I first laid eyes on a poster depicting ’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
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.