Curtain Figure 1998 is a large painting depicting a solitary figure clothed in what appears to be a swathe of shredded blue fabric. This fabric, which dominates the centre of the composition, has a round head-like shape at its top and long, thin sections of blue that reach from this shape down to the bottom edge of the canvas. Strips of pale pink paint emerge from behind the blue area, resembling elongated limbs, a neck and a faceless head. Although the distortion of the body beneath the curtain-like apparel is such that the figure appears largely androgynous, at the top right of the composition is a cluster of horizontal bands of brown paint emanating from one of the pink areas, suggesting a woman’s head of hair. The figure is set against a flat abstracted background of beige, blue and brown paint, with sections of white gesso primer and pencil markings visible amid the expressive brushwork.
Curtain Figure was made by the British artist Nicola Tyson in her New York studio in 1998. She began by priming the linen canvas with white gesso applied in even, sweeping brushstrokes and then loosely sketching parts of the scene over this in pencil. Following this, Tyson used acrylic paint – some of which she thinned substantially – to render the figure and background in strokes of varying thickness.
First displayed at Sadie Coles Gallery in London from 4 March to 3 April 1999 in a solo exhibition entitled Nicola Tyson: New Paintings and Works on Paper, Curtain Figure was made during a shift in Tyson’s practice in 1998, which saw her move from the use of oil paint to the use of acrylic. This change in medium enabled Tyson to create looser, more expressive compositions that were closer in their handling of paint to her gestural graphite drawings than to the oil paintings that she made prior to 1998 (for comparison, see Swimmer 1995, Tate T07492). Tyson’s switch in formal approach also coincided with a more consistent focus on visceral subject matter, as is seen in Opening 1999 as well as the set of nine similarly corporeal graphite drawings Group #59 1999.
The title Curtain Figure suggests an act of bodily veiling, and the blue fabric in the painting obscures the figure’s physique, gender and other distinctive characteristics. In a review for Frieze magazine published three years before Curtain Figure was made, the art critic Dan Cameron described Tyson’s paintings as ‘not so much representations of human beings as elaborate exercises in modelling and gesture that convert the human form into a site for anatomical free-play’ (Cameron 1995, accessed 29 November 2014). Tyson has used a similar approach in Curtain Figure: the subject is reduced to a series of geometric shapes, so that human form is ambiguously suggested rather than spelled out. As the art critic Andrew Gellatly later wrote of this painting in a review of the Sadie Coles exhibition: ‘[it pares] hands down to their carpels and metacarpels’ resulting in what he calls ‘neurotic figuration’ (Gellatly 1999, p.96).
In picturing abstract, sexually ambiguous figures, Tyson’s paintings address the ways in which gender is represented visually in art and in contemporary culture more broadly. Tyson has stated that her paintings perform a ‘carnivalesque reinvention of the body’ (Tyson in Lauren Christensen, ‘Nicola Tyson on Documenting London’s Underground Punk Movement and Her Latest Photo Exhibit of “Deadly Glamorous” Cats’, Vanity Fair, 8 May 2013, http://www.vanityfair.com/online/daily/2013/05/nicola-tyson-london-punk-movement-photos, accessed 29 November 2014). This was a common preoccupation for feminist visual artists working in the 1990s and gained wider currency following the exhibition Abject Art: Repulsion and Desire in American Art at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 1993, which featured work by the feminist artists Kiki Smith, Louise Bourgeois and Helen Chadwick. Drawing on the writings of the French philosopher Julia Kristeva, whose influential 1980 book Powers of Horror was translated into English in 1982, abject artists focused on the body’s functions and secretions. In Curtain Figure and Tyson’s other works from this period, such as Fingernails 1999 (which was shown alongside Curtain Figure at Sadie Coles Gallery in 1999) and Spilled Guts 1999, the artist presents the body in its distorted, raw state, as a counter to traditional notions of feminine beauty.
Dan Cameron, ‘Nicola Tyson’, Frieze, no.23, June–August 1995, http://www.frieze.com/issue/review/nicola_tson/, accessed 29 November 2014.
Andrew Gellatly, ‘Nicola Tyson’, Frieze, no.47, June–August 1999, p.96.
Supported by Christie’s.