” series. Of his Large Vase of Flowers (1991), Koons wrote, “There are 140 flowers. They are very sexual and fertile, and at the same time they are 140 assholes.” Earlier in his career Koons used vacuum cleaners, as in Hoover Celebrity III (1980), to “display both male and female sexuality,” he explained. “It has orifices and phallic attachments.” Paul Klee also engaged sexual symbolism in his works. He used an arrow as a phallic symbol in The Arrow (Erotic Drawing), 1920. And the late Kunstmuseum Basel director Christian Geelhaar observed that in Klee’s 1923 painting Strange Garden, “pictorial mutations extend into the realm of erotic symbolism. The spindle-shaped, pointed leaves turn into slit eyes, lips; but lips, too, of the pudenda. Round eyes can be interpreted as breasts, noses as the penis.” Carrying on the tradition, contemporary artists like Sue Williams and Cecily Brown have incorporated sexual images of genitalia and copulation in their abstract paintings. Hannah Wilke’s amorphous latex sculptures of the late 1960s and early ’70s, meanwhile, are evocative of flower petals, fortune cookies, and labia.
Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp famously depicted sex in terms of machines. Picabia’s I See Again in Memory My Dear Udnie (1914) was described by the French novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans as “steel Romeos inside cast-iron Juliets.” In their catalogue essay for the exhibition “Dada” (on view at MoMA through the 11th of this month), Janine Mileaf and Matthew S. Witkovsky describe Duchamp’s 1915–23 The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (Large Glass) as an “elaborate apparatus of masturbatory desire.” Man Ray’s L’homme (Man) and La femme (Woman), the authors note, likewise suggest “sexual allure and coitus through mechanical means: the clasping of clothespins, the bulbous swell of a metal washbin, the interlocking blades and frothing rotations of an eggbeater.”
Elusive sexual associations are also attributed to the works of Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Time art critic Robert Hughes has described Rauschenberg’s Monogram (1955–59) as “one of the few great icons of homosexual love.” It is, Hughes wrote, “the satyr in the sphincter, the counterpart to Meret Oppenheim’s fur cup and spoon.” But Schimmel, who curated “Robert Rauschenberg: Combines” (on view at MoCA in Los Angeles through the 4th of this month), also interprets the imagery as heterosexual. “The goat can be read as a phallic symbol and the tire as a female receptacle,” he says. “Much can be made about reading the work sexually, but I think it flattens what’s going on.”
Johns’s crosshatch paintings have been the object of much erotic fascination. As New York Times critic John Russell wrote in 1988, “Hunting genitalia in those paintings has been one of the great learned sports of the 1980s.” The Dutch Wives (1975), an early crosshatch work, is said to take its title from a male masturbatory device. The late MoMA curator Kirk Varnedoe, meanwhile, noted that the painted bronze frame of another crosshatch painting, Dancers on a Plane (1980–81), contains “highly stylized three-dimensional signs for testicles and for a vulva opening penetrated by a phallus.”
Also seen as sexually provocative is Johns’s Painting with Two Balls (1960), widely read as a witty response to the macho posturing of the New York School. Richard Jackson took the eroticism of Johns’s image a step further in his own 1996–97 installation of the same title, which involves two giant, rotating globes atop a Ford Pinto, a canvas, and spewing paint.
When interpreting an artist’s works, Shiff says, there is the danger of “pushing it too far or eliminating too much” in terms of its sexual content. Elderfield asks: “How far does one want to move within the context of an artist’s work into areas of their private existence? And to what extent do their private lives have a causal effect on their work?” Replying to the suggestion that the splashes of white paint on some Francis Bacon paintings are representations of ejaculation, Elderfield says, “Well, maybe. But where does that get you in the reading of it? I think one wants explanations that enlarge readings of works rather than close them down.”
Lucio Fontana’s slit canvases likewise have been read as sexual, specifically vaginal, but Schimmel thinks Fontana’s intention related primarily to the physical manipulation of the picture plane. “When formalism is read in a specifically iconographical manner, it’s speculative at best,” says Schimmel. “I don’t think sexual connotation is at the root of what he’s doing.”
Others, like Oystein Ustvedt, director of the Stenersen Museum in Oslo, have interpreted Pollock’s drip paintings as suggesting “male virility and potency in a quite obvious manner.” Mahon similarly writes that the works “seem to take on the form of a metaphoric ejaculate in process and finish.”
