Sylvia Sleigh,The Turkish Bath, 1973. Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago. © Estate of Sylvia Sleigh.
In the winter of 1975, a justice of the New York State Supreme Court spearheaded a campaign to remove a handful of artworks displayed at the Bronx Museum of the Arts. The museum, then housed in the rotunda of the Bronx County Courthouse, had mounted a survey of contemporary art made by women, titled “The Year of the Woman.” The justice took offense to a few works in particular, including a detailed portrait of a naked man by the painter Sylvia Sleigh.
Double Image: Paul Rosano (1974), as the painting in question is called, shows the artist’s frequent model (and muse) posed before a mirror, every detail of his front and back carefully rendered with Pre-Raphaelite-like detail: soft, swirling body hair; sun-kissed skin; ruddy, hanging penis; and white buttocks. (This was the era of tan lines, we are reminded.) When Grace Glueck of the New York Times asked Sleigh about the backlash to the painting, the artist responded: “I wonder if the judge would object to a female nude? I don’t see why male genitals are more sacred than female.”
Remembered for her consistent, loving attention to the nude male physique, as well as for her close involvement with important women-run art spaces that sought to dismantle the art-world patriarchy, like A.I.R. Gallery and SoHo 20, Sleigh has always occupied a curious place as a feminist artist. Maturing as a painter amid the energy of the sexual revolution and the women’s liberation movement, she sought to empower the female sex not by focusing on the politics of oppression, but by giving ample recognition to female (heterosexual) desire.
If that didn’t push a lot of buttons, the plain sight of naked men did, not least because her subjects—which were always men she knew, including her second husband, the influential art critic and curator Lawrence Alloway—resemble uninhibited members of a 1970s nudist colony rather than echoing the muscular, idealized masculine form that persisted in art for centuries. (No doubt the Bronx justice she had offended would have welcomed Michelangelo’s David or Thomas Eakins’s male bathers.)
Portrait of Sylvia Sleigh by Cary Whittier.
Sylvia Sleigh, Double Image: Paul Rosano, 1974. Courtesy of and © Estate of Sylvia Sleigh.
“There is still a prudishness about her work in this country,” says Hammer Museum chief curator Connie Butler, who included Sleigh’s work in the landmark touring exhibition “WACK!: Art and the Feminist Revolution,” at MOCA, Los Angeles, in 2007, when Butler was a curator there. “I think that what she was doing was even more radical than she might have described.”
Taking art history’s most cherished traditions to task was certainly one of Sleigh’s greatest accomplishments. Born in Wales in 1916, Sleigh studied painting and then nursing before turning to artmaking full time in the late 1940s. In 1961, she emigrated to the United States with Alloway, who is known to have coined the term “Pop Art.” He joined the Guggenheim as a senior curator in 1961 and by the mid-1960s the pair were firmly entrenched in New York’s bohemian intelligentsia.
Along with Alloway, many of their friends would become Sleigh’s nude sitters, posed in the sunny interiors of their West Chelsea townhouse, which they filled with modernist furniture, exotic rugs, potted plants, and richly patterned wallpapers and textiles, as Sleigh’s portraits often reveal. (A red Arne Jacobsen egg chair appears frequently.)
If Sleigh’s figurative style felt somewhat outmoded in an era when performance, body art, photography, Conceptualism, and video were the avant-garde vehicles of cultural critique, her use of appropriation was more in step with the times. But rather than borrowing from mass media and advertising, as others were doing, Sleigh dug into the Old Masters to shed light on gender conventions.
The Turkish Bath (1973), one of Sleigh’s best-known works, is a pastiche of art historical sources. She swapped the languorous female bathers of Ingres’s 19th-century Orientalist bath scene for male friends, including Alloway, the artist Scott Burton, art critics John Perreault and Carter Ratcliff, and Rosano, who was a rock musician modeling in an art class at the School of Visual Arts when Sleigh first met him. But Alloway, posed like an odalisque in the foreground, and Rosano, who plays the guitar, also reference the subjects of Titian’s Venus and the Lute Player (c. 1565–70).
Sylvia Sleigh, Imperial Nude, 1977. Courtesy of and © Estate of Sylvia Sleigh.
Sleigh’s 1971 nude portrait showing Philip Golub, son of artists Leon Golub and Nancy Spero, looking in the mirror, is similarly considered to have been inspired by Diego Velázquez’s 17th-century The Toilet of Venus (nicknamed the Rokeby Venus).
To some critics, like Griselda Pollock and Rozsika Parker, swapping nude male for nude female wasn’t enough to constitute a feminist intervention. “Masculine dominance cannot be displaced merely by reversing traditional motifs,” they wrote in 1981 in Old Mistresses: Women, Art, and Ideology. Because the male images were identifiable portraits of people Sleigh knew, they suggested, and therefore more like friends that happened to be naked, they could not achieve the same level of objectification as the nude female models in the work of Édouard Manet, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, or Eugène Delacroix.
Though some of Sleigh’s images of Rosano, in particular, bring to mind the pages of Playgirl—the male nude magazine for women that launched in 1973—Sleigh claimed that her intention was not to objectify her male subjects. “I wanted to paint men in a way that I appreciated them, as dignified and intelligent and nice people,” she explained in a 2007 video filmed at the opening of “WACK!: Art and the Feminist Revolution” in 2007, which included The Turkish Bath.
Regardless of her intentions, the effect of Sleigh’s naked men was to “force a questioning of what is ‘natural,’ ‘acceptable,’ or ‘correct’ in the realm of feeling or being, as well as in the realm of art,” as feminist scholar (and friend of Sleigh) Linda Nochlin wrote in Arts Magazine in 1974. Sleigh’s painting style also forced a questioning of what one should and shouldn’t do in realist painting, particularly among art critics who bristled at its quirky imperfection.
“I think her painting style is where the work is quite radical,” says Connie Butler. “It’s a very raw realism that she was using, and there is something quite rough at how those bodies are painted that tries to get at something a bit more essential about sexuality and nakedness.”
Sleigh also painted nude women, as well as women (and men) with their clothes on. Some of her best-known works are group portraits of women artists, like the one she began in 1977, of the members of A.I.R. Gallery, the first all-women’s artist cooperative in the States. “She was acting as a kind of court painter to the feminist movement,” says Butler.
“I think one could describe a lot of those women artists this way,” she continues, “that even if their personal politics were not aligned with feminist politics at the time, one can see with some historic distance that what they were doing was radical.”