Progression of Art
A rich, golden glow permeates this painting as if lit by the warm, flickering embers of a fire. The sculptural form hinting at a female figure slowly emerges from within the frame; seen from behind, her head is tilted coyly to the side allowing her long hair to fall over one shoulder. We cannot see her face, giving her a certain mystique, but drooping shoulders suggest sadness or resignation. Her back forms an exaggerated, bulbous curve, whose hard surface catches the light. Onto the wall behind her a series of intricate patterns dissolve like faded wallpaper.
Yuskavage made this haunting painting early in her career, before she began to work on her signature, hypersexualized figures. The work was in part influenced by the monochrome abstraction of Color Field Painting, which was a popular trend when she was a student at Yale in the 1980s. Into the warm, orange hues her addition of a sculptural figure and the suggestion of wallpaper creates illusionistic depth, revealing her innate interest in painterly narrative, alongside contemporary abstraction.
Referring to the work as timid and reserved, over the next few years Yuskavage set out to explore the sculptural, figurative language seen here with more direct, confrontational imagery, turning her female characters outwards to face the viewer in all their glory.
Oil and wax on linen over panel
The Ones That Don't Want To: Kelly Marie
This painting is infused with an intense, artificial green light, from which a curious female figure reluctantly emerges. There is an eerie duality between restraint and availability in her clothing; her upper body is covered all the way up to her neck, yet she is naked from the waist down. Her pale face and auburn hair is lit from above with a ghostly white light, making it the main focus of the painting, and we are drawn in by her sour expression and the permeating fear in her eyes. In her hands she carefully balances a delicate cup and saucer, as if serving an imaginary client.
This painting is one of a series Yuskavage made as she was beginning to find her true artistic voice, exploring a dichotomy between voyeurism and fear. In some of her paintings the women she portrays are sexually liberated, while others, like this one, seem repressed and controlled, as suggested by the work's title. The women she painted at this time were set against monochrome backdrops, again showing her interest in the abstract Color Field precedents.
Yuskavage worked from her imagination to produce this painting, which was one of a series titled The Ones That Don't Want To, a series she also refers to as the Bad Babies. Her intention was to create discomfort for viewers, portraying pert young women who are being ogled, but do not want to be, saying, "They did not enjoy being impotent spectacles - they couldn't walk away or defend themselves from the glare ... of the viewer."
Yuskavage had mixed responses when showing this series to her friends for the first time, but she knew she was in the right place, saying, "I was making for the first time in my life what I intuited was great art and felt what artists when they make great art feel. Alive in every way." Her friend, the artist Jesse Murry quoted Bette Davis when he saw her work, saying, "... you are going to have to fasten your seatbelt. It's going to be a bumpy ride." Murry rightly predicted the storm of trouble and criticism coming her way, gaining her a career-defining notoriety.
Oil on linen
Big Blonde with Hairdo
In this apple green, monochrome painting a naked woman is perched precariously on one foot. Yuskavage creates tension here by combining sexually provocative material with a doe-eyed innocence. Through Shirley Temple curls a large, Bambi eye peeks out with a mix of curiosity and trepidation; she is on one hand a seductive temptress, but her coy, partially hidden face and fearful expression expose the model's reluctance to take on this role, suggesting danger lurking beneath the surface.
This work was produced as one of the series Big Blondes, featuring naked, archetypal blondes in provocative poses seen squatting or smoking. Such material had never been placed into works of art in this way and Yuskavage knew she was taking a risk, saying, "It was considered pretty incorrect for me to be using these images, but I was intrigued." Much like her Bad Babies series, in her Big Blondes paintings innocent young women are seen on the brink of adulthood, hesitantly allowing themselves to be ogled, making the viewer deliberately uncomfortable. She said of these paintings, "The figure was in a sfumato field, and though its edges were dematerializing, the eyeballs were always hard and fixed on the viewer."
