Is there a crueler money shot than Marilyn Monroe’s morgue photo, with that lank cascade of streaked hair descending from her bloated, mottled face? The grainy black-and-white picture represents a nigh-Shakespearean tale of how even fame, fortune, and siren looks can’t stave off death—and may, perhaps, even hasten it.
So why does Marlene Dumas’s painting, appropriated from this loaded image, feel inert and facile? Tiny splatters of blue-gray paint flatten any sense of the sagging weight of inanimate flesh, and the smudged background offers none of the documentary interest the police photographer’s scribbled notations lend to the original. Corpses, babies (sometimes with blue faces or red hands), sex workers, and folks in straitjackets or hoods—all cribbed from photos and transformed into thinly painted portraits—form the nut of MOMA’s mid-career retrospective of the 55-year-old Dumas, who was born in South Africa and has long lived in Amsterdam. Gradated color occasionally blooms along a sleek contour, as in Leather Boots (2000), which portrays the elusive divide between the nude female and the confines of her display window, but too many of these works feature gray figures plunked onto blank backgrounds, the final effect torpid despite energetic washes of pigment.
Sometimes compared to Francis Bacon, who also delved into mortified flesh, Dumas rarely delivers the strong compositions and varied textures the former decorator brought to his paintings, nor does she capture Bacon’s visceral connection between his own movements and painted flesh—a corporeal daisy chain ultimately completed by the viewer.
Part of the buzz around Dumas’s work concerns her transformation of source photos into purely painterly forms that supposedly double back and blindside us with emotional content. But the fraught expanse that photographs create between viewer and grisly subject matter was strip-mined by Warhol for his “Death and Disaster” series decades ago, and with more painterly aplomb. Occasionally, in works such as Waiting (For Meaning) (1988), which depicts a figure stretched atop a too-short platform, a clammy aura radiating from it, Dumas captures the body’s resonant presence rather than just desiccated remains.
Mondays, Wednesdays-Sundays, 10:30 a.m. Starts: Dec. 31. Continues through Feb. 16, 2008