Think Rossetti and his best friend’s girl, Jane Morris; Bonnard and his bathing beauty, Marthe; Man Ray’s giant painting of Lee Miller’s American lips; Picasso and Olga, Marie-Therese, Dora, Francoise… Our museums are full of heartbreakers. The love lives of others have always made for good viewing.
Pictures like these pull us into serial, looping relationships with their subjects; we see them through our own eyes, then objectively through the eyes of the artist, who is observing their subject’s response. Love’s relics—a creased pillow or scrap of familiar handwriting—can also cast powerful spells.
I’ve chosen ten of my art-about-the-beloved favorites for these pages—artists and their modern muses who transcend the sentimental. I found more men looking at women than women looking at men. Interestingly, while more examples of women rendering beloved women are emerging, and men looking at men has always been popular, I found that examples of women looking adoringly at men were few. There are exceptions (like Elizabeth Peyton’s weak-kneed watercolors of Tony Just), but it seems straight women artists have not been as forthcoming with ardent visual meditations on boyfriends or husbands.
In an art climate of celebrity and colossus, this kind of work holds steady. There will always be love stories; there will always be different ways of saying it. Ever a mix between schmaltzy and divine, love will keep us together and love will tear us apart.
The artist explains, “I used to make depressing paintings, and still might, but Erin’s willingness to let me make work about her, and the way that her influence on me has changed my life, has also changed my work.” Brad Phillips’s paintings of his wife, Erin, have a buoyant, private-joke-like quality, also a strong feeling that her enthusiasm for her husband’s work is an extension of her love for him.
A. L. Steiner’s closest relationships are on full display in her pictures, where we see her grappling with the push and pull of intimacies and entanglements and historic emotions. She describes all of her work as “works-in-progress,” which—as a statement—suggests an old-fashioned paradigm of the artist’s humility toward her muse. But at the same time Steiner’s beauteous, forceful, dreamy, and arresting images of women banish the idea of the passive model.
Don Brown’s sculptures of his wife, Yoko, reference several versions of perfection: technical and physical, Greek and feminine. The pieces remind us of that wonderful finite feeling when we are convinced that the person we love is perfect. Brown’s pieces suggest we don’t necessarily have to stop believing it. He often sculpts his wife at three-quarter scale, tenderly giving in to the temptations of objectification. We don’t always have to love warts and all—sometimes it feels good to worship.
A relaxing feeling of trust radiates from John Currin’s studies and paintings of his wife, artist Rachel Feinstein. In Rachel as The Hag, a study for the painting Thanksgiving, Feinstein is intently focused on a detailed task. The masterful drawing of her face, though not conventionally flattering—double chin, protruding lips, slack expression—is a sweet ode to an unselfconscious moment.
As a British conceptual artist of the ’60s and ’70s, Keith Arnatt’s work in found objects was subversive and provocative. In Notes from Jo 1990–94, he brings a lighter touch to the found and absurd. After his wife died in 1996, Arnatt photographed eighteen small notes she’d left for him over the years. Rather than mournful, his selection of notes are hilarious, and sweetly layered. The note IN BED BUT AWAKE could mean either I’m not waiting up for you but if you want I’m happy to chat to you for a little while before we kiss nicely and fall asleep… or I’m still mad at you so don’t think you’re getting away with it this time, we need to TALK. We don’t know which, but either way these are eloquent portraits of love.
Not Vital’s drawings and sculptures of his boyfriend carry both violent and tender gestures. In his work, Vital, who splits time between Switzerland and Niger, renders the organic and inorganic with a cool, wry, perspective. His work using his boyfriend as subject matter (the least sentimental in this lot) speaks less about love and more about wary invitation.
Big racks, thighs and calves famously dominate R. Crumb’s drawings of women. Crumb’s wife Aline has been his model, subject, and co-conspirator for years. Their artistic partnership foregoes all niceties of romantic portraiture; the beautifully rendered drawings are cartoonishly carnal, and dialogue (often Aline’s observations) can be harshly self-mocking. Yet one gets a deep sense of the artist’s adoration of his partner—his fetish is so fully inflated it’s impossible to see as deviance.
Filmmaker Jem Cohen’s work deftly expresses and hooks our notions of memory and time. I watched his short 4:44 more than ten years ago and still consider it one of the most romantic things I’ve ever seen. It’s a quiet evocation of a meaningful walk between a beloved’s house and his; a kind of poem about what we notice and commemorate when we are caught up in love, and our personal prayers of longing. A walk is both a public and a private activity. Cohen’s film is pitch-perfect internal dialogue wrought visually, a moving glimpse into the emotional mind.
Mariette Althaus was Sigmar Polke’s girlfriend between 1969 and 1974. During these years Polke experimented with photography, using chemicals and fixers to achieve the flaring and layering techniques that would inform his later work. In a series of photographs he took of Althaus at this time, she is frolicking naked in a garden, fanning herself with a wad of cash from his first major sale, and goofily sticking out her tongue. The spirit of the pictures reflects Polke’s irreverent and joyful approach to art-making, giving us a bright glimpse into some of the levity and laughter in his emotional life.