Measuring Marlene Dumas

Roberta Smith on Marlene Dumas: “The consistency of this show suggests an artist who settled too early into a style that needs further development. Stasis is disguised by shifting among various charged subjects that communicate gravity in shorthand. Ms. Dumas�s painting is only superficially painterly. The photographic infrastructure is usually too close to the surface, which makes it all look too easy. Worse, it makes subject matter paramount.”

At The New York Observer, Alex Taylor calls Smith’s review a bloodletting. “You don’t read many pans of MoMA shows in the ‘Arts’ section. The Times roster, with the exception of Michael Kimmelman, tend to wrap their sentences in ‘maybe’ and ‘tends too much toward’ when it comes to big museum shows, thereby blurring the critical line. Considered in such a context, Smith’s piece may therefore qualify as a pan.”

Linda Yablonsky at Bloomberg: “Though Dumas is not overtly feminist, a female sensibility runs palpably through the show probably because of its emphasis on babies, as well as pregnant or nursing women. Even the figure bowing over a table in the show�s title painting seems female, though we don�t see the face or figure clearly. Painted in a documentary-style black and white, the figure�s outstretched arms suggest both suffering and solace. If the dead don�t look much different than the living here, it is because the departed have only one expression. Like Dumas�s haunting art, it is likely to remain in the mind long after the bearer is gone.”

Dumas’s biggest fan, Martin Bromirski has posted images at Anaba.

Charlie Finch at artnet: “The Dumas method is simple: She borrowed Francesco Clemente�s overused gouache technique and perved it up. Her subjects are burnished to dullness by her pathetic brush handling. There are some rear shots of masturbation, a blowzy self-portrait, the groups of schoolmates and bridesmaids, in which she throws in a freaky grin or stern look for variety. Every six paintings or so, Dumas throws in a streak of color. Her cat probably got into the paint jar and cruised across the canvas, and a lazy Dumas couldn�t be bothered to change it. For that is the operative word for Marlene Dumas: She is lazy.”

Check out James Kalm’s video visit to the show.

Dan Bischoff in The Star-Ledger: “What makes this show so unusual is just how good the pictures look in person.”

(Joe Strupp reports in The E&P Pub that Star-Ledger’s art critic, Dan Bischoff, is on the list of departing staffers. “Wednesday at The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J., which is slowly watching some 151 newsroom staffers leave via buyouts, has become something of a goodbye ritual. With that day marking the end of the weekly pay period, regular groups of departing staffers have been making their farewells since October when buyouts were finalized, with their last paydays following on Thursday. Some staffers say they try to avoid being in the newsroom because the tears and farewells are so depressing, while others contend they don’t want to miss the last chance to hug and applaud colleagues. Today marked the largest group of exiting newsies so far, with 28 staffers sent packing with a lunchtime cake, according to a leaked memo from Associate Editor Tom Curran, which lists the latest lost workers. One staffer says Editor Jim Willse ‘teared up’ as he went down the list to salute each one and offer thoughts. Willse declined to comment.” Here at Two Coats of Paint we wish Dan Bischoff all the best.)

In The New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl: “Dumas, fifty-five years old, has been a star in Europe and on the art market since the mid-nineteen-eighties. She has been favored by a fashion for sensationalized moral seriousness which explains the recent prestige of Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud and of younger masters of sardonic melancholy, including Luc Tuymans, of Antwerp, and Neo Rauch, of Leipzig. Is this taste a self-flagellating compunction of the spendthrift rich? It may be a calculated bet on meaningfulness. Surely, no one would paint pictures as aggressively uningratiating as those of Dumas unless she meant them. At any rate, the MOMA show proves her to be a far more formidably creative character than a glance at her style�to appearances, an expressionistic pastiche on modish themes�would indicate.” Read more.

In Financial Times, Ariella Budick: “Spread over two floors, the show tracks the non-development of an artist who discovered both her style and her subjects early on and then continued to plumb their shallows over ensuing decades. Rather than organise the show chronologically, which would have thrown the poverty of Dumas’ imagination into relief, curator Connie Butler cleverly installed the work by theme. The reality seeps through all the same. Although Dumas tackles the immortal subjects – death, life, bodies and politics – she swathes them in murk, smudging out specificity and seeking a broader profundity that never materialises.” Read more.

Marlene Dumas: Measuring Your Own Grave,” curated by Connie Butler. Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY. Through Feb. 15.


  1. Hey, thanks for this roundup! I’m not a Dumas fan, so this is as much of the show as I will see. It’s a nice circumspect look. And, holy moly, I never thought I’d find myself in agreement with Mr. Finch.

    P.S. My venue-by-venue posts of the Miami fairs are up on the Joanne Mattera Art Blog (joannemattera.blogspot.com), with a new one being posted every day. It’s a job that will keep me going to the end of the year.

  2. Joanne,

    Thanks for the link. FYI, I’m going to do a round up of “Bloggers in Miami” soon.


  3. Actually Smith also couches her criticism with ‘tends to’ and ‘maybes’. She definitely doesn’t pan it – only declares there’s room to be luke warm – neither a devotee nor a dismisser.


  4. A year or two ago I was at a private view and Dumas was present. The work shown seemed to switch between the good and the frankly disappointing. Everybody has the right to a little uneveness in quality but what struck me was not so much that but rather the sad quality of the not so good paintings -it was as though all critical ability had escaped her. In talking with her I received the distinct impression she was tired out. It may have been my tedious presence that brought on this reaction but from things she intimated I got the distinct impression that she had committed herself to too many exhibitions and I deduced that instead of “painting’ she had moved into “production”. Perhaps I am completely mistaken but this seeming ‘fatigue’ could explain in part the critical edge that some have been targetting at her. I should add that I am not a great fan of what she does although I do respect her work.

  5. Interesting comment Tony.

    I think a lot of artists get suckered into over-production by the argument that they'll sink if they're not swimming in ever-increasing circles. Usually this means hiring more ranks of assistants and reducing the work to a set formula.

    With Dumas I think there's the added problem of her ambivalence toward technique – she actually has a very narrow technical range and clings to this for various elaborate intellectual reasons.

    If she had more time – or gave herself more time – she might want to rethink a few points on drawing, tone and modelling, that would only advance her project.

    Also – it's not a comfortable project – but the general dismissive reaction in NY is surprising and disappointing.

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