Tyler Green
Art-focused Journalism by Tyler Green

Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

PST by the book: The physique magazines

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Perhaps the least publicized element of Pacific Standard Time is the scholarship and catalogues published in conjunction with many of the PST exhibitions. Many of them contribute mightily to our understanding of post-war art in America. This is the second in a series of posts in which I’ll feature excerpts from catalogues published as part of Pacific Standard Time. Today: The Getty’s mulit-author “Pacific Standard Time: Los Angeles Art 1945-80,” which isn’t an exhibition catalogue, but kind of an ur-text for the entire period at PST initiative. If you love contemporary art, this one should be in your library. [Image: Bob Mizer, Cruel Stepbrothers. From "Physique Pictorial" 12, no. 1 (1962).]

This selection comes from a Richard Meyer ’sidebar’ in the Getty book. It’s an essay that details how the first physique magazine, “Physique Pictorial” (which was published in Los Angeles and distributed across the United States and beyond) impacted one particular artist: then-London-based David Hockney. It’s a great example of how the physique magazines — so-called because the mail was then censored and the physique magazines were intended to, ahem, promote health and fitness — have been a key source material to artists, even many decades after the physique mags passed from the scene: Andy Warhol, for example, made work that referenced physique magazines as late as the mid-1980s.

In the late 1950s David Hockney enrolled as a postgraduate painting student at the Royal College of Art in London. While in school, he began to acquire copies of Physique Pictorial, which was just becoming available in the United Kingdom. During his last semester, Hockney’s study of art and his interest in physique photography intersected:

“At the Royal College of Art, in those days, there was a stipulation that… in your diploma show you had to have at least three paintings done from life. I had a few quarrels with them [the faculty] over it because I said the models weren’t attractive enough and they said it shouldn’t make ¬†any difference, i.e. it’s only a sphere, a cylinder, and a cone. And I said, well, I think it does make a difference, you can’t get away from it… So I got a copy of one of those American physique magazines and copied the cover; and just to show them that even if the painting isn’t anatomically correct I could do an anatomically correct thing, I stuck on one of my early drawings of the skeleton and I called it in a cheeky moment Life Painting for a Diploma [left, 1962]. It’s mocking their idea of being objective about a nude in front of you when really your feelings must be affected.”

In responding to the academic requirement for life painting, Hockney insists on the importance of the artist’s libidinal investment in the studio model he depicts. Far from the dispassionate study of the human body as an ensemble of volumetric forms (“it’s only a sphere, a cylinder, and a cone”), Hockney proposes a necessary link between artistic achievement and sexual attraction.

In the next part of his recollection, Hockney proceeds to complain, rather nastily, about the “old fat women” that the Royal College of Art was allegedly in the habit of hiring as life models at the time and the need for what he calls “some better models.” Better, for Hockney, meant young, male, and muscular. According to the artist, he successfully lobbied the Royal College to hire one such model, a man named Mo McDermott, for its life classes — only to discover that “nobody else at the college wanted to paint him; they didn’t like painting male models, so I had him to myself.”

Hockney may have had McDermott all to himself, but in Life Painting for a Diploma he showcased not McDermott’s body but that of an American physique model. At the top of the painting, he included the word “physique,” or rather the bottom two-thirds of that word, reminding us that the body on display had already appeared in a commercial magazine prior to its painted transcription by the artist. Further mocking the directive to study the live model, Hockney appended to his work a sketch of a skeleton in profile — a view of the human body after death, rather than “from life.”

In 1963, while still living in London, Hockney painted a composition titled Domestic Scene, Los Angeles [above, right], which portrays a man in a skimpy apron and tube socks washing the back of his male companion. The space in which this “domestic scene” unfolds is particularly difficult to parse. The showering man, for example, stands in neither a bathtub nor a shower stall but a bucket or planting pot, while, on the right edge of the composition, a red telephone floats free of spatial context altogether. As viewers of this painting, we too are suspended somewhere between reality and reverie.

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