The title is accurate: Felines and females abound in the work of the French-born, classically inspired, figurative painter, who was a familiar art-world name at the time of his death, at 92, in 2001. In this country, though, he hasn’t had a big show in three decades.
So the general public might not be aware that these cats aren’t cute or grumpy at all. Rather they are sinister voyeurs of pensive adolescent girls, rendered in enigmatic and erotically charged poses.
Suggestive and disturbing, to our contemporary sensibility they may well seem even more provocative than they did the last time the Met did a big Balthus show, in 1984. To acknowledge that some viewers might find some content offensive, the museum added a subtitle: “Paintings and Provocations.”
Focusing on work from the mid-’30s to the ’50s, the exhibition coincides with the publication by Rizzoli of Balthus and Cats, which traces the cat motif throughout the artist’s career. The Met will show–for the first time in public–the charming ink drawings Balthus made at the age of 11 for Mitsou, his story about a stray tomcat; the book was published in 1921 by Rainer Maria Rilke, a close family friend.
Later Balthus began to pair these felines with tweens or teens poised in what curator Sabine Rewald describes as “self-absorbed languor,” draped over chairs, lost in a dream state, unself-consciously (or not) lifting their skirts to reveal their white panties. His models grew up and moved on, but Balthus stayed fixated on his nymphets. The cats beside them—sometimes rubbing suggestively, sometimes lapping at milk, sometimes staring amused (the way the models never do) at the viewer–play off the idea of budding female sexuality. Even more so, they act as stand-ins for the artist himself.
The Met show will make two cat-themed museum offerings in New York this season: It opens on the tails of the Brooklyn Museum’s inauguration of “Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt,” a long-term installation exploring the role of cats, lions, and other feline creatures in Egyptian society, religion, and everyday life.
So cat art, in one form or another, has been around as long as cats have—over the centuries, the creatures have been imagined as goddess, hunter, consort and thief, as Sarah Hanson wrote in our pages in 2007, when Abrams brought out a massive cat-art tome. In recent years, especially with the rise of internet cat memes, the kitty has become associated with kitsch. But cats are also marking their territory in the avant-garde.
A landmark in the annals of cutting-edge cat art was the 1994 book Why Cats Paint: A History of Feline Aesthetics. Using copious photos and fluent artspeak, it revealed the achievements of Minnie, the Abstract Expressionist; Bootsie, the Trans-Expressionist; Princess, the Elemental Fragmentist, and other nascent art stars. Several readers believed this amazing story of painting cats, which included references to the “Scraatchi Collection” and an author named R. Mutt. Why Cats Paint, of course, was an elaborate, hilarious hoax.
Or maybe just ahead of its time.
While the two New York museums were planning their cat-art history, two local alternative spaces were pushing cats into the realm of performance and social practice. Last spring Flux Factory in Long Island City staged Kitty City, an environment created by artists, kids, and city planners that culminated in a kitty adoption drive.
Currently White Columns, in the West Village, is housing “The Cat Show,” an exhibition organized by Rhonda Lieberman that features cat art by figures from Andy Warhol to Matthew Barney, Olaf Breuning, Mike Kelley, Nina Katchadourian, Barbara Kruger, Elizabeth Peyton, and many, many others. The paintings, sculptures, videos, and more are there to spotlight the inspiration for the show, “The Cats-in-Residence Program.”
For various days during the run of the show (which ends July 27), on a playground designed by architects Gia Wolff and Freecell, cats from Social Tees Animal Rescue adoption—“purr-formers,” in Lieberman lingo—will lounge, play, and hopefully find permanent homes.
“Cats rule the internet, but they are really underdogs in the city shelters,” says Lieberman, describing the artistic ambience as a strategy to “show strays as the gorgeous creatures that they are.” In keeping with the art theme, though, she has given her kitties art-world monikers: Frida Kahlico is “into indigenous calico culture”; Kitty Sherman “questions the representation of cats in society.” Bruce Meowman “believes art is an activity, not a product”; Claws Oldenburg is “fascinated by everyday objects.” Then there’s Richard Paw Prints. “Don’t call him a copycat,” says Lieberman. “He’s an appropriator!”
Other cat stars–particularly Henri, Le Chat Noir–have emerged from the Internet Cat Video Film Festival, which started as a summer lark at the Walker Art Center and became a worldwide phenomenon, inside the art world and beyond. Currently underway in Jerusalem, it has future stops planned at sites ranging from the Minnesota State Fair to the Honolulu Art Museum and the Mikwaukee Art Museum.
Meanwhile, another feline with a big role in art history is basking in the spotlight at the Ducal Palace in Venice, where Manet’s Olympia shares a wall with her predecessor and inspiration, Titian’s Venus of Urbino. The feline consort to Manet’s courtesan, sinister and suggestive, started a meme of its own back in the day (that continues to the present).
His descendants still turn up in contemporary art.
If you want to throw a cat, or at least cat art, Barney’s offers an option, in the form of a Roy Lichtenstein laughing-kitty frisbee. Priced at $28, it’s part of a limited edition of summer-themed products created with the Art Production Fund.
Just don’t let a dog do the fetching.