“I wanted to give my perspective, portraying both sexes with dignity and humanism. It was very necessary to do this because women had often been painted as objects of desire in humiliating poses. I don’t mind the ‘desire’ part, it’s the ‘object’ that’s not very nice.” – Sylvia Sleigh
No5A is proud to present the first exhibition of paintings by Sylvia Sleigh in New York since her passing in 2010. Known for her detailed portraits that capture individuals and epochs, Sleigh was one of the most important realist painters working in the post-war era and a key figure in the geographic and ideological downtown scene. Both a Bohemian and a proper lady, Sleigh always managed contradictory aspects well – conservative in her dress, radical in her lifestyle; the wife of a powerful art-world figure and also a deeply ambitious artist in her own life. It is in a way only now in retrospect that we can envision just how groundbreaking and deeply important her work was.
It is fitting that this first posthumous exhibition is taking place in an Upper East Side townhouse dating from 1910 as Sleigh was a steadfastly New York artist despite her roots in Llandudno on the coast of Wales. Sleigh studied at the Brighton School of Art in Sussex before moving to London where she met her second husband Lawrence Alloway, the curator and art critic. In 1961 Sleigh and Alloway emigrated from the United Kingdom to the United States and both became New Yorkers. It is here, in this city of creating and remaking and reimaging that Sleigh settled into a Chelsea townhouse where she lived and painted until her death at the age of 94.
While her husband Alloway is remembered as a highly intelligent champion of Minimal and Abstract art who curated shows at the nearby Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum — Sleigh remained a determined realist painter. Not on-trend, Sleigh was committed to rendering the human form and the personalities of those forms as expressed in their physical self. Her sitters, the models of these sometimes lush narrative paintings, were most often friends from the art world or their family members. In this way her documents are renderings of what the real-life practitioners of Abstraction and their loved ones actually looked like – with and without their clothes.
Sleigh’s paintings span decades of the New York art world, creating physical evidence of those that passed through it in the 1950s and 1960s as well as the 70s, the 80s, and the 90s and on through her final works in 2006. Sleigh would often return multiple times to her favorite muses and vivid outdoor garden scenes finding new details and idiosyncrasies in her subjects through the changing times. Sleigh painted the surface of her subjects’ skin sometimes a dozen times to achieve its quality and texture. When painting her subjects with their clothes on she has left behind some highly significant and historical group portraits. For instance, there stands a work of Lawrence Alloway and art dealer Betty Parsons on the beach. There are also some large group portraits of women artists in New York: “SoHo 20” (1974) ; as well as the members of the women-led A.I.R. gallery (1978). Feminist artist Nancy Spero appears in the latter tableau. But Sleigh’s portraits need not be of recognizable figures in order to be
extraordinary time capsules. Thanks to her obsession with details, we may never forget the “relaxed” hairdos and clothing in the 1970s, or those “clever” patterned bathing suits that American women chose for the beach in the 1950s and 60s. (Also please see the collected stories of John Cheever.) And, thanks to Sleigh, we may never forget the Jacobsen chair. But beyond this surface whereupon details are almost a fetish – her passion or compassion for her sitters runs somewhat deeper. To view her portraits today is to perceive her subjects as she saw their inner quality expressed on the outside and as she fully believed them to be. Quirks and clothing styles notwithstanding – her personal breakthroughs in painting are intense.
Sleigh has been widely credited today as a feminist artist. She was certainly among the first to paint the male nude figure as male painters had long painted female figures, creating the concept in art of “the male gaze.” If Sleigh created or strengthened an alternative concept of “the female gaze,” it was not, however, to co-opt an exploitative point of view where nudity was concerned.
Sleigh’s personal vision as a painter was paramount and she was an equal opportunity painter who saw the beauty in women and men both, and in their surroundings. Some of the more intimate paintings are seen here in their true surroundings: the city of New York.