As the exhibition “The Great Journey into Space” made clear, the unreservedly erotic art of Belgian painter Evelyne Axell (1935-1972) deserves wider recognition. Spanning the whole nine years of Axell’s output (she died in an automobile accident at 37), it revealed an oeuvre remarkable, considering how abbreviated it was, for the completeness and consistency of its vision.
Axell had already had a successful career as an actress when, in 1963, she decided to become an artist. Galvanized by encounters with Pop artists in Europe and the U.S. (her filmmaker husband, Jean Antoine, was then engaged in making documentaries about the movement), she embarked on a career in Pop. As did peers such as Pauline Boty, Alina Szapocznikow and Rosalyn Drexler, Axell evolved a version of Pop art that was both more interiorized and more politicized than that of male contemporaries. Her particular focus was sexual liberation, as a cause in itself and as a metaphor for larger proto-feminist concerns.
An early series of paintings of cars-with their suggestive ignition switches and gas pedals-shows Axell already equating active female sexuality with political and personal empowerment. The Picabia-like La Conductrice et son double/Les DS (The operator and her double), 1965, depicts a nude woman and her reverse image standing behind abstracted steering wheels.
Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova provided Axell with another important motif-women as travelers in boundless inner or outer space. Tereshkova is commemorated here in the painting Valentine (1966), a simplified, posterish image of a girl in a white vacuum suit. Set into the painted suit is a real zipper, unzipped to reveal a more realistically rendered nude body.
In the late 1960s, Axell began to experiment with industrial materials such as the plastic Clartex. Included in the show was the wonderful freestanding piece La Clôture or La Cloison (The Closing or the Partition), 1967, an over-5-foot-high translucent plastic screen in which two silhouetted nudes, cut out of canvas and embedded in the plastic while it was still liquid, appear to dance around a central striped pole. In works such as these, Axell can be seen not only forging a personal iconography that presented women-invariably semi- or fully naked, and most often alone or in company with their mirror image-as independent, sexually aware beings, but also developing a pictorial style that borrowed from the graphic design tropes of the era.
This style would find its fullest expression in the paintings on cut pieces of Plexiglas that Axell began making around 1970. Rounding out the exhibition is one such work: a tondo featuring a rare male figure, nude and sporting an erection, in free-fall-a consort, perhaps, for Axell’s emancipated female psychonaut.
Later feminist artists would become leery of appropriating or duplicating images of women as objects of desire. But in her paintings of women taking pleasure in their sexuality, Axell suggests that the freedom to do so might be related to the creation of a more sustainable, more egalitarian world order. This alone is a great reason to resurrect and celebrate her art.
Photo: Evelyne Axell: Valentine, 1966, oil, gold leaf spray paint, zipper and helmet on canvas, 523⁄8 by 325⁄8 inches; at Broadway 1602. ©ARS