Icon and Iconoclast


“I just thought it was something that needed to be said” is what Rudolf Stingel answered when I asked him if his current show was an homage to his dealer, Paula Cooper. Whether it needed saying or not, Stingel says it in his usual no-nonsense, dazzlingly beautiful way. For his sixth show with Cooper since 1994, Stingel—who would be among my first picks for the next Whitney Biennial—has left this temple-like space empty except for a gallery-wide floor made of white painted particleboard. On the far wall is an enormous black-and-white painting of a gorgeous dark-haired woman. The photograph this painting is based on was taken by Robert Mapplethorpe in 1984. The painting, as proficient as any photo-realist canvas, is by Stingel. The woman is Paula Cooper. The overall effect is celebratory, revelatory, sly, and adds up to one of the best shows of the season.

If you know Stingel’s work, you know this isn’t some clever, leave-the-gallery-empty ruse, or a matter of him toadying up to his dealer (although all artists are capable of this). In fact, this exhibition finds Stingel being as subversive and striking as he always is. In 2002, he covered the walls of this gallery in silver insulation panels and allowed people to mark them up willy-nilly. In 1997, he swathed the floor with a plush carpet and placed a large, perforated, blue foam-core screen near the entry. Before this, he published an “instruction” book that explained how to make his abstract paintings. His unforgettable 1991 New York debut consisted of a vivid orange rug in an otherwise empty gallery. It was one of the best shows of the 1990s. Back then I remember being shocked at how hardcore and brazen this action seemed. “I wanted to be against a certain way of painting,” Stingel said. “Artists have always been accused of being decorative. I just went to the extreme.” Basically, Stingel has always gone to extremes, making good-looking, self-referential paintings about painting that somehow manage to both parody and glorify the process while corralling vast amounts of the impinging world in the form of social politics, humor, uncommon beauty, and something menacing.

Just as Stingel has tried to redefine what painting can be, Cooper is and has been a model for the kind of dealer most dealers start out wanting to be: compassionate, activist, and responsible. Cooper is one of the most respected gallerists in the history of art dealers. Curator Francesco Bonami calls her “the Greta Garbo of art dealers—detached and a true believer in the power of art.” Hers was the first gallery to open in Soho and among the first to show the work of Sol LeWitt, Carl Andre, Walter De Maria, Jennifer Bartlett, Jonathan Borofsky, Lynda Benglis, and Robert Gober. Over the years, she has allowed her gallery to be used for everything from the Student Mobilization Committee to end the war in Vietnam, to ACT UP benefits, to NARAL meetings. Now open for more than 40 years, her gallery continues to do great shows. The most striking thing about Stingel’s portrait is how candidly he renders Cooper’s beauty. This painting reminded me of the huge crush I had on her 25 years ago when I worked as a truck driver and used to make deliveries to her gallery. She always gave us snacks.

As is often the case with Stingel, however, all is not peace and love. His gesture is laced with irony and antagonism. First, the painting is implicitly critical of other contemporary photo-realist painters; essentially it says, “Look how easy this kind of painting is.” Next on his hit list is Cooper’s gallery itself, with its minimalist and post-minimal history and its church-like architecture. These are all things Stingel has always resisted, played against, or tried to undermine. He’s also averse to excessive emotionality. Like his dealer, Stingel can make you swoon, but he’s always at a remove. Yet this is the most overtly emotional work he’s ever made. In the past he’s always left the artist’s hand out. Now, his hand is in, as are his emotions. This ties him to artists like Pierre Huyghe and Jeff Koons, who both create elaborate artifices in order to express and explore emotion.

A faint path is gradually being worn from the front door to just in front of the painting. History is visibly accumulating; we see traces of people seeing this show. Lately I have been asking visitors to the gallery who they think this woman is. Many know; some—especially younger viewers—don’t. A few have guessed Marisa Tomei. Yet even those who don’t know the backstory seem smitten or taken to a place the similarly inspired but slippery Jutta Koether has described as “a field, a passage, and resistance, where desire is transformed . . . where the artist’s potential as hysterical subject surfaces.” To those who know the whole story, this is a complicated accolade to an icon, a criticism of and a tribute to something resilient and very near the heart of the art world. Whatever it is, it needed to be said.