The Crying Game

A phenomenon in Chelsea: Men in tears, women in love

Several women were milling around Matthew Marks Gallery one recent morning and smiling irrepressibly; I was one of them. We were standing in a room filled with large photographs, in color and black-and-white, of male movie stars crying or on the verge of tears. They're the first images you encounter in British artist Sam Taylor-Wood's three-part show; they're also reproduced in her new book, Crying Men (Steidl), with an essay by art historian Linda Nochlin. Here's a young Apollo in a pink shirt, his pillowy lips parted and his eyes moist, a single tear descending his tender cheek; there's a grizzled old actor, his visage a network of lines, his glance a mask of inwardness and sorrow. Some of these faces we know; others, obeying grief's impulse to hide itself, flirt with recognition. Ben Stiller has trouble stifling a smirk; Robert Downey Jr. can't help squirming seductively; but for the most part, the collective desolation appears utterly convincing. Willem Dafoe wipes away a furtive tear; Robin Williams's brow convulses with anxiety; a red-eyed Tim Roth gives the camera his all.

Actors, of course, are notorious for turning on the waterworks at the slightest provocation. Invited to do so for Taylor-Wood's camera, in a surprise request that gave them no chance for preparation, they draw from the secret wellsprings of their art. Perhaps it's this suspicion of inauthenticity, together with the artist's irksomely glamorous life, that accounts in part for the queasiness greeting this work in certain critical quarters. (She made her name in the 1990s with big, quasi-cinematic photographs of alienated people in haute bohemian settings; she's now married to top London dealer Jay Jopling, and friends with people like Elton John and Jude Law.) My esteemed colleague Jerry Saltz pronounced her show one of the low points of the fall art season.

And did my own pleasure at this orchestrated and ostentatious display of male vulnerability for a woman's camera betray a touch of schadenfreude, defined as "the malicious enjoyment of another's misfortune"? There was, mixed in with it, a sense of relief, a feeling that we've had enough of mewling maidens and matres dolorosae—let these others weep for once.

My first encounter with a man's tears came at age seven. My father had just announced to me the news of my mother's death; I told him he was lying. So he wept, and the initial shock his tears produced in me has never quite worn off. In private, crying men have always seemed confusing and a bit unreal to me. One ex-boyfriend, raised on a steady diet of feminist theory, wept flamboyantly, though through his tears one sensed his firm conviction that he owned the world.

Like a Greek chorus in male drag, Taylor-Wood's men seem to mourn someone's passing. In recent years, the artist has survived cancer; is she here indulging private fantasies of her own funeral? (The show's two other rooms contain self-portraits of Taylor-Wood mysteriously suspended in midair, and a video of a man tap dancing on another's body, with a dove perched on his head—both allegories of spirit and redemption.) If so, it's with a light touch, for these pictures deliver all the mingled pleasures of melodrama, as her subjects sit, stand, or lie before us, inspiring our lust and longing, curiously revealed and yet forever withholding.


Taylor-Wood's show "Sorrow, Suspension, Ascension" continues at Matthew Marks Gallery, 523 West 24th Street, through October 30.

All photographs courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery, NYC

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Robert Downey Jr. (2002)
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Tim Roth (2002)
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Michael Madsen (2002)
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Forest Whitaker
(2002)
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Michael Gambon
(2003)
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Ed Harris
(2002)
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Hayden Cristensen
(2003)
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Laurence Fishburne (2002)
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Jude Law (2003)
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Benicio Del Toro (2002)
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John Leguizamo (2003)
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Daniel Craig (2002)
 
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