Jenny Saville’s “Ancestors” Dissected

May 3 - July 20, 2018 at Gagosian

“Blue Pieta” (2018)

The brilliant analysis that I had planned to offer has already been covered—and then some!—by a think tank organized by David Cohen:

Jenny Saville ROUNDTABLE: Julie Heffernan, Brenda Zlamany, Dennis Kardon, Walter Robinson, Barry Schwabsky, and Susan Spence

My comments will be posterior to theirs so if you haven’t seen it already:

Cohen led the antis with an almost complete and very convincing dismissal of Saville’s recent efforts (but not her earlier ones). Heffernan led the pros, although, after taking heavy fire, she withdrew to a hilltop, deciding to defend only The Fates 1, 2 & 3. There she rallied with an eloquent description of Fate 2. Zlamany disliked the earlier works but found this batch, with some caveats, “exciting and original” and posited that the pleasure to be had from them might be enough. (Cohen thought not.) Robinson ran out to take another look and returned with a more positive response, especially to their playfulness. Schwabsky objected to the collage trope and the more conventional drawing and questioned the purpose of the bravura technique, asking “What is the project at the service of which she puts it?” Zlamany found that a weird question. Spence said, “She paints extraordinarily well, but that’s actually beside the point.”  Later, Spence seems to question Postmodernism itself. Cohen found them calculated with “an arsenal of effects”. Kardon found that “the details are stronger than the sum of their parts” and then in a more positive tone, “No one really, despite the many comparisons, looks like Saville.”

I’m teasing a little but it’s a brilliant conversation, going to many places: scale, the feminist question, whether adulation ruins artists, questioning if the work is worth talking about (at this length) and whether it must be because it generated so much conflict between the panelists. Then the words themselves were questioned— whether they were making the paintings seem better or worse than they are.

I’ve reread this conversation several times and have begun to think that taken as a whole it spells the beginning of the end of Late Postmodernism.

“Fate 3” (2018)

I have a few comments, of course, presented here, disjointedly:
.Saville’s paintings make their appeal to the knowing viewer who is comfortable with art about art and well-versed in the ways it has been done, wants it to continue being done—but in new and original ways. I don’t think it’s possible—I’m bored with the rejiggering—and too much is left out.

I do reluctantly agree that The Fates are the most successful of the paintings. Saville is best in these and earlier works that contain a single sculptural figure. The figure created by combining body parts with multiple limbs and multiple art history quotes can be enjoyed for its bravura technique, but that technique does not extend to the gestural abstraction on the pedestals and on what can only be called the background.
It’s an academic question though.

I was moved by one thing, which I made a beeline for when entering the gallery—this hand that had magically dropped onto an underlying swirl of paint.

“Fates 3” (detail)
“Fates 3” (detail)








It is very well painted, and other parts of the paintings are too but oddly it is the only gesture in the show where I could discern intent, the intent to cover (shame) or even, slyly, to caress the pubic area. The hand is doing something—how did this slip by the censor?
Anyway, it’s beautiful and I’m for beauty unreservedly— but I don’t call anything beautiful unless it moves me.

“Byzantium” (2018) (detail)

Likewise the drawing of these legs had no intent to explore where the leg should be. This is an example of what Cohen rightly calls the “arsenal of effects,” the knowing allusion to old master drawing. Get it? It did not scale up well. Also I’m not sufficiently immune from grief to take the Pietas, especially the Ralph Lauren ad (Blue Pieta) that Zlamany says she wished she had not seen and is pictured above. Nobody on the panel disagreed.

Saville’s achievement has been to add a frill of well-painted flesh that gives rise to two competing criticisms. Is it old-fashioned to paint so well and is it well-painted enough? Do you come down on the side of deskilling? (Just in painting, or in music, too?)

Mark Hudson, who interviewed Saville for The Telegraph, made the following comment in his introduction: “Saville was figurative and skilled in a way that even the most conservative gallery-goer could appreciate.”
Robinson also said: “Objections to these works because of an absence of “soul” is, well, retardataire and romantic. Postmodernism is about a human world without such constructions.”
Kardon also said: “On some level all painters at this point could be considered pastiche.”


In that interview in The Telegraph Saville said:
“It’s become really difficult to do figurative painting that isn’t naff or cheesy and which feels relevant…”
I feel her; this statement made me more sympathetic to Saville and I like that Heffernan acknowledged that difficulty by saying “You try it!”
Though I said above that I’m tired of Postmodernism, it’s not quite as simple as that— where else to go and for what audience?

I was in Athens a couple of weeks ago and, after carefully studying the drapery in the Acropolis museum, I emerged onto the plaza surrounding it and—suddenly surprising  me—the bodies of the tourists walking there came alive with all their individual beauty. Art can do that, too.

There are multiple limbs in many of the paintings and they called to mind one of Emmeline Grangerford’s paintings—an allusion that I’m pretty sure was unintended by Saville. (Grangerford is a character in Huckleberry Finn, a young funerary portraitist who dies at age 14.)

“It was a picture of a young woman in a long white gown, standing on the rail of a bridge all ready to jump off, with her hair all down her back, and looking up to the moon, with the tears running down her face, and she had two arms folded across her breast, and two arms stretched out in front, and two more reaching up towards the moon—and the idea was to see which pair would look best, and then scratch out all the other arms; but, as I was saying, she died before she got her mind made up…”