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My first exposure to Eugène Leroy’s (1910–2000) work goes back to 1973: a small group in just as small a storefront in an eighteenth-century Flemish baroque-style building close to the historical center of Lille, a city on the French/Belgian border. I only went to see the show — mostly Flemish regional artists all of the same generation — at the insistence of some of my beaux-arts student friends. We stood in silence in front of a medium size painting by Leroy, trying to make sense of the profligacy of paint in front of us when we could barely afford the few tubes of oil paint we needed for our studies.
Somehow the then decaying (now renovated) Flemish baroque environment seemed to be a good match for the unusual excesses within the painting, which certainly seemed to be much more at ease in this extravagant architectural context than they would have been in an all white gallery space. An inescapable reference came to our students’ minds: Honoré de Balzac’s short story “Le chef d’oeuvre inconnu”; there it was, the unknown masterpiece, hanging in front of our very eyes. As with the perfectly identifiable foot of the story, we could manage to decipher a nude figure in this maelstrom of heavy brushstrokes. Could Leroy possibly have been the most recent incarnation of Balzac’s Frenhofer?
I would get to know Leroy much better two years later after he was appointed as one of our art history teachers in the same beaux-arts school in Lille. His enthusiasm for the work of the great painters of the past was deeply personal and quite contagious, but I still did not quite understand his work.
After I moved to New York, I did not give Leroy much thought until his first one-person show at the Edward Thorp Gallery in 1985. Seeing his paintings on New York walls was a revelation. Was it the geographical distance, the out of context quality, the weight of a reputable international gallery’s support, the market approval, all of the above? Or had I on my end finally made enough progress to be able to meet him on his own turf? Perhaps, also, after years of less than average neo expressionist paintings, the real thing felt surprisingly strong and refreshing. I went to the opening hoping to see him, but was told he had not been able to travel due to his age.
All of these memories came back to me as unexpected flashbacks when I was standing once again in front of some of his paintings at Michael Werner.
The nudes of the exhibition title are a leitmotiv in Leroy’s work. They usually tend to be hard to locate in the paint build-ups (his Frenhofer side) but the corporeal presence of a body in each painting is inescapable. The body is spread out everywhere on the painted surface, not merely in its ephemeral central image, but in the paint application itself. The surrounding space is built up brushstroke by brushstroke extending the tentative silhouette; the whole painting carries the presence of living flesh.
Leroy’s nudes are on par with Rubens’ or Rembrandt’s. Paintings such as the 1997 “Marina nue”, in the exhibition, are his response to Rubens’ Hélène Fourment and Rembrandt’s Hendrickje Stoffels. They typically avoid the usual array of poses that painters from the early 20th century have so often used with their models. Here, no crouching or reclining nudes as with Degas or Matisse; hieratism is the modus operandi. The standing female figure in Leroy’s work echoes most closely the Egyptian and Greek archaic statuary that was also such an inspiration to Giacometti. The figure, the nude, is reduced to an archetype, as “Début d’hiver” (1996) and “Portrait nu féminin” (1970–1999) clearly exemplify in the show. The individual psychology of the model does not come into play in any way, just as it could not register with the primitive artist. What Leroy is after is the carnal presence of the body revealed by a diffused light, most often reflected from an unseen mirror bouncing the light off the model’s pale skin.
The image of the female nude body itself is a representation of our own humanity, our own vulnerability, our need for a convincing metaphor for the missing naked truth, a remnant of sorts from classical academic training and faded humanistic values. But what is more interesting is the insistence not only on the verticality of the standing nude but also on frontality. In that sense, we are not as far as we may think from the mainstay of cutting edge abstract modernism, where critique of the figure is front and center. What Leroy is doing was not so far from what Rothko (born in 1903), for example, was doing around 1949: inverting the tenets of the figure-ground equation, flattening them on a single plane; the painting becoming its own figure. I am bringing Rothko up only because of Leroy’s openly admired him and yet insisted in his teaching to young painters that Rothko was the perfect example of what not to do. Unlike Rothko, Leroy does not sublimate the human presence. So the figured body in a Leroy painting recedes in a dim light and transfers its corporeality to the painting itself, via the insistence on the materiality of paint. Even if at first it may seem farfetched to bring them together, both Leroy and Rothko are seeking a direct human emotional response to their painting, not an intellectual or heavily culturally mediated one, something that is sorely lacking from most of the subsequent abstract painting production.
Now, for the sake of argument, let’s imagine a medium size painting by Milton Resnick and one of Leroy’s larger ones hanging side by side. They are treading on very similar territories, with only a few degrees of separation between them, sharing heavy impastos and a barely decipherable figure; but where Resnick, like Rothko, embraced the transfer of the figure to the painting, Leroy sticks to some kind of figural representation for another fifty years after his first encounter with the Abtract Expressionists’ sublime. One really has to wonder why. Where, in our fictitious set-up, Resnick comes out in the end as a tragic figure, Leroy does not. He seems to be much better able to handle the limitations of his medium and of his painting enterprise. He also comes across as a much happier painter than Resnick was .
Rothko committed suicide in 1970 at age 67, Leroy died of old age in 2000 at 90. No outsize personal drama in Leroy’s life. In his work, the impossibility of representing the figure is a given from the onset, yet painting is still possible and its practice can still be fully enjoyed. Rothko on the other hand, by transferring the spiritual presence of the figure to the painting itself, also shifted the emotional weight of the painted drama from a spectacle to a process, from the viewer to the painter; it is not a shared convention with the viewer anymore. The flattening of the plane of representation to that of presentation also turns the painter into the first emotional victim of his own work. In a certain scenario, Rothko dies because he is alone to bear the emotional weight of the impossibility of painting what needs to be painted. Leroy survives because he still shares the burden of the impossibility of representation with the viewer, because there is still a safe distance between the painter’s emotional involvement in his work and his subject matter. In hindsight, Leroy’s warning to young painters can be understood in terms of the dangers of the tragic sublime. Back then, I understood it only as a warning to avoid pursuing abstraction for its own sake.
By opposition to the excesses of the tragic sublime, Leroy wholly embraces the excesses of the flesh, not in an immoral sense, as some narrow minded readings would have it, but as part of the same spiritual Catholic baroque celebration of the body’s temporal glory as homage to the creator’s eternal glory. There is no need to look for another sublime in Leroy’s view, as it is and always will be right in front of us, in the figure’s presence.
Exiting the show, I was musing about the warmer color harmonies of the three “untitled,” 1994 paintings next to the colder harmonies of earlier ones such as “Nu blanc gris” (1958) and “Nu vert” (1978), reflecting that Leroy seemed to get closer to Rembrandt’s golden light towards the end of his life. Just then a popular French refrain from the sixties popped into my mind, a verse about the people living in the north of France and their reputation for drabness. Roughly translated, its sentimentalism aside, it seemed to hit the mark:
“People from the North have in their eyes
the blue that is missing from their skies,
People from the North hold in their hearts
the sun that doesn’t shine in these parts…”
(Enrico Macias, “Les gens du nord,” 1967)
Eugene Leroy: Nudes continues at Michael Werner Gallery (4 East 77th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through January 5, 2013.