Cultural institutions in San Francisco continually search for new acquisitions. Alexis Coe brings you the most important, often wondrous, sometimes bizarre, and occasionally downright vexing finds each week.
In one painting, a nude man poses as a reclining odalisque, a female slave in an Ottoman seraglio. In another, a man's bare back meets the viewer as he directs his attention to five male companions. Sylvia Sleigh (1916-2010) had no problem challenging art history in her paintings, exposing traditional themes as stereotypical at best, and degrading at worst. Women had too often been "painted as objects of desire in humiliating poses," Sleigh once said. "I don't mind the 'desire' part, it's the 'object' part that's not very nice."
Sleigh's subjects were no gods of antiquity favored in Renaissance art, but rather their human counterparts, resplendent with body hair and contemporary apparel. By inserting the male figure into the traditional female role in the 1970s, Sleigh criticized traditional gender roles.
Many of Sleigh's works, however, sought to equalize the genders on canvas. One such example, Lawrence and Susanna Delagado in an interior (1968) was exhibited in November at the SOMArts Gallery, to be placed at a Bay Area cultural institution upon the show's conclusion. Sleigh's estate tasked the Women's Caucus for Art with placing the oil painting, and group president Janice Nesser-Chu contacted Dr. Stephanie Hanor, the director of the Mills College Art Museum.
Mills College, founded in 1852, was the first women's college west of the Rockies. Located in the Oakland foothills, the college has a history of supporting women artists, and art history professor Moira Roth is well-known for her dedication to teaching feminist art history.
Despite the college's longstanding commitment to mentoring female art historians and studio artists, the museum had no pieces by the Welsh-born figurative painter in the collection, a lacuna that Hanor was happy to remedy upon receiving Nesser-Chu's call. Scholars and visitors will certainly benefit by the acquisition, but Hanor believes Mills students will see the painting "as an example of how artists can use their work to forward political views and question historical traditions in art."
Indeed, that is exactly what Sleigh's estate had in mind.
"Sylvia was always worried that she would donate her works and they would go straight to a storage facility," her close friend, Douglas John, recalled during a recent interview. John, who lives in New York, is also concerned with the educational component inherent in Sleigh's work, and he was happy to hear that art students at Mills were already visiting the painting, actively debating all the challenges it presents and its greater place in art history.
In Lawrence and Susanna Delagado in an interior, Sleigh paints two figures in her own living room on West 20th Street in New York City.
"This isn't a grand portrait meant to immortalize its sitters," Hanor explains, pointing out the "wonderful awkwardness" depicted, including an exposed sock and an odd chair. "It conveys a sense of the everyday and the ordinary," she continues, "which in itself is a play on the traditional history of portrait painting."
And yet, the man and woman in the painting are themselves famous. Sleigh's second husband, Lawrence Alloway (1926-1990) was an influential art critic and senior curator at the Guggenheim Museum from 1961 to 1966. He sits with Argentinean printmaker Susanna Delgado.
While the two figures are presented as equals, it is hard to believe that was the reality. According to Hanor, this was the painter's intent.
"Even though in his role as curator of a major contemporary art museum Alloway has significant power in this relationship with a Latin American artist, Sleigh depicts them as peers and as ordinary human beings," Hanor says.
As a recent acquisition, the painting has yet to be on display, but it is available to students and visitors upon request. Hanor hopes to have it on view soon. In the meantime, the museum is digitizing its collection, and Hanor expects that "the painting will be seen virtually in the larger context of our holdings."
The Mills College Art Museum is at 5000 MacArthur Boulevard (at Buell), Oakland. Admission is free.