Eugène Leroy, “Dans le soir” (1997), oil on canvas, 39 1/4 x 39 1/4 inches (photo by the author)

There is a kind of decay that is accomplished not through subtraction, but rather through accumulation. In the late work of French painter Eugène Leroy, we can see this form of decay given shape and, in its application to the human subject, endowed with an incredible pathos. Leroy’s work is currently on view in Eugène Leroy: About Marina at Michael Werner Gallery. The exhibition features a series of portraits the artist painted of his lover, Marina Bourdoncle, with whom he maintained a relationship from 1986 until his death in 2000. While the paintings are all nudes, they are difficult to identify as such — Leroy’s canvases are almost geologically thick with layers of paint, the figure obscured by the immense materiality of the work. 

The nude was a recurring motif for Leroy throughout his career, but whereas the nude is, in lesser hands, an often tired theme, Leroy’s work has been praised for the originality of his work. In Leroy’s nudes, a gestural and physical density of paint around the central figure serves as its outline, but this outline is often almost imperceptible, and the topographical and expressionistic variation that both creates and obscures the outlined body produces a homogeneity and continuity between the ground and figure, as if the background were made of flesh and vice versa. Missing from much discussion of Leroy’s nudes, however, is the elegiac quality of the work. The works in About Marina were all made toward the end of his life, between 1994 and 1997, well into his 80th decade. Seen through this lens, the canvases seem to be about age and decay — about the process and limits of recollection made manifest. The layers of paint suggest in turn the accumulation, over so many years, of memories, burying the original moment.

Installation view of Eugène Leroy: About Marina at Michael Werner Gallery in New York. Left: “L. aime” (1997), oil on canvas, 39 1/4 x 39 1/4 inches; right: “Untitled” (1994), oil on canvas, 40 x 40 inches (image courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York and London)

In one striking piece, “L.M. en plein air” (1997), two white curls of paint rise above the layers beneath and appear, based on their position in relation to the central figure, as hands reaching out through the murk. Stare at it for a while and the figure is gone, replaced by the textured swaths of paint, the white curls becoming a thick, mold-like encroachment.

In “Printemps” (1997) on the other hand there are two spots, in the upper right and center left of the canvas, where the layers of paint give way to patches of white. The lightest painting on display in terms of both hue and paint application, the white beneath the surface evokes the fresh air of the titular spring as well as an emptiness that is at once serene in its quietude and terrifying in its evocation of a time before, or after, the memory of Marina. 

And yet, despite the looming emptiness of “Printemps,” despite the almost impenetrable layers of the three “Untitled” paintings from 1994, there is always, at the center of the work, the figure of Marina and the exhortation to seek her out. Each work is touched by this expression of grasping hold of love that is almost buried by time, but always there.

Installation view of Eugène Leroy: About Marina at Michael Werner Gallery in New York. Pictured: “L.M. la nuit tombe” (1997), oil on canvas, 39 1/4 x 39 1/4 inches (image courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York and London)

Eugène Leroy: About Marina continues at Michael Werner Gallery (4 East 77th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through February 5.

Jake Romm’s writing and photography have appeared in Aesthetica Magazine, The New Inquiry, Humble Arts Foundation, Ain’t Bad, Loosen Art Gallery, Dodho Magazine, Fisheye Gallery, Protean Magazine,...