The pose of the model here was influenced by those seen in Penthouse magazine, where women are posed in such a way to seem as sexually attractive and alluring as possible. In a bid to make her paintings more controversial, Yuskavage imagined looking at women in her paintings through the "male gaze." She also sought ways to integrate single figures into monochrome fields of color during this stage of her career, saying, "The mono-figure and the monochrome were very connected in terms of their psychological impact, their full on intensity."
Yuskavage was also greatly influenced by Neo Pop artists Jeff Koons and Mike Kelley, drawing on kitsch subjects, which traditionally would be considered "tasteless," elevating them to the status of fine art. She raised the status of her Penthouse women by combining them with various art historical references, from the sfumato light and form of the Renaissance to the broad, the monochromes of Color Field Painters. The large, expressive eyes seen here can also be compared with Margaret Keane's figures.
Oil on linen
KK in Red Room
A scantily clad woman reclines in a grand, warm-colored room, surrounded by a band of lush, blooming flowers. Dressed in provocative clothing, she disappears into her own realm of sexual pleasure. Daylight seeps in from a window behind her, falling across the soft velvet chair and her exposed skin.
The woman in this painting, referred to as KK, was Yuskavage's close friend from school, who she hired as a model. Painting from life marked a departure from Yuskavage's fantasy Penthouse inspired women, allowing her to explore a new level of realism. KK appeared in a number of paintings, taking up the role of the archetypal blonde bombshell, epitomizing the stereotypical American male fantasy figure.
As with many of her previous paintings, the work has an overall monochrome palette, but the flat backgrounds of her previous paintings have opened up here to include greater detail, allowing it to take on narrative or symbolic significance.
There is also an unsettling, voyeuristic quality to the painting, emphasized by the flowers in the foreground, which an unseen peeping tom, or even a hidden camera, could be hiding behind while spying on KK. Yuskavage puts viewers into this position, creating the uncomfortable sensation of intrusion. This frank exploration of the female body and its potent sexuality has influenced numerous artists since, particularly the fleshy, womanly bodies in British artist Jenny Saville's work.
Oil on linen
A young, blonde woman kneels on a grassy outcrop with her body tilted back, her loose tendrils of hair blowing in the wind with a carefree abandon. She is wearing a tight-fitting pair of beaded knickers that could be made from sweets or pieces of fruit, some of which are dropping off, emphasizing her ripe sexuality. She seems narcissistically self-absorbed, seemingly fascinated by her own sexual possibilities, while behind her a storm is brewing. There is a suggestion here of a young women coming of age, just beginning to discover her own sexual freedom, while still unaware of its potential dangers.
This painting, like Yuskavage's others from the decade, marked a departure away from interior spaces with a move into the landscape, where she could give her characters greater freedom, while adding drama to the work. The David Zwirner gallery, that represents Yuskavage today, said, "Rich, atmospheric skies frequently augment the psychologically charged mood, further adding to the impression of theatricality and creative possibility."
Public admiration for this painting has given it an iconic status, with several subsequent appearances in popular culture; Kate Moss posed for a photo shoot with W Magazine in an identical manner as the character seen here, and it appeared in episode four of Emmy nominated drama The L Word.
Oil on linen
An expansive, barren landscape with rolling green hills that disappear into the distance sprawls beneath a pink tinged sky that is cut into with jagged branches, creating a sense of unease. In the center, two busty young women are nestled among a pile of rocks while a ghostly pair of legs emerges on the right suggesting a third, unseen character. Yuskavage's mysterious women seem to be emerging dazed and confused from a post-apocalyptic disaster amidst a broken heap of rubble. That the women are in a state of partial undress suggests this is the morning after some sexual encounter. Their striped stockings, a recurring motif in Yuskavage's paintings, add a flare of intense color into an otherwise muted scheme.
This painting represents Yuskavage's mature painting style, which incorporates voluptuous female protagonists amidst a broad, open landscape. These paintings delve further into the realms of the fantastical and surreal, opening the work up to multiple interpretations. Yuskavage has often discussed her admiration for the work of the Surrealist sculptor Hans Bellmer, and the influence of his rounded female forms can clearly be seen here. Influences from Renaissance painters such as Bellini and Carravaggio can also be seen, particularly in the foreshortened plate of fruit and the women's sculptural bodies.
