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Welcome to Nude York

A handful of art exhibits featuring the undraped human form have even the jaded locals buzzing.

April 05, 2010|By Louise Roug
  • ODD COUPLE: Anthony Gormley's sculptures are photo fodder at Madison Square Park in Manhattan.
ODD COUPLE: Anthony Gormley's sculptures are photo fodder at Madison… (Jennifer S. Altman / For…)

Reporting from New York — The notice at the entrance to the show at the Museum of Modern Art warned of nudity "and other images which may be disturbing to some." Visitor discretion was advised.

Inside the gallery, a crowd had formed in front of a nude couple in a corner. An old man, supporting himself on a cane, gamely stepped up to the man and the woman, who stood immobile, just inches apart, like caryatids flanking the doorway to another room. Brushing up against their naked skin would be unavoidable. The choice: face the man or the woman, as he squeezed through. (He chose to face the woman.)

A couple of rooms farther along, an undressed man lay on a bench with a skeleton draped across his chest and, just before the exit, a nude woman had been mounted to the wall, perched on a kind of bicycle seat, her arms spread wide in a tableau that resembled a crucifixion.

Whether this is indeed a cultural moment or just the effects of spring, New York has looked (and felt) like the naked city in recent weeks. And while the days of Rudy Giuliani's decency commission are long gone and a less censorious mayor has taken his place, the works have people talking.

Near the Flatiron building on lower Fifth Avenue, nude sculptures stare down at pedestrians from their perch on various rooftops. The 31 statues in the public art show "Event Horizon" are replicas of the body of British artist Antony Gormley. Meanwhile, in Greenwich Village, a show of nude photographs by a young photographer, Zach Hyman, recently went on display. Hyman got in trouble last year for photographing a nude model at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The model was arrested and charged with public lewdness.

But it is the Marina Abramovíc retrospective at MOMA that has caused the most discussion, not least because of "Imponderabilia," the interactive performance in which visitors walk between the two close-standing nudes. The performance earned the headline "Squeezy Does It" in the New York Post.

On a recent morning, most visitors seemed either flustered or amused in front of the nudes, either slowing down and hesitating in front of the human gateway or walking briskly through.

Freddy Gurner, a 73-year-old New York resident, came over for a peek. "Do you know how many girls are going to leave their boyfriends because of that guy?" he said, with a motion toward the performer. (Suffice to say: Everyone in the show was in excellent shape.)

Gene Daly, a computer repairman, and his companion Barbara Wilson, a writer, debated whether to go through. She wasn't crazy about the idea. Noting her reluctance, Daly exclaimed: "What are you -- from Missouri?" (They too were both from New York.)

A little girl -- 3 1/2 years old -- came over, followed by her father, Larry Bercow, a photographer from New York. The girl stared unabashedly at the performers. "She really wants to go through. But I can't let her walk through by herself," he said. "She's the wrong height," he added. (Eventually, Bercow carried his daughter through.)

Unlike the original installation at the Galleria Communale D'Arte in Italy in 1977, visitors can chose to sidestep the nude performers and enter the gallery through another entrance. "Imponderabilia" doesn't always feature a man and a woman; occasionally, two women or two men will flank the entrance. And among visitors, the performance has proved immensely popular. So much so that guards have had to step in and prevent some people from going through over and over again.

Abramovíc, who was born in what was then Yugoslavia in 1946, is one of the world's leading performance artists. The MOMA retrospective spans four decades of her career and includes photographs and videos of original performances as well as re-performances of her work by other people.

"Everybody was talking about the nudity, the nudity, the nudity. But it's not lewd," said Carrie Shaltz, 31. She collaborated with Hyman, the photographer, for a show at the Chair and the Maiden Gallery, in which the couple turned their cameras on each other for a series of nude photographs.

For Shaltz, the founder of an off-Broadway theater called stageFarm, nudity is a matter of context; while it is acceptable in visual arts, she is opposed to nudity on stage, which she feels is often gratuitous. When a nude actor or actress walks onto the stage, she said, "it takes the audience out of the play."

Shaltz said she had noticed that in the last few years there has been a shift in the culture from paternalism and censorship to acceptance. But male nudity in art still has the power to provoke, she added. "For some reason, people haven't quite gotten over the penis yet," she observed.

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