I RECENTLY WANDERED through the Art Institute of Chicago and came upon Woman in Tub by Jeff Koons. His work is recognizable from a distance, and I often don’t stop to look. This time, I paused.
The porcelain sculpture is from his 1988 Banality series. A nude figure is seated in an incongruously small tub, one knee up, the other submerged or maybe missing. In the frothy water floats a heart-shaped sponge and what might be a colorful party hat. A blue breathing tube protrudes vertically from the suds as the woman’s mouth, rimmed in red lipstick, is open in an expression of shock, or perhaps, the artist hopes, delight. She clutches her breasts with her hands. A nipple peeks out from between fingers tipped with red nail polish, and the inside of her mouth is a toothless black hole. Her head, sliced off just above the nose, forms a flat, glassy white plane. The odd arrangement, amputations, and impossible dimensions are weirdly dreamlike. “When I was a kid, my grandparents had an ashtray on a table in their television room,” reads the artist’s statement on the didactic plaque. “It was a small porcelain of a girl in a bathtub. It was white, with pink and blue details, and the legs went back and forth. As a kid I was mesmerized. My Woman in Tub  comes from that, though it also references Manet and Degas. I had such an experience of awe looking at that object.”
Many artists have taken the woman at her bath as a subject. Degas, Manet, Courbet, Picasso — all painted the bathing female nude in the modern era. Often her face is obscured or turned away from us. She is captured unawares. Koons’s woman is on the other edge of that moment, taken by surprise. He spells it out for us: “There’s a snorkel and somebody is doing something to her under the water because she’s grabbing her breasts for protection. But the viewer also wants to victimize her.”
It is not as if I ever liked the piece, but I didn’t quite have the language to reject it either. I would just walk out of the gallery, irritated and maybe a little embarrassed by my prudish disgust. But this afternoon was different.
I had been reading Linda Nochlin.
Nochlin is best known for her 1971 essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” When she died last October, she left a monumental legacy in art history and criticism. One of her essays on Gustave Courbet came to mind when I happened upon the Koons. Courbet painted many nudes, including The Origin of the World (1866), perhaps the most scandalous among them for its unusual compositional directness: a supine nude torso and, foregrounded, the female model’s genitalia. The female nude as a subject became popular in the 19th century because a growing bourgeois art market had a taste for such things. Courbet, Degas, Manet, and the others intended to shock and titillate. Paintings of women sleeping, lounging, or reading were often eroticized and almost always passive. Their pornographic charge was central to the artists’ ambition — to push against the conventional moral code of sexual propriety with the thrill of transgression. The subjects are dressed in the technical virtuosity of high art and little else.
Looking at a Courbet nude, Nochlin finds herself divided. She cannot assume the position of the male viewer, savoring the sexual arousal of the implicit, violating gaze. Nor can she take the mute position of the female subject submitting to male interpretation. She is at once “invited into, but shut out of, the house of meaning; uneasily hovering on the brink of, moving into, withdrawing from the potentialities of the painting: the familiar, shifty feminine subject-position.” The indefinite language here is apt. There is no settled place from which to look — she is both viewer and viewed. For a woman to look at a Courbet nude or a Koons porcelain is to break from script. She is not the intended audience.
How ought we read these works? Now that we know the assumed universality they project is specious, what do we do? Nochlin’s answer, in part, is to see the works in their own time, to lay bare their assumptions and examine them for ourselves. Meaning needs context. By looking at how artworks were situated in their own historical moment, how they resonated then and now, Nochlin takes charge of the interpretation. “Nothing, I think, is more interesting, more poignant, and more difficult to seize than the intersection of the self and history,” she writes. These works tell more than what the artists intended. Which might lead us to consider not just what the bodies represented — beauty, eroticism, availability — but how we look at the bodies themselves. Can we look at the stone, the ceramic finish, the paint, or the line carefully enough to push past our own expectations or fantasies of what a female body is, how it behaves, how it moves in the world?
In a tribute to Nochlin, art critic and historian Aruna D’Souza credits her former teacher with turning her attention toward the matter of factness of bodies. “Yes, there was the male gaze and the objectification of the female body and yadda yadda yadda, but that wasn’t really what Linda spent most time on,” writes D’Souza. Instead, Nochlin trained her students to look at the particularities of the bodies — the swell and fold of flesh, the blemishes, the meandering veins, the curl of hair, the straining muscle.
She would force us to see these bodies not as nudes — as generalized images of beauty, as invitations or exhortations for us (whether feminists or not) to focus on how the erotics of that form were produced. Rather, she invited us to pay attention to those moments […] where those erotics broke down in the face of the wonderful banality of flesh and virtuosity of paint.
