Sex Sells and Sex Sells in Contemporary Art

Contemporary Art Gary Komarin

It is no great secret that sex sells in advertising and has been doing this quite well for some time now.  A great many products from cars to clothing to perfumes to hair conditioners and even to food products — where sauces are slowly dripped into place and icings on cakes are licked with eager tongues — all use sex to help sell the product at hand.

Sex also sells in Contemporary Art. Not only Contemporary Art, but art of the past several thousand years. Certainly images of loosely clad women in the Japanese and Indian and Chinese Silk drawings engaging in sexual acts illustrates that sex was on the mind of our ancient forebears perhaps as much if not more than in the present time frame.

African sculpture, which is tribal and primitive and quite beautiful in its elemental simplicity, done since the time of Christ (and made for ceremonial  and tribal reasons and not for the art market which did not exist at that time), is chock full of phallic attachments. It is often humorous to me in its directness and simplicity. A standing figure will have a phallus longer than the individual is tall.

Sex sells is evident in contemporary art

More recently Courbet, the great French painter of the 19th century, created an infamous portrait of a woman who is nearly without clothes lounging on a divan, to the delight of the onlookers and the collector who finally bought the piece. It was exhibited privately for a number of years because of its saucy nature.

women melon-sized breasts shows sex sells in contemporary art

Willem de Kooning, Two Women in Still Life, 1952

De Kooning, the great Dutch painter of the last century, became famous for a series of full frontal nudes, each one showing women with enormous melon-sized breasts and wicked wide smiles and huge bulging eyes, all coming together in a great swirl of energy that always reminded me of a Cubist painting on steroids and, perhaps, a good bit of whiskey.

De Kooning of course was following in the footsteps of Picasso who did many paintings and drawings of women in brothels. Picasso’s legacy includes his famous “Woman of Avignon” (Les Demoiselles of d’Avignon) which, while fairly abstract and deeply rooted in Cubist ideas, depicts several woman in a brothel waiting for clientele.

In yet more recent times Jeff Koons, who never shied away from publicity, did a series of paintings of his Italian porn star wife of that time and himself engaging in the sex act. These were clearly a commentary on pornography in contemporary culture.

In a Komarin painting, phallic forms may come and go in the layered and painterly field that sits and surrounds these various forms. For me, a great many forms and objects that we use in daily life as tools, i.e. hammers, mallets, shovels, and even watering cans, can have phallic attachments which are essentially functional, for example, long handles that allow a tool to be more effective in the workplace. That they are often playful and allow the viewer a wide range of interpretations is not why they were created in that fashion.

Freud said, ”sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”… and then again, sometimes it is not.


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