L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley
I spent Sunday looking at boys. It began at LACMA, where I saw Catherine Opie’s quarterbacks, linebackers and surfers followed by Thomas Eakins’s rowers, wrestlers and athletic but stationary nudes. It continued at the Egyptian Theater, with ten of Andy Warhol’s four-minute screen tests: Buffy Phelps with delicate, defiant eyes and blondish curls; John Giorno of Sleep, darker and rougher than Buffy; Kip “Bima” Stagg, equally dark but not as rough; Dennis Hopper, twenty-eight but looking younger; Hopper again, still near twenty-eight, but suit-clad and looking older; Gregory Battock with Clark Gable jauntiness; Richard Schmidt and Paul Winterbottom; Kenneth King and Richard Markowitz, who, along with Giorno and Hopper, would appear in the compilation The Thirteen Most Beautiful Boys.
Because Warhol’s tests are meditative and slow, I lost myself in their static silence, and didn’t think about gender until the reel played out. “They were all men, weren’t they?” I said to the friend sitting next to me. He’d noticed before I had.
Three weeks ago, when Catherine Opie’s unprovocatively titled Figure and Landscape opened, Opie talked about her work in LACMA’s Bing Theater. She mentioned comparisons often made between her sports photographs and the work of Collier Schorr, which depicts, among other things, young male bodies posing and sparring. “Collier wants to be her boys,” said Opie. “I don’t . . . I’m not interested in seeing my butch body through them.” What she’s interested in is bearing witness, and she’s been witnessing a precariously in-between generation, some of which has gone to Iraq, some of which has died.
Being versus bearing is not so simple a distinction, of course–Opie’s boys, as poet-critic Eileen Myles has pointed out, tend to adopt the Opie expression, which resembles a “scary duh.” Even so, it’s possible Schorr wants to be her boys while Opie wants to be aware of her boys; certainly, Eakins wanted to be with his boys while Warhol wanted to collect them.
It’s Warhol and Schorr who most prominently prefer male subjects. Warhol’s Screen Test Reel #5 includes only two women and, like Reel #4, Reel #6 is an exclusive boy’s club. Schorr, when asked why she doesn’t photograph girls, has said she does; she just uses boys to do it. But the strange, sports-focused mannishness of the paired Opie-Eakins exhibitions is even stranger in light of both artists’ genuine interest in women. Opie’s girl-only Girlfriends series showed at Gladstone Gallery in New York last year, and Eakins consistently included women in his work, and even in his controversies. It was his uninhibited disrobing in front of female students and his insistence on the removal of a male model’s “loin cloth” during a drawing session women attended, not his obsession with his “beloved” (as one wall label reads) young men, that forced him to resign from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1886.
In Manly Pursuits and Figure and Landscape, Eakins and Opie, both realists, show themselves to be exquisite technicians with a virtuosic, if predictable, eye for poetic composition. In Eakins’s The Champion Single Sculls, a burnt sienna scull cuts smoothly across royal blue water and its inhabitant looks elegantly, if illogically, casual as he turns to look back. In Opie’s portraits, skin, eyes, pose, gaze, the position of the football helmet, have all been carefully considered; royal blue makes frequent appearances in her work as well. But both artists render the trappings of a conventional masculinity and gender-play to which neither quite belong–to which no one quite belongs–and it’s the work that revels in inaction that seems most gaping and honest.
A room at the back of Figure and Landscape features only surfing images, and, though Opie has made striking portraits of surfers she’s shadowed, none of those portraits are included here. Instead, there’s just expansive gray rectangles in which far-off bodies float, largely unmoving, waiting for a chance to resume their sport. They’re certainly skilled surfers; everyone Opie photographs seems to be good at what they do. They’re also like little pawns or bobbing black buoys. They don’t look volitional but they do look comfortable; like the artist who made them, they’re virtuosic and yet awkward precisely because they’re virtuosic.