I’m Obsessed with Ron Mueck’s “Big Man”

Luna Adler
Aug 12, 2020 2:53PM

Ron Mueck, installation view of Untitled (Big Man), 2000, at the Neue Nationalgalerie museum in Berlin, 2006 . Photo by Oliver Land/DDP/AFP. Image via Getty Images.

I first laid eyes on a poster depicting Ron Mueck’s sculpture Untitled (Big Man) (2000) in 2010. I was a petite teen with a copious amount of hair on my head, yet I identified with this gigantic sculpture of a completely nude, shorn man sulking in a corner.

Maybe the kinship was spurred by the fact that I, too, was spending an inappropriate percentage of my time moping alone. Halfway through a pre-college art program, my lifelong separation anxiety was manifesting as a humiliating, all-encompassing homesickness. Instead of painting, I was crying myself to dangerous states of dehydration in the school’s turpentine-soaked closets. The poster also landed exactly within my budget as a small-town lifeguard. I bought it.

Big Man followed me around for the next nine years. When I moved to New York City for college, still riddled with worry at the prospect of leaving my family, I tacked him to the wall beside my posh British roommate’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s poster. Her mother fiddled with a Louis Vuitton sandal as I stood on my desk barefoot, trying to align the poster’s edges. “That’s not staying there, is it?” she asked. “Is it crooked?” I replied.

I was not-so-secretly delighted. Big Man stuck out among the small army of Holly Golightlys that littered the freshman dorms, a flare that I hoped would attract like-minded weirdos. Plus, the poster’s placement made it look like he was glaring at Holly. Was he jealous? I frittered away hours imagining how they met; the moment she finally wooed him out of his corner; their Saturday mornings spent toggling between the window displays at Tiffany’s and Big and Tall. My roommate moved out after three months, taking Holly with her. But Big Man and I stayed put.

The poster accompanied me to my sophomore dorm, where my separation anxiety finally abated, and lent much-needed moral support my senior year, when I drew a terrible lottery number and was placed in a four-bedroom with a bevy of underclassmen. “What happened?” the boldest one asked—an apt question considering there were nine of us sharing a single bathroom.

When I graduated, Big Man was the sole decoration I brought to my first apartment: a Brooklyn “fixer upper” boasting the quadruple threat of mice, bed bugs, fleas, and a verbally abusive landlord. Big Man was present when I rented my room to a hapless Australian for the holidays, and the only witness when she spotted a small pool of liquid beneath the radiator, panicked, and called the fire department at 3 a.m. The firemen decimated the boiler room door with a sledgehammer and shut off the building’s gas and water. Seeing Big Man glowering so unapologetically gave me the strength to refuse my apoplectic landlord when she inexplicably billed me $3,000 for damages. A few weeks later, Big Man was the first thing I packed when—bitten, bitter, and beleaguered—I fled.

The cardstock poster was ratty by then and I wanted to jazz up my new place, so I went to a copy shop and printed a few more of Mueck’s pieces: two waxy-skinned elderly women huddled conspiratorially; a newborn coated in a thin scum of bloody birth matter; and a new Big Man. Taping them to my wall in a makeshift triptych, I reveled in their unidealized portrayal of humanity.

Mueck is known for using deep-cut wrinkles, bulging veins, stubble, and prosthetic eyes to lend an eerie grit to his humans. His creations range in size from toy-like to colossal, but these minute details are especially mesmerizing on the bigger sculptures. What would be an innocuous chin hair morphs into a centerpiece on an oversized fiberglass face, inviting the viewer on what critic Sarah Tanguy described as “a psycho-topographical journey.” While some have criticized Mueck’s approach to scale as a meaningless ploy for attention, the artist’s explanation is simple: “I never made life-size figures because it never seemed to be interesting. We meet life-size people every day.”

Mueck created the nearly seven-foot-tall Big Man after taking a life drawing class. He later hired a model to pose for a private session, but it didn’t go well. The man’s shaven flesh startled Mueck and the classical poses seemed unnatural. “He was quite disturbing,” said Mueck. “I thought, ‘Right, what am I going to do with this naked man?’ I asked him to sit in the corner while I figured this out.” Dejected, the man slumped over, head balanced atop fist. Four weeks later, Big Man was born.

Two years out of college, I finally met Big Man, nestled in a corner of The Hirshhorn’s subterranean sculpture section. I sat, platform flip-flops folded beneath me, and watched my fellow museumgoers’ reactions. Some stared. Others circled. A few took him in before scurrying along. As Tanguy put it, “If you stare long and deeply enough, you experience a horrific beauty.” But that’s not why I stayed.

I admired that this hulking, depilated, brazenly ornery guy could glower in a museum’s basement, forcing viewers to absorb his elongated arms, globular stomach, and larger-than-life feet. He is, as Owen Edwards put it, “an ungainly Goliath,” unflinchingly taking up space. And, as someone who had spent the last decade learning how to do just that, I appreciated his presence. He may not be aesthetically pleasing, but Big Man is unabashedly himself. And, to me, that’s beautiful.

Luna Adler