Portrait of the artist as a young feminist: Liverpool art show profiles Sylvia Sleigh

Kevin Bourke
Sylvia Sleigh Felicity Rainnie Reclining 1972 © Estate of Sylvia Sleigh crop

Tate Liverpool gives space to an “extraordinary” yet overlooked artist.

Anyone who has studied the history of art knows that it was until recently a man’s game. Women were routinely ignored by historians and critics for centuries – and yet knowing this fact doesn’t dampen the sense of shock felt when faced with a female artist whose stellar career is only now, some 60 years after it first began, getting credit. That artist is the Welsh-born Sylvia Sleigh, a woman who moved to New York in the 1960s and became an integral part of the feminist art scene there. Her upcoming retrospective at Tate Liverpool is the first UK exhibition of her work since showing at Kensington Art Gallery 1953.

Sylvia Sleigh’s work was in many ways contrary to the art practice of the 1960s and 70s. During a period when abstract and conceptual art was in the ascent, her work was firmly realist. She was known particularly for her explicit, full-frontal paintings of male nudes; images that stuck two fingers up at the traditional art nude, that passive female figure painted and put on a pedestal largely by male artists.

Although not a young artist, she is an emerging artist – she’s emerging from a period of amnesia

It is this desire to paint figuratively that led to her being overlooked in the field of modern and contemporary art, believes Tate Liverpool’s Artistic Director, Francesco Manacorda. The curator has been instrumental in bringing the largest exhibition of her work to date, including forty paintings and eleven works on paper, to the UK. “There are probably two elements to her work being overlooked,” says Manacorda. “One is how inherently suspicious contemporary art has been over the last twenty or thirty years towards photorealism and representational painting. Sleigh was most active in the 1960s and 70s when the most fashionable and accepted art was conceptual or minimalist. Therefore being a photorealist painter then was probably tougher than belonging to any other movement.

“Another element is that she was married to a very powerful critic (Guggenheim curator Lawrence Alloway). In those years, and especially before the feminist battle that she contributed to, that kind of position was probably detrimental to her own career. She was seen as secondary to him, whereas the investigation and forcefulness with which she carried out her self-appointed mission was quite remarkable. That why I hope this exhibition, which is her first solo show in this country since that Kensington show, will help reinstate her reputation as an important feminist painter.”

Sleigh was part of the New York art scene, her house acting as a second home for many of the most famous artists and musicians of the period – many of whom Sleigh painted, observing that “I hardly ever paint people unless I’m rather in love with them”. Indeed, as the Tate Liverpool exhibition demonstrates, “these works radiate a sense of friendship and emotional attachment between the artist and her sitters. Sleigh’s practice produced a body of work that highlights the beauty to be found in every person painted, regardless of their gender and supposed imperfections.”

The exhibition runs in parallel with the inevitably higher-profile Glam! The Performance of Style, a show that focuses on that ridiculously overblown pop style of the 70s, and looks set to make an interesting counterpoint to it. “Sylvia Sleigh is a feminist artist who looked into gender issues that were explored in a completely different way by the ‘glam’ artists,” says Manacorda. “So they can contextualize and reinforce each other, but they couldn’t belong to each other.”

The Tate is one of five galleries behind the show; this exhibition is part of a tour that’s played to considerable acclaim across Europe and “it’s quite telling,” says Manacorda, “that all of those places, unlike ourselves, are mainly dedicated to emerging contemporary art. For me, that has to do with the fact that although she is not a young artist [Sleigh died in 2010 aged 94], you could say that she is an emerging artist, because she’s emerging from a period of amnesia of her work. She emerges today because her work is particularly contemporary. People elsewhere on the tour have loved it but been surprised at when the paintings were made. We’re expecting a similar reaction here, because the paintings really are extraordinary.” 

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