In organizing the third-floor Drawings collection exhibition Exquisite Corpses: Drawing and Disfiguration, I opted to create groupings based on artists’ common strategies and themes rather than chronology. My hope was that this approach would allow for different kinds of conversations to emerge between artists working with similar concerns at different times. Some of these “conversations” are based on avowed influence: We know, for example, that for a drawing like Rosie Comon, Jim Nutt was looking at Joan Miró’s distinctive combination of automatic line and collage elements. Others, however, to borrow a phrase from the current Costume Institute show uptown, are imaginary; one artist may or may not have been thinking explicitly of a certain predecessor, but their projects seem linked in a way that justifies bringing them together.
One of my favorite imaginary conversations in the show takes place, fittingly, around the very idea of language, and its relationship to the body. The German artist Hans Bellmer said that “the body is like a sentence that invites us to rearrange it, so that its real meaning becomes clear through a series of endless anagrams.” His reference to the type of wordplay that involves reordering the letters in a word so a new word is formed makes sense when applied to the life-size dolls he created in the 1930s. Taking advantage of the possibilities afforded by their ball-and-socket joints, Bellmer manipulated these mannequins in endless configurations, rearranging their parts like words in a sentence, and capturing the results in drawings or photographs. Two works on view in Exquisite Corpses exhibit Bellmer’s anagrammatic impulse. The painted aluminum sculpture Doll reduces a body to a belly surrounded by two pelvises, with ball joints exposed, as if awaiting additional appendages. The delicate cross-hatching in the drawing The Doll emphasizes these bulbous connecting points.
I’m not sure if the contemporary artist Anna Gaskell was thinking of Bellmer when she made her series of Anagram drawings, or if, as in a case of convergent evolution, she was independently concerned with the graphic potential of a manipulated body. Either way, the three Gaskell drawings on view have something to say to the Bellmers across the gallery. In one of Gaskell’s drawings, a pair of legs is split across two sheets of paper; they’re twisted at angles that would be impossible to replicate in real life. In another, a series of individual legs stretches out across the page; there’s a sense that each one might correspond to a letter, with the overall composition spelling out a message, though it’s impossible to read. A third drawing sees a single leg tied up at the top like a sausage; four arms grasp it perpendicularly, forming an “E” with an extra line.
Anyone who had the good fortune to see the recent Paulina Owlowska performance Alphabet as part of MoMA’s Words in the World exhibition will realize that this conversation about the body-as-anagram is a much bigger one. In that piece, performers manipulated their bodies to form the letters of the alphabet, and rearranged the syntax to form a series of words.