Bottoms Up! A New Exhibition Explores the History of the Arse

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Currin, John_Nude in a Convex Mirror_2015_II
John Currin, Nude in a Convex Mirror, 2015Courtesy of LGDR

From Francis Bacon and Jenny Saville to Issy Wood and Yoko Ono; a new exhibition in New York explores how artists have depicted the human figure from behind over the decades

There is a higher-than-usual number of bums at a historic Beaux Arts-style Upper East Side townhouse these days in New York. Some of them historic and others fresh from the artists’ studios, a plethora of backs – mostly nudes – linger in LGDR gallery’s new group exhibition, Rear View. The 50+ artist roster includes European masters Félix Vallotton, Gustav Klimt, Edgar Degas, Giorgio de Chirico, Egon Schiele and Pavel Tchelitchew, along with the 20th-century icons like Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol, Domenico Gnoli, Lucian Freud and Paul Cadmus. Then, there are contemporary pioneers of representing the human form with bodily agency: Mickalene Thomas, Yoko Ono, Cecily Brown, Carrie Mae Weems, Jenny Saville. A group of young artists who made paintings in response to the theme include Jenna Gribbon, Issy Wood, Danielle Mckinney and Seth Becker.

From Bacon’s eerie Study for Portrait of John Edwards (1986), in which the bare back of his lover is a psychological exploration to Urs Fischer’s slowly melting paraffin wax sculpture of the Three Graces, titled Divine Interventions (2023), the exhibition’s breadth of subject matter is expansive, inquisitive, and humorous. It was indeed the potential of observing a subject from behind that intrigued the gallery co-founder Amalia Dayan to delve into the theme.

Particularly, the late American artist Barkley L Hendricks’ 1968 painting Pat’s Back was the guiding light for the ambitious show’s fruition. “Looking at this work brought up so much for the lineage of other great paintings that let us look at the world from their subjects’ eyes,” Dayan tells AnOther. Hendricks’ depiction of the nude Black female figure, which is a part of the exhibition, shows the subject immersed in a white-washed surrounding, which carves out ample room for contemplation and imagination. While many male artists have historically painted female nudes from the back or front, generally with a voyeuristic eye, there is a sense of honesty and humbleness in his depiction. “There is always something poetic and romantic in portraiture from behind,” the gallerist says. 

The flamboyant show is a fitting unveiling for Dayan’s venture with three other partners – Dominique Lévy, Brett Gorvy and Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn – who have run their own galleries in New York. The six-story, 25,000 square feet 1930s building provides the necessarily ornate backdrop to the show’s sensual juxtapositions across the rooms, a sinuous staircase, and a dramatic entryway with marble floors. A monumental Jenny Saville painting of a sleepy nude woman’s back, Juncture (1994), greets visitors from the towering staircase wall, separated by a crown moulding from a group of Becker’s tiny paintings of figures – dressed or nude – in pastoral settings. “We created a balance between different scales and generations thanks to the space’s many public and private corners,” Dayan adds. “We tucked a [Michelangelo] Pistoletto sculpture in one of the rooms, so make sure you pay attention to what is behind the doors.”

One particular door on the second floor hides a small surprise: a modest selection of nude paintings from the front. Titled Full Frontal, the opposite side views of sitters include another Hendricks, Brown Sugar Vine (1970) which depicts the artist unrobed, another male nude – washed in nocturnal blue hues – by Jordan Casteel, titled Jerome (2014), and Jenna Gribbon’s bedroom painting of her partner, titled Demonstrative (in bedroom with spotlight) (2023). During this exhibition, Dayan developed a newfound fascination for Fernando Botero and his witty palette, which she had previously not included in any of her exhibitions. “Seeing his painting everyday at the gallery made me realise the subtlety and humour in his universe and how much of a great colorist he was!” 

Rear View is on show at LGDR in New York until 1 June 2023.