Marrying the Model

Steven Assael's Portraits

by Donald Kuspit

One of these partisan struggles being waged in the Western world today is the struggle for the liberation of woman. It is a cause of such undoubted merit that one must wish it well. And yet—one cannot help but fear that all this concern with independence will submerge a truth basic to human nature: that men, at any rate, cannot get on without women…

I mean it in the psychological sense. Without the validating love of woman, without the love of his woman, for whom he works and hunts and fights and to whom he brings his victories and his wounds—man in himself would be an empty shell, an ephemeral accident unrelated to the grand purposes of God and world, an idle display.

–Wolfgang Lederer1

Again and again, Steven Assael (b. 1957) paints brides: Fallen Bride (1992–2015), Reclining Bride with Lantern and Two Brides (both 2012), Bride with Lantern and Seated Bride Holding Veil (both 2015). The majestic Apiim (2014) wears a beautiful wedding gown, its whiteness suggesting her virginity, even as the shadow on it veils her. Kristen in Knit Gown (2012) is also majestic, but her gown is red, “the color of fire and of blood and regarded universally as the basic symbol of the life-principle, with its dazzling strength and power.”2 Apiim has black skin, highlighted by white, and Kristen has white skin, partially in shadow, but their physical difference is beside the point, for they are emotionally the same—both life forces. They are powerful figures—enthroned goddesses, as it were, certainly regal presences, fixing us with their gaze as though to dominate us. They command our attention and demand homage and admiration, our worshipful fealty. Certainly, they are worthy of being honored and married by being portrayed.

Assael also paints brides to be. The title of Bridal Preparation (2015), in which a naked model gazes boldly at viewers (initially, the male artist paying court to her body with studious attention), suggests that the naked models seen In Front and Behind the Veil (2014) and Jasmine (2015), holding a veil, are brides, too. Similarly, Nicole with Feathered Purse (2009), Julie (2013), Monica with Legs Crossed (2014) and Alansa (2015)—all clothed—and the naked Asian (2014) are potential brides—of the artist, who marries them by painting their portraits. He gazes at them with respectful care in recognition of their independence, even forwardness—there is not a hint of shyness in any of them.

Not all male gazes treat the female body as an anonymous sex object, however desirable it may be. Assael’s models are persons with character—very particular individuals, as they all have names. Each has a certain emotional depth, an inner complexity, conveyed through the eyes, proverbial mirrors into the soul, as well as by their poise, their

Kristen in Knit Gown, 2012 Courtesy Forum Gallery, New York City

sturdiness and seriousness. They all have an aura of inner purpose, conscious of themselves without being self-conscious, suggesting they are in touch with what the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott called the “incommunicado core of the self.” They are self-contained, seemingly self-sufficient, in need of no admirer or lover, yet Assael admires and loves them, for they are all his brides.

He possesses them by painting them, yet the marriage is not sexually consummated—which I think is the point of Fallen Groom (2015), a secular update of The Temptation of Saint Anthony. It is not sex that Assael wants from them, but love. The sex will come with the love, but the love comes first: one marries for love, not sex, which comes after marriage (or at least used to), and embodies the love, confirming it rather than replacing it. The five brides in Fallen Groom—all his models—stand over his reclining, sleeping body, gazing at him with tender concern rather than lustful desire. They all still have their wedding gowns and veils on; they have not stripped naked to go to bed with him. Nor is he—the groom is a self-portrait of Assael—prepared, let alone eager, to have sex with them. He wears a dark blue suit, along with a blue tie, suggesting he has the “blues.” Pinned to his jacket is a red rose, ambiguously a symbol of love and lust. It is not wilted, but shadowy and isolated, confirming his loneliness. It is certainly not the same richly sensual red that appears in Bridal Preparation (2015) and Kristen in Red Gown (2012).

Bridal Preparation, 2015, Courtesy Forum Gallery, New York City

He is dreaming of the “model brides,” but not ready to marry, not because he is uncertain which one to choose from his harem of models, but because he is not convinced that any of them love him as much as he loves them. They do in Fallen Groom, where they gaze at him with tender loving care—one touches him possessively—but it is only a dream, after all. In the other paintings, they are starkly real and emotionally distant, perhaps even indifferent to him; they turn away from him, as though he is beside the point of their lives, or stare him down, as though “stalemating” him. After all, they are only posing, an artificial situation which has nothing to do with real life. Assael is a masterful painter, but painting the girl of one’s dreams—young girls with flowing hair, signifying the youth one no longer has, for the balding groom is much older than they are, along with the love one desperately needed when one was young—is not the same as painting a real person. As his use of old master props and settings suggests, Assael blends fantasy and reality, but what makes his paintings masterpieces is their clear-eyed realism, not their lavish fantasy.

Assael’s portraits of his recently deceased mother were the most important works, emotionally speaking, in his exhibition at New York City’s Forum Gallery last autumn.3 They speak directly to the point about love: there is no love like a mother’s—especially a mother’s love for her son. Freud remarked that the relationship of mother and son was the deepest and closest of all. A man’s relationship with his wife can never be as intimate—or as emotionally complex—as his relationship with his mother. He is totally dependent upon her love and care at the beginning of his life, and remains deeply dependent upon her at the end of his life, as suggested by the fact that soldiers, wounded and dying on the battlefield, often call for her. A mother’s love is irreplaceable, which is why he memorializes his sick mother in his 2013 Untitled (Mother #11) and his dead mother in Mom (2015), a tour de force conceptually and formally. Assael remained married to her to the end of her life—which is why he never married any of his models, only proposed marriage to them, as it were, by dressing them in wedding gowns—as the wedding veil that drapes her deathbed implies.

Fallen Groom, 2015, Courtesy Forum Gallery, New York CityWe see her full face twice. She is open-eyed, alive and illuminated in one portrait, closed-eyed, dead and in shadow in the second portrait. We also see two portraits of Assael when he was young. He is asleep in both, presumably dreaming of his mother. (He is in bed with her—inseparable from her.) In one, his face, barely visible—it is no more than a sliver of profile—is positioned between his mother’s faces, as though between life and death. In the other, his face is shown in full profile behind his dead mother’s face. Clearly he identifies with her in love and death—and remains young in her presence. The four portrait busts are mounted on a wildly expressionistic white blanket, stormy with shadow, symbolically expressing the turbulent emotions beneath the ostensibly peaceful scene. The blanket is a kind of Abstract Expressionistic sculpture, and also a portrait of death, as the grotesque face embedded in its twisted form suggests. It rises out of abysmal blackness—the blackness of despair, the blackness of the grave. The rectangular white pillows, luminously auratic like a halo, frame the heads, precariously perched on the blanket, and about to fall into oblivion, where there is no love.

Mom, 2015, Courtesy Forum Gallery, New York City

This work is an existential masterpiece, testifying to the one and only true love in Assael’s life, his mother, and the only kind of unconditional, irrepressible love there is, the only love that surpasses understanding—mother’s love, redeeming life from death. Assael never really loved his models, however much he may have been tempted by them. 

NOTES

1. The Kiss of the Snow Queen: Hans Christian Andersen and Man’s Redemption by Woman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 183.

2. Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant, Dictionary of Symbols (London and New York: Penguin, 1996), 792.

3. “Steven Assael: New Paintings and Drawings” (November 12 – December 31, 2015), Forum Gallery, 730 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10019. forumgallery.com.

American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2016, Volume 36, Number 2