Carroll Dunham’s Paintings Make You Squirm

There is something enigmatic about Carroll Dunham’s work, even though the painterly vocabulary he employs appears to be straightforward. Using bold planes of color and almost cartoonish outlines, Dunham often depicts naked human figures in imagined natural landscapes, populated with naïvely rendered trees and birds, dogs and flowers. In his paintings and drawings of heavy-breasted, thick-thighed women bathing, or of hirsute men wrestling one another, Dunham allows the viewer to encounter life in vivid, animated action. And yet, there is a palpable opacity to his subjects: Who are these half-Biblical, half-science-fictional figures, with their button-like nipples and dark tufts of pubic hair, their bodies splayed jarringly against an indifferently cheerful landscape? What is the purpose and meaning of the obscure rituals that Dunham paints these characters engaging in, with their eyes averted from the viewer, as if reluctant to have their private customs disturbed or even looked at?

The dropped-from-outer-space oddity of Dunham’s protagonists might remind us that the artist’s path to the figurative nude has been unconventional. Born in Connecticut, where he attended Trinity College, Dunham moved to New York City in the early nineteen-seventies, and began working as an assistant to the painter Dorothea Rockburne. His own work was influenced by the cool-to-the-touch, pared-down, post-minimalist approach of Rockburne and her milieu, where art was being “thought of as a philosophical exercise,” Dunham told me. “I had a very, very reductive vocabulary in my work.” From the late nineteen-seventies through the nineteen-eighties, Dunham’s paintings and drawings hewed closely to abstraction, depicting spare, systemic whorls of line and color. And yet, as the years went on and his career developed, Dunham found himself increasingly drawn to depicting the human figure, first as part of a semi-abstract pictorial language, from which certain repeating symbols nonetheless emerged—top hats, guns, mouths, penises, vulvas—and then, increasingly, in the fully fleshed-out images of men and women, a rich vein that he has now been pursuing for nearly two decades. “My whole thing as an artist is backing into things,” he told me. Later, he added, “At some point, life starts creeping in.”

Now, at seventy-two, Dunham is one of the most successful and well-respected American painters of his generation. His work has been collected by numerous art institutions here and abroad, among them the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Museum Ludwig. Most recently, his paintings were shown in a solo exhibition at the Eva Presenhuber gallery, in Zurich, where Dunham depicted his familiar women and men not separately but together, for the first time, in acts of copulation. (For the first time, too, these subjects were painted green.) Since the early nineties-eighties, Dunham has been married to the artist Laurie Simmons, with whom he has two children—the director, writer, and actor Lena Dunham, and the writer and activist Cyrus Dunham. The couple shares their time between a house in Connecticut, where Dunham also keeps his painting studio, and an apartment near Union Square. I have been a fan of Dunham’s work for the past decade—a small ballpoint-pen drawing of his, in which a naked woman is depicted from the back, is one of my prized possessions—and, a couple of years ago, I met him and became more intimately familiar with his paintings when I wrote a catalogue essay about one of his series. Recently, I got to dive even deeper when I sat down with the artist at his New York City home for a conversation about painting, the body, repression, and family.

You’ve just recently returned from Zurich, where you had a one-person show at the Eva Presenhuber gallery, which has been your gallery for roughly a decade. I looked at the images online and I saw that, even though the art is very much of a piece with your past work, for the first time your characters are . . . green?

That’s a big change. It’s quite a change.

For the first time, too, these characters, men and women, are having sex.

It’s been in my mind for years, but it’s the first time I’ve ever figured out how to make paintings work that had males and females together in the same paintings. They appear to be copulating so there’s something for them to do together. It took me years to imagine a way that I could work with a subject like that without it being gratuitously sensationalistic. That’s the way it goes with painting, for me. It just takes a long time for things to come about.

But even with your figurative images where there isn’t copulation, one could think of them, potentially, as sensationalistic, in the sense that they have very graphic orifices, they have appendages . . .

I just was trying to make things that felt honest in terms of how one is fascinated by human bodies. Having one and looking at them. And I completely reject any association with porn or anything like that, because that’s just not an interest of mine. As I’ve told people for years, the images that involve females to me have more to do with the idea that everyone has a mother than they do with any idea about sexuality, per se. And the images of men which do involve pairs of humans messing with each other, that has as much to do with my experience of having horsed around with my brother. At least on a conscious level, it has nothing to do with sex.

Is it because, for the painting to have something to do with sex or porn it would have to attempt to titillate, and these images aren’t interested in that?

If you can find me some kid somewhere who’s jerking off looking at pictures of my paintings, I’d love to meet them. But I find it highly unlikely. [Laughs.] That’s just not the zone. There’s nothing about that in what the paintings look like or in the intention behind them, as far as I can see. And I’m not saying that to be disingenuous. Our culture has relegated thinking about the human body to some pretty creepy domains, but art’s been around an awfully long time, and the human body has been a subject since the beginning.

But something that’s interesting about your work is that it can also be creepy—not in a sexual way, exactly, but in that looking at it makes us confront something that we’re not necessarily thinking about. When we’re sitting here, engaging with each other’s bodies, in the same way we do on the subway, or in a family, there is a concerted repression. Thoughts of people’s protruding penises or their orifices are not things that are top of mind.

I agree completely. I think that’s true. But that’s how I see art, I guess. Art allows for things that we don’t use in our day-to-day social space to understand each other, to categorize each other. Art is a kind of free zone. I see things that I think are much more provocative on the sides of buses here in New York than I do in my own work. And maybe that means I’m blind to the effect of what I’m making.

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