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A Tribute to Sylvia Sleigh (1916–2010)

posted by Christopher Howard — Jun 16, 2011

Amy Ingrid Schlegel is director of galleries and collections for the Aidekman Arts Center at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. She served on the CAA Board of Directors from 2007 to 2011 and was liaison to the Committee on Women in the Arts from 2008 to 2011.

Sylvia Sleigh

Sylvia Sleigh (photograph by Judy Schiller)

When I first met Sylvia Sleigh at her Chelsea brownstone in 1993 during the course of my dissertation research, I realized what a treasure trove her home/studio was and how enchanting her amiable, anecdotal manner of recalling the past also was. Until recently, within the last decade, most people knew little about Sleigh’s seventy-year oeuvre other than her best-known painting, The Turkish Bath (1973), often reproduced as one of the very few works by a woman artist in art-history textbooks. Despite the tokenistic way in which many students might know Sleigh’s work, it has long been clear how the women’s movement in New York during the 1970s helped boost her from relative obscurity since arriving in the United States from England in 1961, where she had just one solo exhibition. Now, in 2011, she posthumously received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Women’s Caucus for Art, after earning the Distinguished Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement from the College Art Association in 2008.

It seems disingenuous not to acknowledge and assess how Sleigh’s remarkable and, in many ways, paradoxical career as a feminist artist was fostered, even born of, her long-term monogamous relationship with the art critic, curator, and writer Lawrence Alloway, whom she married in 1956 (and remained happily married to until his premature death in 1990). Sleigh and Alloway managed a long-term romance and marriage while their roles as “traditional” realist painter and “avant-garde” critic and theorist diverged during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Yet each participated in the other’s private, creative fantasies, and those fantasies were projected in the creative work of both, produced on different floors in that Chelsea brownstone.

Sylvia Sleigh Turkish Bath

Sylvia Sleigh, The Turkish Bath, 1973, oil on canvas, 76 x 100 in. Collection of the David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago (artwork © Estate of Sylvia Sleigh)

Indeed, their relationship was the subtext of a 2001 retrospective exhibition I curated in Philadelphia, “An Unnerving Romanticism”: The Art of Sylvia Sleigh and Lawrence Alloway. Sleigh painted more portraits of Alloway than of anyone else; he also appeared several times in her group ensembles, including The Turkish Bath. Naturally, Alloway’s visage could be identified throughout the exhibition, and drawings he penned in ink within longer letters written to Sleigh during his travels were also part of the display.

The exhibition’s title was lifted from an undated letter Eleanor Antin wrote to Sleigh after seeing Sleigh’s 1971 painting Philip Golub Reclining: “It romanticism is unnerving,” Antin gushed. “The contrast between your fierceness and his lush languourous [sic] beauty is violent.…. Sylvia, dear, you are a magnificent romantic and not a lady.” In the work Golub, then about sixteen years old, gazes dreamily into a large, wall-mounted mirror, while Sleigh’s reflection—she is seated in front of her easel—scrutinizes the sitter’s naked, teenaged body and effeminate face partly obscured by his long, wavy hair. In Golub’s case, as the son of Sleigh and Alloway’s close friends Nancy Spero and Leon Golub, the desire was purely visual—Philip is essentially eye candy—but this certainly was not always the case.

One of Sleigh’s gifts as a painter was her ability to establish an intensely personal and professional dynamic between herself as creative subject and, in the case of her many straight or gay male sitters, the object of her desiring gaze. This intense dynamic also characterized her relationship with Alloway. Already wed and ten years his senior, she married him after a five-year affair. Unlike some creative couples, romantic love and intellectual partnership were not incompatible for Sleigh and Alloway. They were each other’s muses and sounding boards. They were, in many ways, separate but equal partners, autonomous agents yet fondly attached. Despite their career imbalance, particularly during the 1960s, when Alloway was in his heyday, they nurtured one another’s aesthetic and intellectual sensibilities, including their penchant for iconoclasm in their separate challenges to the art world’s prevailing notions of aesthetic quality judged in exclusively formal terms.

Sylvia Sleigh Max Warsh

Sylvia Sleigh, Max Warsh Seated Nude, 2006, oil on canvas, 52 x 56 in. (artwork © Estate of Sylvia Sleigh)

During the 1970s some reviewers questioned the quality of Sleigh’s paintings depicting nude men. Ironically, it is those portraits for which Sleigh is now canonized in art history today. Linda Nochlin argued in her 1974 article “Some Women Realists: Painters of the Figure” that quality in Sleigh’s work was a red herring, writing that Sleigh “most pointedly raises the issues involved in the female artist’s representation of the male nude. While not overtly political in intention, [her works representing nude men] are certainly political in effect, if we accept sexuality as one of the major political arenas of our day.”1 While Sleigh did not deliberately distort her figures, she tended to idealize the bodies of her models and to render their faces as highly individualized portraits. This propensity creates a frisson that some critics may have misread as incompetence. Or, as Nochlin asserted, “Similar accusations of formal weakness, technical insufficiency, or even willful distortion were, of course, leveled at Courbet, Manet and even at the young Ingres, at least in part because the underlying politics of their art affronted ‘normal,’ i.e., unconscious of ideological expectations.”2 We recognize in hindsight that sex discrimination hindered Sleigh’s reputation as one of the most important painters of the twentieth century for decades. While Alloway chose not to publish a single review of Sleigh’s solo exhibitions, he certainly understood the forceful challenge her paintings of nude men posed to assumptions about spectatorship as a male domain of pleasure. After all, the same art gallery that he critiqued as a reviewer for the Nation and for many art magazines during the 1970s exhibited her nude and seminude portraits of him.

Sleigh’s paintings are, fundamentally, intimate testaments to the relationships that she maintained and nurtured over her lengthy, prodigious career. As an index of the people she knew at the time, her oeuvre collectively reads like a perpetual, unnerving romance with that rare professional intimacy expected from a realist painter who works from life, a romance that is unnerving for its unexpected capacity to simultaneously charm and alarm.

Endnotes

1. Linda Nochlin, “Some Women Realists: Painters of the Figure” Arts 48, no. 8 (May 1974), 32.
2. Ibid.

Filed under: Obituaries