Born in Tel Aviv, raised in Copenhagen, Tal R emerged as a painter to watch early in this century. He paints as if he is starting over, not from scratch but from an amnesiac time warp with vague recollections of early modernists. Although he has been compared to Matisse, Dufy, Balthus, and late Picabia, his work in this show didn’t resemble any of theirs. Tal R’s canvases here veered between being much too pretty and being ugly in all the wrong ways. His colors were too light and shrill or too dense and heavy. But his paintings were suffused with a free-floating anxiety, vulnerability, and awkwardness that had little to do with the modern century and everything to do with our own confused moment. His art was weird enough to stick in the mind and the craw.
This exhibition, “Altstadt Girl,” was remarkably unfashionable yet incredibly cool. Old-town girl? In Dusseldorf, where Tal R taught, the medieval Altstadt doubles as the bohemian student quarter. While it’s one thing to note that this is a show of female nudes—anti-odalisques, all awkward haunches and exposed breasts—or to remark that the artist’s murky palette can set the teeth on edge (a rosy column of cigarette smoke is a relief, as is the spray of blue that washes over a levitating nude in the shower), it’s another thing to ponder the fact that Tal R solicited mostly strangers as models and asked them to pose nude or semi-nude in cluttered rooms.
Is the artist unwittingly resurrecting the discredited male gaze? Is he aware that after decades in which half of the art world rebelled against that male gaze, he has brought the objectified female nude back to the fore? Let’s hope the artist did this knowingly, trusting viewers to realize that males—filled with anxieties and insecurities—have a difficult time too. His welcoming patchwork pink sofa hinted that he did. And somehow, his terrific installation of drawings raised no such questions.
A version of this story originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 104.