Marlene Dumas

The infamous figurative painter Marlene Dumas has a highly sophisticated pictorial style that features distortion, simplification, a rough-edged finish and a deeply personal amalgam of painting and drawing.

But as she points out in her conversation with us, such technical issues are usually ignored so that attention can be focused on her subject matter.

This is not altogether surprising, as politics, racism, religion and sexuality—often in troubling combinations—are recurrent themes in her work, as is her interest in the dehumanizing tendency of commercial representation.

The fact that Dumas—who was born an Afrikaans-speaking South African and now lives in Amsterdam—deals with all of these subjects so explicitly has also contributed to her reputation.

But despite—or because of—all the controversy surrounding her, a 1987 Dumas painting, The Teacher, famously fetched $3.34 million last year at a Christie's sale—the highest auction price ever for a living female artist.

Dumas was recently in New York City to take up the Alex Katz Chair in Painting at The Cooper Union, and she spoke to ArtInfo shortly after a standing-room-only public lecture she gave at the college.


Marlene, congratulations on the turn out for your lecture. I can’t recall such a crush for an artist’s talk. Did it make you feel like a celebrity artist?

No. I don’t come to America very often, and I haven’t really shown much here either. I’ve never had a big sensational show here, and I’ve never had a big write up in Artforum, for example. Whereas many of my generation, people like [Julian] Schnabel, became so famous in the 1980s.

But you have been written about a lot, even though it’s often been at a theoretical level.

You know, I gave that lecture, and some people said it was not theoretical enough. But theory people often don’t even have images when they talk! It’s just art-jargon. Sometimes I have to look up a new art word that is being used all the time. I feel sorry for these art students who come from small places in the country. They don’t want to admit they don’t know certain theoretical terms. I say to them, “Come on! Just say you don’t understand. It’s much better.”

Do you think it leads to misunderstanding? Do you think that the way you’ve been written about has misrepresented you?

Yes, and not just how I’m written about. It’s so funny. Years ago I was giving a guest lecture, and these students said to me they were very pleased that I was the way I am: “We had a totally different idea about you,” they said.

So I said, “What did you think? That I would be depressed?” They had a picture of me they had gotten from the Web, and it was one of the photographs I had once used for source material. It was me, but I looked very sad, and my hair was dyed black—and that had become their image of me!

You’re not the first artist to have been misunderstood, though.

Of course. I like Jackson Pollock, the James Dean of painting. I still like him, but I have to admit that because the emphasis was so much on his life that when I was younger, I thought, “I want to be like that and sit in the bar and talk about art like all those macho guys did.” But later I appreciated the art of Barnett Newman far more, which, in books, looks like nothing.

Yes, people often misunderstand an artist’s work because they only see it in reproduction.

I know—because when I was an art student, I made the same mistake. There were so many artists I thought I didn’t like because I saw all these reproductions. Like Degas: I thought, “I don’t like ballet dancers!” There was a big survey show in Paris, and I didn’t even want to see it, but I went along with someone, and I felt so embarrassed because they’re beautiful paintings.

Do you think it’s a particular problem for your paintings?

Yes, because you lose the sense of scale. It’s especially true with my small sexual works, which are so intimate.

I once did a piece with an Italian art magazine, and when it came out, all these different works appeared side by side. You’d have a painting of a dead person next to an enormous, sexually explicit thing. Afterwards the editor said, “Oh we were very happy with it,” and I said, “Well I wasn’t happy because you made everything so big. Certain things should have been small. There’s no scale to them.” And the editor said, “I’ve never heard an artist complain I printed something too big! You’re the first one who’s ever said they’d rather have it smaller.”

Why do you think art magazines do that?

They do it because they don’t care about painting. Most people in the art scene have no sense of what a painting is. That’s why art magazines have such terrible layouts, because they look at a painting as if it is a photograph, and it becomes a photograph in the reproduction. They can’t say they understand anything about painting.

Then, because people haven’t seen the work in the real, they read these things and then they think, “Oh it’s that woman who …” and get it all wrong. Someone said I was “a politically minded Belgian artist.” That was funny.

[For a magazine article,] someone once asked me some really horrible questions about whether I get excited about death. And I said, “This is totally not my thing at all.” When I am working on more political themes, I’m not reading porno books at the same time.

Also I get asked about the fact that I once said Jesus is the most erotic figure in art. I have to say, “No, I don’t mean I get excited when I see a dead person, I’m saying that in the history of painting, he has been the main figure, and he’s this naked man who struggles between spirituality and physicality. I didn’t invent that. That is what he is supposed to stand for, and in other cultures you do not have that.”

I think that part of the problem is your paintings vary quite subtly in intention, and people don’t always understand that.

Yes, because I also sometimes make jokes, and people get a bit mixed up. But I’ve never known how you do that, how to say, “This one is meant to be funny!”

It occurs to me though that this is one of the running themes in your work—the distance between appearance and reality, and the ways in which appearances can be misunderstood.

Yes, in terms of subject matter, it is mostly to do with portraiture, or maybe one should say the image of a person and how one tries to read identity. People believe they can get information from looking at a picture, and in a sense the appearance takes on its own life. I find that very interesting.

So your own experience meshes neatly with what your art is about?

Of course. It’s not that I’m moaning about these things. It’s more that I’m looking at myself in the third person, and I can see how some of these things happen. It would be different if I was someone who’s very unhappy and bitter because they’re misunderstood.

You’d just prefer people to look at your paintings more carefully, I suppose.

Oh, people admit they haven’t even looked at your paintings. If people only spoke about my work formally that would be boring as well, but the emphasis with everything is too much on the subject matter.

How do other painters respond to your wok?

Well, after my lecture, I spoke to Alex Katz and it was very nice getting a few compliments from him on a painterly level. He said to me, “I find the way you move from a detail to a flat surface very good,” and he also mentioned the fact that I’d painted a figure’s eyes black. He said, “I’ve never done that; I must try that.”

What did you say to him about his work?

I said that he never painted nude figures, and he said, “But I painted a billboard with two men kissing!”

Did he offer you any advice?

He said to me, “Don’t worry. You don’t have to explain everything.”

As well as the lecture, you’ve also been doing some teaching in the painting studios. How important is working with students for you?

I see teaching as a very important thing, and not only because I teach them things, but also because we have a dialogue, and you see what you really want. You find things out. I still believe in the Socratic dialogue. Art is really something that you learn from being around people. My own experience in South Africa was that the art school was part of the university, so I learned such a lot in general, not just about painting.

I am from a generation that seems to want to copyright their inventions, but I am not one of those artists who think they invented everything. You are part of a tradition. It’s the same as when people write books—they have read other books that they relate to. Painting is part of a visual tradition.

The worst kind of artist is one who thinks they’re so wonderful because they don’t understand that there have been all these wonderful things done already, and that you exist in relation to that. Just because an artist from the past is dead doesn’t mean the work is dead. Art is something that relates you to the past, and hopefully to the present as well.