Dana Schutz at the Musée d'Art Moderne de Paris

I lingered much longer than I’d expected at the Nicolas de Staël retrospective at the Musée d’Art de Moderne de Paris. Since I didn’t want to rush through the exhibition I decided to go back another day for the Dana Schutz exhibition and to allow myself enough time to also visit the Nicolas de Staël retrospective a second time. I’m glad I did, because the Dana Schutz show is also well worth visiting.

I must admit that I had never heard of Dana Schutz before. In the U.S. she is a household name and considered one of the great figurative painters of our time. "Dana Schutz: The Visible World" is the first major exhibition of her work in France or indeed Europe (the exhibition was previously on show at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Copenhagen). It includes forty paintings from the early 2000s until today, alongside twenty drawings and etchings and seven sculptures.

Dana Schutz practices painting as a form of personal inquiry and social commentary. She often takes hypothetical narrative situations as a point of departure. What would it be like to swim, smoke and cry at the same time ("Swimming, Smoking, Crying", 2009)? What if we could replace some of our body parts ("Twin Parts", 2004)? What would it look like to eat one’s own face ("Face Eater", 2004)? Using bold colors and large brush strokes her paintings are often grotesque and absurd, sometimes gruesome, but for all that also funny. "Flasher" (2012) to me looks like a portrait of a painter showing his tools and his work on the inside of his jacket. (I’m pretty sure this is a masculine figure just as "Shaving" (2010) depicts a feminine figure).

In recent years Dana Schutz has moved from single figures towards increasingly complex scenes populated by numerous figures on ever larger canvases, which seems to be the norm these days. The pretty amazing "Mountain Group" (2018) shows various figures clambering their way to the top of a mountain: Buddha, climate activists, pilgrims and an artist painting a sublime landscape. "Fanatics" (2005) shows a group of protesters who have broken down a fence. One person hands out flyers, another kneels in prayer, yet another holds a book, in which it is difficult not to recognize a bible, yet another person looks like a bald suicide bomber wearing a dynamite belt. The scene now seems eerily prescient given the attack on the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021 by supporters of then U.S. President Trump.

More recently Dana Schutz has also started creating sculptures, which reminded me a lot of Willem de Kooning’s sculptures. Like her paintings they are both playful and grotesque.

One of my favorite paintings in the exhibition is the hilarious "Sneeze" (2001). As I wrote in my review of Issy Wood’s solo exhibition at Lafayette Anticipations, in theory anything could be a subject for a painting. And yet art history isn’t exactly replete with scenes of people laughing, yawning or sneezing, even though most people frequently laugh, yawn or sneeze. This may be due to the fleeting nature of these actions. Lacking a model, in order to depict a sneeze Dana Schutz drew on her own intuition and sensations. She has painted the convulsive expulsion of air with broad brush strokes. The droplets of saliva and mucus are naturally depicted with drops of paint.

Dana Schutz: The Visible World is at the Musée d’Art de Moderne de Paris through 11 February 2024.

Dana Schutz interview: How do you depict a feeling?