A Beginner’s Guide to Paul McCarthy, 2013’s Most Talked-About Artist

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To people who have never heard of Paul McCarthy, the most interesting thing about his newly opened exhibition at the Park Avenue Armory may be that children aren’t allowed. Titled WS (an inversion of the main character, Snow White), the show really does have an NC-17 rating. And given the content involved ( The New York Times enumerates “plentiful nudity, of both sexes, along with scenes of urination and men masturbating to orgasm, not to mention highly unorthodox use of processed foods”), it would be hard to read this warning as a dramatic gesture on the director’s part.

Even for adults, Paul McCarthy is scary. The sheer weirdness, the confrontational campiness, and the incessant overtones of transgression in his work embody a lot of what people think about when they think about performance art. When encountering his work for the first time, it’s easy to miss out on the aesthetic, political, or philosophical impetus behind that weirdness and scariness.

It’s worth having a primer, then, beginning with the budding installation art movement that McCarthy saw at an early age. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, many of McCarthy’s elders were yearning to break free — not only from the strictures of traditional sculpture and painting, but from the bounds of art-viewing itself. Artists were unsatisfied with merely capturing the everyday nature of human activities with the tranquility of a Dutch still life. They sought either to disturb those activities (like Joseph Beuys and Allan Kaprow), or to recreate them with such worshipful calm that they took on radical new meaning (like John Cage). Instead of art being shown in a quiet, white-and-gray-walled room, it was watched in a warehouse. McCarthy indulged these impulses in works like Couple (1966), a short film in which he slowly pans over his starkly naked subjects with a plain, almost sexless gaze.

Paul McCarthy, Couple, 1966, 16mm film; 15:07 minutes, Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Hauser & Wirth.

[Image via Art Tattler ]

McCarthy also started working in an era of growing discomfort with consumerism. While many of Pop art’s founders responded to the facts of consumer life positively — it was a thrill for Andy Warhol to think that the president of the United States couldn’t drink a better Coca-Cola or a eat a better Big Mac than he could — other artists wondered if the post-war economic boom in the US and Western Europe could deliver the spiritual fulfillment it promised would follow its material richness. Richard Hamilton responded with irony. Ed Ruscha responded with wonder. Paul McCarthy learned to respond with works characterized by a sense of anchorlessness.

Paul McCarthy, Grand Pop 1977, 1977. 20 silver gelatin photographs: each 35.4 x 45.3 cm.

And of course, that anchorlessness could be channeled into something rebellious and politically radical. In addition to the group activism and protest movements of the ’70s and ’80s, whose influence solidified in the art world with the Fluxus group, the Art Workers Coalition, and the Guerrilla Girls, one of the chief influences on McCarthy’s work were the Viennese Actionists, whose experiments in performance tested those basic, quotidian social conventions, as well as the limits of normal palatability.

McCarthy’s take has been messy, provocative, and hostile. For Black and White Tapes (1972), he dragged his naked body across the floor. For Painting, Wall Whip (1974), he smeared his face with food, raw meat, and bodily excretions. For Class Fool (1976), he assaulted himself with ketchup, induced vomiting, and placed a Barbie doll’s head where most people don’t put Barbie dolls’ heads.

The most prominent works from McCarthy’s oeuvre highlight, and the most noticeable features of WS are, the way McCarthy’s sense of rebellion takes sexual form. This, alone, might be all you need to know to appreciate his kind of art, in addition to the understanding that it’s about him. In other words, it’s his sexualization and performance timbre that you’re supposed to appreciate.

The point of showing us Snow White surrounded by a horde of randy-looking dwarves is not merely to eroticize a Disney cartoon. The point is to provoke us into rethinking the blandly shrill sugariness of a German folktale as it had been told by someone as prude, racist, and ruthlessly commercial as Walt Disney.