Yuskavage moved away from painting real models or Playboy style, fantasy women here, working instead from a series of her own plaster sculptures.
Oil on linen - Private Collection
An acid bright yellow floods the surface of this painting, capturing the vibrancy of the setting sun. Several characters can be seen, including a pair of young children sitting back to back and a young man on the right, who leans casually on a walking stick. But dominating the canvas are two women, one a powerful femme fatale with pendulous breasts splaying outward and flowing long hair blowing in the wind; the other only seen bent over from behind. Around them ripe fruits are piled up and spill over one another suggesting free-flowing sexual energy.
Much like her painting Wilderness, made two years earlier, there is an ambiguous story unfolding here which we can only guess at, with a private symbolism suggesting multiple interpretations. By this stage in her career Yuskavage had begun to fill her paintings with numerous art historical references. Her sprawling landscapes reference the Hudson River School, the Northern Renaissance and the Romantic paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, while the curvaceous figures with fleshy bodies and the rolling fruit resembling Gustave Courbet's paintings. This layered approach, building an image up from multiple art historical sources, epitomises the Postmodern mind set, treating art history as a fertile soil from where multiple new ideas can be grown. Yuskavage has often spoken about her deep connection with other artists, saying, "I've come to experience art like a séance. Over time you can meld minds with artists: you laugh and feel their humor, or you are shocked by their sadness and grief."
Oil on linen
The Art Students
A sense of discovery and wonder permeates this painting. Two art students paint the body of a third female figure, bringing her to life. Yuskavage described this grouping as a "triad," making reference to the holy trinity. While two are fully formed, the third, reclining female is only half painted, as if still developing into adulthood. Set in a suburban back garden, this story seems to unfold in the grey, half light of the early morning. Behind them the sky glows with supernatural light, bleeding through the fence in thin slivers. The title of the work, The Art Students, seems to reference the playful discovery in art school, which Yuskavage likens here to a sexual awakening, portraying naked young bodies engaging with each other. The confident, pleased expression on the face of the female figure in the center reinforces this coming of age symbolism; she is powerful and self-assured, finding herself through burgeoning intimate interactions.
Yuskavage has often talked about her fascination with Renaissance painting, particularly those portraying the moment "the supernatural has arrived." Here the unnatural, glowing sky suggests an otherworldly event is taking place.
Such powerful portrayals of young people on the brink of adulthood can be compared with many contemporary artists, including the angst-ridden teenagers in Markus Muntean and Adi Rosenblum's paintings, or the sexually-inquisitive characters in Eric Fischl's suburban portraits.
Oil on linen
A deep, golden light beams out from this painting, featuring two embracing figures. From the back of the painting a young, blonde woman emerges, her white, slender arms reaching out over the older man in front. The pair's hands are interlocked in the foreground, where the woman's long white fingers resemble spider legs. There is a stark contrast between the coloring of the two characters; she is young, pale and blonde, he is older, tanned and "golden." He is decorated in ornate golden jewelry including an orb suspended around his neck, giving him a God-like quality.
Yuskavage sets up a complicated power play between the two figures here. On the one hand the man seems to be in control, infused with the heady, golden glow of money. He takes center stage and we can't be sure if he is forcibly pulling the woman's arms over his shoulders like a worshiping neophyte or if she is willingly embracing him with such subservience. His expression could be a smile but his eyes are tinged with pain and sadness. The female figure could be a rich man's accessory, held captive and out of control.
Yuskavage often paints her female figures with this mix of passivity and control. She has often spoken of her fascination with Hans Baldung's Death and the Maiden paintings, where skeletal figures prey upon young women. But here it is the young woman who resembles the skeletal predator here, and there is a suggestion that the woman could be the specter of death visiting the man's door. This potent symbolism between sex and death is a recurring theme throughout the history of art and one which Yuskavage updates for the 21st century with a series of contemporary cultural references.
Oil on linen