SYLVIA SLEIGHby Carrie Moyer
November 5, 2009 – January 9, 2010
Sylvia Sleigh’s recent eponymous exhibition at I-20 Gallery featured 12 portraits dating from 1961-79, many of which were being shown for the first time in decades. Sleigh emerged from the Feminist Art Movement during the 1970s and is perhaps best known for her group portraits, including the epic “The Turkish Bath” (1973), in which a bevy of hairy, nude men lounge in a steam room. In her 90s, the artist gathered together a selection of portraits at I-20 that serve to amplify her oeuvre at a critical juncture in both her own career and in social history.
Born in 1916 in Wales and educated in England, Sylvia Sleigh began exhibiting her work in London in the 1950s. Sleigh shared a penchant for dull yellow-grey light, pasty figures, and a lugubrious mood with her British compatriots. In 1961, she moved to New York City with her husband, the art critic Lawrence Alloway who had been hired by the Guggenheim Museum. Judging from the luminaries who quickly began to populate Sleigh’s work, she and Alloway were welcomed into the New York art world with open arms. At the time, the innovations of post-painterly abstraction and the nascent Pop Art movement held the attention of artists and the art public. Sleigh’s traditional method of painting from life must have set her instantly apart from most of the artists she was meeting as well as those being championed by her curator-husband.
The earliest picture at I-20 dates from the year Sleigh and Alloway arrived in New York. Though she never enlists in the avant-garde, Sleigh was certainly affected by her new environs: her sense of light and color seems to literally burst into Technicolor after 1961. The smoky atmosphere and earthy hues of her older work give way to a bright, clear light and saturated palette of reds, blues, and greens. Sleigh often had her subjects pose in a red “Egg Chair,” a classic of Danish Modern furniture. In “Betty Parsons” (1963), the chair’s intense color and biomorphic geometry become a foil for the art dealer’s formidable presence. Dressed in a plain grey suit and pearls, Parsons seems to look straight through us with her eerie, light-blue eyes. Another trademark of Sleigh’s work is the palpable joy she gets from painting minutia—particularly fabric patterns, flowers, and hair. In “Chelsea Garden” and “Marila Marini with Long Hair” (both 1967), nearly every inch of these stunning canvases is covered with intricate foliage or a repeating pattern.
During the early 1970s, Sleigh was a member of both SOHO20 and A.I.R. Gallery, two artist-run venues dedicated to exhibiting work by women artists. Her large group portraits of each collective read today like detailed history paintings that record the birth of the Feminist Art Movement. While Sleigh often drew her sitters from this sisterhood of women artists, she was also keenly interested in how changing gender roles were affecting men: the social transformations precipitated by the Women’s and Gay Liberation Movements are clearly evident in her work. Paintings such as “Portrait of Lawrence Alloway” (1965) and “Ira Joel Haber & John Perrault” (1972) depict men who are sensitive, thoughtful, and slightly feminine in both demeanor and attire. In “David Bourdon” (1969), she takes this gender fluidity even further and paints the art critic as a serious dandy in an extravagant green ruffle and stylish granny glasses.
In Sleigh’s work the counter-cultural mantra of “going back to the land” manifests itself as a kind of au naturel androgyny. The narrow composition of “Joakim Neugaeschel” (1970) highlights a self-possessed, nude man against a lush backdrop of leaves. With his trim beard, shoulder-length hair, and pensive expression, the sitter is transformed from an ordinary hippie into a New Age apostle. One model in particular captured Sleigh’s imagination and came to exemplify her ideal male: Paul Rosano, a gentle, dark beauty with an exuberant Afro and copious body hair. Although she painted Rosano many times in many different art historical guises (as an odalisque, a musician in Giorgione’s “Concert Champêtre” and even as Mary in an Annunciation), there is only one picture of him in the I-20 exhibition. “Paul Rosano Singing” (1971) depicts a cherubic man, seated in the Egg Chair and playing a lute. The placement of Rosano’s bright blue t-shirt against the red wings of the chair, the halo of hair, and the evident sweetness in his gaze evoke Christian and Baroque references.
Some artists are better than others at resisting the siren song of the New. Sylvia Sleigh is one such artist. Some 40 years after they were made, her paintings present an extremely granular view of what bohemian life was like during a crucial period of American history.