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A New Way of Looking at the Nude

THE ARTIST PAUL Cadmus was flipping through Modern Maturity, the AARP’s official magazine, in 1991 when he saw something that made him angry. A disgruntled reader had written a letter to the editor slamming the publication for reproducing the Italian Renaissance artist Masaccio’s famous painting of Adam and Eve without including the fig leaves that church officials later added to cover their genitals.

In response, Cadmus, then 87, created a drawing, titled “Shame!,” which was recently on view at New York’s DC Moore Gallery as part of the first major solo exhibition of the artist, who died in 1999, in more than 20 years. It shows a lithe white man, woman and child standing tall and naked, arms intertwined. At their feet, a cluster of grotesque, clothed figures, including a hooknosed priest and a mother covering her child’s eyes, writhe in disgust. Cadmus, who is best known for homoerotic images that relish the male form, later wrote that the letter’s author had provided “a profound definition of the word ‘pornography’: a naked man and woman.” In an ironic twist that surely would have provoked the artist’s ire, it’s impossible to access a reproduction of “Shame” online today without clicking a “N.S.F.W.” button.

Paul Cadmus’s “Shame!” (1992).Credit…© Paul Cadmus, courtesy of the DC Moore Gallery

Nudes are one of the oldest and most stubbornly provocative tropes in Western art. Today, anyone with an internet connection can see a naked body at a moment’s notice (even if they have to press an extra button to do so). But the world in general, and the art world in particular, has remained largely conservative about what kinds of bodies it chooses to depict, celebrate and immortalize. In an age when Instagram polices nipples even as television shows like Euphoria traffic in erotic drama, a new generation of artists are mining this irony and working to broaden the aperture, breaking away from the idealized (usually white and thin) forms that have pervaded art for most of its documented existence. Instead, they are conjuring nudes that reflect a more fluid, more inclusive and fuller understanding of the body. At the same time, scholars and collectors are taking a new look at artists who were previously excluded from the canon because of the naturalistic, warts-and-all approach they took to the nude.

Fresh interpretations of the nude are front and center in a wave of exhibitions on view in New York this spring. At Bortolami gallery, there is Philip Pearlstein, whose dramatically cropped, unsentimental figures were profoundly unfashionable when he introduced them in the early 1960s. Gagosian is presenting its first exhibition of the photographer Francesca Woodman, who, before her death in 1981 at 22, created hundreds of strange, haunting photographs in which she used her naked body as a prop. Then there is Emily Coan, 32, at Dimin Gallery and Clarity Haynes, 52, at New Discretions, part of a group of contemporary artists who are using their own bodies and those of their friends to explore how femininity, gender identity and queerness can breathe new life into this often-vexing tradition.

Philip Pearlstein’s “Female Model on Deck Chair” (1978).Credit…© Philip Pearlstein, courtesy of the artist and Bortolami, New York. Photo: Guang Xu

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