Libidinous, spectral, languid, unflattering: Here are four adjectives to describe the portraits done by the Amsterdam-based South African artist Marlene Dumas, the only woman alive to have had a full-scale painting retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. (This may say as much about the status of painting as it does about gender inequality.) A fifth adjective is divisive: Few other artists have elicited as much acclaim and dismissal as Ms. Dumas, whose humid compositions, in thinned oils and permeated with sex or violence, seem to leave nobody cold. This first New York outing in eight years, titled “Myths and Mortals,” offers evidence for both camps, but more for her boosters — above all, in erotic works on paper as provocative as anything she has ever done.
A series of upright, full-length nudes, many on narrow, 10-foot-tall canvases, are the most assertive paintings in this new show, though not the best. Men and women, as well as one couple, appear against washy backgrounds of vermilion or teal, and the confining proportions make the nudes appear as specimens: A pregnant woman (the artist’s daughter) has her arms pinned up on either side of her face, while a male nude could be a cadaver on the autopsy table.
Like her fellow Dutch-speaking figurative painter (and Zwirner stablemate) Luc Tuymans, Ms. Dumas draws on photographic sources for her paintings — but where Mr. Tuymans saps his subject matter of emotion, Ms. Dumas supersaturates it. That works best here in several smaller close-ups of women’s faces in ecstasy or anguish, with skin of European or African tones, but also of blue or chartreuse. Other pieces feel overheated and underthought, like a garish, vacant Bride of Frankenstein that is both literally and metaphorically drippy.
But the paintings on paper — my word. Ms. Dumas did the 33 works here to illustrate a new Dutch translation of Shakespeare’s “Venus and Adonis,” and although she has not shied from sex before, here her usual bluntness gives way to a rapturous eroticism in which ink has its own salaciousness. She paints the couple, and the boar who kills Adonis, with a watery black wash familiar from Chinese literati painting; the lines of Venus’ hair or Adonis’ arms appear calligraphic at times, while their bodies and mouths are puddles bleeding into one another. The stains of the ink become carnal, indecent smirches — degrading, seductive (the two are the same here) — and in “Venus Mourns Adonis,” just eight and a half inches tall, the tearful goddess’s face and hand drown in an agonizing pool of pigment. Ms. Dumas made her name through art of a certain cruelty. In tenderness, she may have made a masterpiece.