Courbet’s The Origin of the World looks different when it isn’t primed with transgression. Courbet can’t quite be in control of the viewer’s shock if she treats the rendering of a truncated nude as a historical artifact. The male gaze is not all powerful, nor is it above history. It exists in a particular context, augmented by particular institutions and cultural conventions. Taking pleasure in the banality of bodies was “the most anti-patriarchal gesture I could imagine,” writes D’Souza, “a refusal of the objectification of the female body by seeing the body as an object […] the female body could no longer function either as a transcendent vessel of desire as in academic painting, or even as a vehicle of shock as the Realists would have it. It was just … ordinary.”
By glancing at Woman in Tub and walking away, as I’d done in the past, I was, in a way, yielding to it. Koons’s woman is a doll, an ashtray, a kitsch figurine. She is an unreciprocated pornographic fantasy. “We’re just having a bit of fun,” he seems to say, mocking the rococo material and lowbrow smut while taking pleasure in it, too. It reminds me of the awkward smile of incredulity a woman faces when she’s rejected a man’s unwanted advances. As if unseriousness itself were license. Art-making should be ungoverned and free of moral mandate, but we cannot pretend the artist’s choices don’t have moral import. The aesthetic of Koons’s erotics is eerily dehumanized, slick, and juvenile. It lacks the tactile sensuousness of Courbet’s brushstrokes and the feeling of Degas’s texture — they have in common voyeurism, but Koons’s choices take it further. Those in on his joke would say that is exactly the point. Nochlin’s attention to the body in material and form allows us to see Woman in Tub for what it is — jacked-up giddiness, rattling anomie.
It’s hard to describe how one’s mind changes over time, how visual assumptions shift, how we see things differently. Even contemporary works discussed in Women Artists: The Linda Nochlin Reader have transformed for me. Take Catherine Opie’s Self Portrait/Nursing (2004), which Nochlin cites in her essay “Women Artists Then and Now: Painting, Sculpture, and the Image of the Self.” How had I seen it before — rebellious? Clever? Now its fleshy gravity spoke to me. The photograph centers on the artist’s bold, naked body as she nurses a young boy. Everything about the portrait takes up space, throwing back our visual expectations: her shorn hair, her tattooed skin, her size and weight in the frame. The contrast of her dark forearms cradling the bright flesh of her son’s body and her lolling breast suggests a protective holding. Something about her indifference to us is reassuring. She’s not looking at the viewer, but it isn’t because she isn’t aware. She has more important things to attend to. A red drapery hangs behind her. This is a different kind of Madonna and Child, a turn on the long history of simultaneous reverence and condemnation of mothers.
Yurie Nagashima’s Expecting-Expected (2001) at first glance looked to me like a stunt. The artist, pregnant, slouches on a sofa, facing the viewer. She wears only a leather jacket and underpants that do not quite fit, revealing a brush of pubic hair. She holds a lit cigarette in her mouth, thrusting forward her lower lip, and flips the bird to the viewer. Her belly swells into the center of the frame. On the one hand, she is unguarded, nearly naked, lounging in a posture of idleness or simply sick of pregnancy. On the other hand, she is untouchable. Unlike the usual 19th-century passive female nude (or her 20th-century Koonsian cousin), Nagashima has seized authority of the frame. She glares at the viewer head-on. She has seen us coming from a distance and tells us where we can go with our ideas of what her body might mean for anyone other than herself.
I even saw Cindy Sherman’s pieces in a new way. The straining evident in the characters she plays in her later portraits — the socialite, the collector (2008) — looked different from when I saw them hanging in Minneapolis years ago. Before Nochlin, my view of these subjects was tinged with pity: the severe lines of makeup, the rigidly shaped hair, the false concealment of aging skin. Their hopeless ambition is exposed in the unfriendly light. And what do we do with this privileged seeing? Part of me saw them as comical, ridiculous. Now I see a pathos and humanness in Sherman’s portraits — each woman clinging to the impossible positions they have stepped into, just as Simone de Beauvoir warned, cinching themselves in their own golden handcuffs. We know that psychic entrapment — that hairline path to be seen and to exist.
There are so many others — Jenny Saville, Kara Walker, Alice Neel, Kiki Smith, Deana Lawson. The bodies — male and female — rendered by these artists reach me as they are — active, scarred, fecund, wounded, sensuous, and solid. To see them as controversial and edgy is legible only in the old rubric. These artists have changed the terms of the conversation; our minds are still catching up. The bodies they render are enlivened in their particularity. There’s a confident solidness about them, a gravity of a body unafraid of taking up space for its own sake. This is still a revolutionary thought. A body need not serve any story but its own.