This week's writing is dedicated to my sister, Katie. Happy 27th Birthday!
Writing about Dana Schutz's "Frank from Observation" series last week got me curious about other female artists who work with men as the subject of their art. More specifically, I wanted to find a female artist who, instead of inventing a man, worked with a real man to create an entire body of work. I was immediately reminded of the sensuous paintings by Sylvia Sleigh that depict a tan, afro donned man. Sleigh, a pioneer of the feminist art movement, was known for her unconventional portraits of male nudes and her involvement in women-run art spaces like Soho 20 and A.I.R. Gallery. After marrying famed art critic, Lawrence Alloway in 1954, the English couple moved to New York where they immersed themselves in the 60's bohemian art scene of Soho. They were quickly embraced by the community and made friends with artists and critics alike. It wasn't until the 1970s that Sleigh started painting a young musician named, Paul Rosano, who would serve as her male muse for the next eight years. But who was this man and what was the nature of their relationship?
According to a Linkedin profile of the same name, Paul Rosano is a New York based sports writer and editor. He studied at The Berklee College of Music, where he majored in contra basse and music composition. He was part of a Connecticut rock group of the 1960s called Island, that later moved to New York to try and land a record deal. It was during this time that Rosano first met Sleigh while modeling at The School of Visual Arts. If the dates are accurate, Rosano would have been in his twenties and Sleigh in her mid-fifties, happily married to Alloway. Typically, when we think of an artist's muse, like Dora Maar to Picasso or Gala Diakonava to Dali, there is a sexual component at play in the relationship. However, I have found little to no evidence of this with Rosano and Sleigh. In fact, I have found almost nothing at all. With the exception to a 40 second video clip on YouTube with Rosano discussing his experience with Sleigh and his personal music blog, there is no substantial material that documents their time together with the same kind of attention and interest as other artists' muses. What was their relationship? How long did they work together and how many works did Sleigh complete of him? Andrew Wyeth has an entire book dedicated to the paintings he made of his neighbor, Helga Testorf. What gives?
Despite this lack of information, the works themselves are truly revolutionary. In works like Paul Rosano Reclining, Imperial Nude, and most famously Turkish Bath, Sleigh successfully and unabashedly flips the classic objectifying gaze of the female nude on its head. Through these intimate male portraits Sleigh sought to portray equality, humanity, and individuality. She writes, "I made a point of finding male models and I painted them as portraits, not as sex objects, but sympathetically as intelligent and admired people." There is a tenderness and sentimental weight to the works because she clearly had a personal relationship with, not only Rosano, but with everyone she painted. Her meticulous and obsessive attention to detail highlights her subjects individuality. Sleigh's interpretation of Rosano swirling lion's mane of curls is a personal favorite.
Sleigh's work gives female viewers permission to look and gives male viewers the opportunity to be vulnerable. As a culture, we are still not accustomed to seeing such stimulating images of men that spark female heterosexual desire. Sophia Robb's physical response of clenching her jaws to the point of breaking her retainer when seeing actor Michael B. Jordan shirtless in Black Panther is a hilarious, if not extreme, recent example of this. In Katie Geha's Love Letter to Paul Rosano, she explains how her entire art history class audibly gasps when she introduces Paul Rosano Reclining. I encourage you all to look and to embrace the initial shock of these paintings. After a while, you may find it is the lack of exposure to such images that make them more shocking than they really are.
Thanks for reading! Leave me a comment below and let me know what you think.
Meredith Mendelson's Article, The Feminist Artist Who Turned her Gaze on the Male Nude
YouTube Clip: Who Was Sylvia Sleigh? (Paul Rosano interview 1:52)
Paul Rosano's site: The Trick is to Keep Going