Visitors to the Galerie Iris Clert, Paris, in early 1963 were hardly prepared for the painting that greeted them: a colossal, 40-foot-long male nude, precisely and sensually rendered in full anatomical detail. In Paris and later in New York, Chicago, and L.A., the work was greeted with “shock,” recalls Harold Stevenson (b. 1929, Idabel, Okla.), who conceived The New Adam as an homage to his lover, Lord Timothy Willoughby (though the actor Sal Mineo was his model). Spread over nine panels and initially installed as a three-wall wraparound, the work presents a vast, seemingly unbounded ocean of flesh. Art historian and Guggenheim curator Robert Rosenblum has located it within the American tradition of “Gigantism,” which ranges from sublime 19th-century landscapes of the West to the sprawling abstractions of Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still. The work bears a particular relationship to James Rosenquist’s monumental, multipanel, Realist wraparound, F-111 (1964–65), which it predates. It also engages a much older tradition in art, recalling countless female odalisques, as well as Michelangelo’s iconic image of Adam, whose pointing gesture Stevenson redirects inward, toward the body. The New Adam was once considered for inclusion in Six Painters and the Object (1963), an important early Pop exhibition at the Guggenheim, but it was judged to distract from the thesis of the show. Over 40 years later, the museum is honored to have this landmark of art history join its permanent collection. —Ted Mann
And, of course, no offense to Mr. Mann, but doesn’t that sound like a pretentious way of saying “It’s a very large picture of a naked man that gives a shout-out to Michelangelo’s iconic image of Adam.”?
Still, I like it. The image, if not the description. I mean, other than the bit about Michelangelo’s Adam, not much in that description helps me, as a non-artist, know what to look at (other than, you know, the good parts). So, I say, let’s look at them both side by side.
Okay, yeah, this gives me stuff to think about. Adam is looking at his creator, gesturing towards Him, making eye-contact, on the verge of being instilled with some good God stuff. His body is positioned to be open and beautiful (and naked) in a way that, to me, seems deliberately non-sexual.
The new Adam does gesture inwards. He is covering his eyes. He may be on the verge of being instilled with some good stuff, but… hee… we don’t see that. He’s the only person in the frame. Also, I think, the emphasis is on his body as beautiful as a sexual being.
But here’s what I wonder most about, when seeing them side-by-side. In Michelangelo’s painting, Adam is languid. He’s open to being touched, but he’s not reaching. God is reaching. God is forceful. God is carried with speed towards the being he wants to touch.
In the Stevenson piece, aren’t we situated so as to look through the eyes of the person carried with speed towards the being he wants to touch?
In the first, we’re the observer of one man’s desire for another (in a nonsexualized way, with the caveat that it’s probably unfair to describe God as a man, though He’s depicted as such here) from outside of that desire.
In the second, we seem invited to participate in that desire.
Well, I don’t know. Anyway, I like it.