This sexual reading of Pollock’s process has inspired coded artistic responses. Shigeko Kubota’s Vagina Painting (1965), which the artist painted with a brush placed between her legs, “makes direct reference to Pollock’s ejaculatory method,” according to Ustvedt. So too does Duchamp’s Wayward Landscape (1946), an abstract image on black satin that he created using semen and presented to his lover, the sculptor Maria Martins. According to Ustvedt, Wayward Landscape is Duchamp’s critique of “contemporaneous avant-garde painting and its mustering of large, emphatically masculine gestures, as in Pollock’s drip paintings.”
But Schimmel, for one, doesn’t buy the ejaculation interpretation as an important factor of the drip images. “It’s utter rubbish,” he says. “They are among the most abstract works he did. They are among the most carefully controlled and expertly layered works. To see them as some frenzied sexual act of ejaculation? It’s not there.”
He does, however, see ejaculation as an aspect of Cy Twombly’s oeuvre in such works as Leda and the Swan (1962). “There are specific works where you can see—unlike the works by Pollock—ejaculations,” says Schimmel. Varnedoe described Twombly’s depiction of Zeus assuming the form of a swan to impregnate Leda as “an orgiastic fusion and confusion of energies, within furiously thrashing overlays of crayon, pencil, and ruddy paint. A few recognizable signs—flying hearts, a phallus—spray off the periphery of this explosion.” Village Voice critic Jerry Saltz saw in the same image “a winged vagina dripping liquid into an abstract anus.” So strong are the sexual connotations in some of Twombly’s works, Saltz wrote, “that it’s hard to remember they’re not sheets after lovemaking.”
Mythology has inspired a number of covert erotic images. Correggio’s Leda and the Swan (ca. 1532), which shows a young nude woman being seduced by a swan with a gratuitously long neck, “almost moves from sexuality to pornography,” observes Elderfield. Gustav Klimt’s Danaí« (1907–8) likewise depicts Zeus making love to Danaí« in the form of a shower of gold. As Elderfield notes, “In some cases gold coins or a cloud can be sexual.” Others have interpreted the erotic symbols that adorn Adele Bloch-Bauer’s gown in one of Klimt’s portraits of her (recently purchased by New York’s Neue Galerie for a record $135 million) as visual clues that the artist and subject were lovers.
Arshile Gorky also depicted sexual scenarios not immediately apparent to the eye. His 1945 painting Hugging (also titled Good Hope Road II) “represents a scene of lovemaking,” according to Harry Rand in Arshile Gorky: The Implications of Symbols (Allenheld & Schram, 1981). “In the painting’s left-center a couple sits; they embrace gently on a couch. Both undressed, the woman sits on the man’s lap. Her back, left thigh, and buttocks face the viewer, and her arms caress the man’s head while they kiss.” Meanwhile, the title of another sexually themed picture by Gorky, The Liver Is the Cock’s Comb (1944), might be translated as “love is the vanity of the penis,” suggests Rand. “The liver is the ancient organ of love (later supplanted by the heart), the seat of emotions, particularly the passions. The phrase ‘cock’s comb’ is thus a sexual pun on one level at least.”
Eroticism is also felt and perceived through an artist’s use of materials. Mel Bochner has said that the power of Johns’s works derives from the “tender eroticism with which he handles materials.” Max Kozloff has observed that Johns made the surface of his paintings “seem like an erogenus zone, to be repeatedly caressed.” Even in Donald Judd’s Minimalist sculptures, Elderfield detects a sense of the erotic. “In Judd’s work, which has a great deal to do with surface, there is a kind of epidermic attraction,” he says. “Particularly in his later works, the skin has such an overdetermined sexuality.”
Similarly, de Kooning’s handling of paint has been perceived as erotically charged. In De Kooning: An American Master, Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan observe that in works like The Visit (1966–67), a lushly painted abstract canvas that suggests a man and woman copulating, “it almost seemed as if the artist were screwing the women rather than painting them. The visceral touch of de Kooning’s brush could almost be the sexual stroke of a man’s hand; the slippery wetness of the paint evoked sweaty arousal; the messy convulsion in the forms and splattering of drops suggested the abandonment of orgasm.” Stevens recounts an occasion when a neighbor of de Kooning’s in the Hamptons inquired about the content of a particular picture. According to Stevens, de Kooning replied, “Can’t you see? Here’s a cunt. And there’s a penis. Didn’t you know that I’m cunt crazy?”
Sometimes the discovery of sexual content in an artwork comes as a surprise even to the artist. In 1965, Eva Hesse (whose retrospective is on view at New York’s Jewish Museum through the 17th of this month) described her relief Ringaround Arosie (1965) in a letter to Sol LeWitt: “The 3-D one now actually looks like a breast and a penis—but that’s OK…. Have really been discovering my weird humor.”
Kelly Devine Thomas is a contributing editor of ARTnews.