Exceptional Works: Marlene Dumas | David Zwirner
A title card with the text Exceptional Works Marlene Dumas The Secret, 1994 Oil on canvas.
A detail of the painting titled The Secret by Marlene Dumas
“The painting is the secret. […] Paintings are silent things. They don’t tell us what to do.”

—Excerpt from a poem by Marlene Dumas, quoted in Marlene van Niekerk, “Seven M-blems for Marlene Dumas,” in Marlene Dumas: Selected Works, 2005

A painting by Marlene Dumas, titled The Secret, dated 1994.

Marlene Dumas

The Secret, 1994
Oil on canvas
78 3/4 x 39 3/8 inches (200 x 100 cm)

Marlene Dumas (b. 1953) is widely regarded as one of the most influential painters working today. Gestural yet monumental, her figurative practice explore the ambiguous and shifting boundaries between public and private selves. More than one hundred works are currently on view in open-endan acclaimed solo exhibition at Palazzo Grassi in Venice.

The Secret is an enigmatic, large-scale painting of a child with its back turned to the viewer. This indelible example of Dumas’s approach to figuration is part of a historic group of works made in 1994 and is closely related to paintings now held in major museum collections. This work is featured on the occasion of the gallerys presentation at Art Basel, 2022.

Marlene Dumas in her studio, dated 2014. Photo by Jackie Nickerson

Marlene Dumas in her studio, 2014. Photo by Jackie Nickerson

Marlene Dumas in her studio, 2014. Photo by Jackie Nickerson

The Secret is among a group of paintings that were shown in the artist’s first solo exhibition in New York, at Jack Tilton Gallery in 1994. Titled Not From Here, the exhibition included images of pregnant women, infants, and toddlers—subjects that gained importance for Dumas in the late 1980s and early 1990s, around the time her daughter was born. Among these works, Cupid is in the collection of the Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich, and The Painter—one of the artist's best-known works, which is currently on view in Venice—is a promised gift to The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Installation view of Not From Here at Jack Tilton gallery in New York, dated 1994.

Installation view, Not From Here, Jack Tilton Gallery, New York, 1994

Installation view, Not From Here, Jack Tilton Gallery, New York, 1994

A photo with Jack Tilton, Marlene Dumas, and Nicole Eisenman during the installation of Not From Here at Jack Tilton Gallery in New York, dated 1994

Jack Tilton, Marlene Dumas, and Nicole Eisenman during the installation of Not From Here, Jack Tilton Gallery, New York, 1994

Jack Tilton, Marlene Dumas, and Nicole Eisenman during the installation of Not From Here, Jack Tilton Gallery, New York, 1994

Writing in 1994 about the works in Not From Here, Dumas explains:

“In a time when we are so aware (or seem to be) of what happens in the world through TV, newspapers and other photobased mediums, painting that refers in one way or another to these issues steps into a whole arena of misunderstanding.... It is however a very exciting place to be in. Because painted human figures remain always imagined beings, that have their own peculiar features and psychology. They are closer to the world of ghosts and angels, daydreams and nightmares than to real people in the streets. In a sense they are always 'not from here'.... In my exhibition Not From Here there's black and white as races. And there's black and white as colors. There's pink bodies and dark blue faces. There's Black people who are yellow and white people who are dark and skins peeling off and eyes left out.

Marlene Dumas in her studio. Photo by Paul Andriesse

Marlene Dumas in her studio, 2018. Photo by Paul Andriesse

Marlene Dumas in her studio, 2018. Photo by Paul Andriesse

Marlene Dumas, Cupid, 1994. Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich

Marlene Dumas, Cupid, 1994. Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich

Marlene Dumas, Cupid, 1994. Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich

A painting titled The Cover-up by Marlene Dumas, dated 1994

Marlene Dumas, The Cover-up, 1994. Museum More, Gorssel, Netherlands

Marlene Dumas, The Cover-up, 1994. Museum More, Gorssel, Netherlands

The Secret depicts a child seen from behind against a dark backdrop. Filling the entire composition, the toddler appears isolated and alone, but also independent, as though they are just beginning to experience the world as an individual. 

“While individuation is necessary,” Gabrielle Mark writes, “Separation from the mother can nonetheless be a source of shame and/or loss for the child.… Attendant, though less fully explored, is the sense of longing and loss that may be experienced by the mother. The Secret plays on this duality by presenting a child with its back turned to the viewer.… The title teases with the promise of a ‘secret,’ but it does not say what the secret is or to whom it belongs. All indicators of identity have been removed … yet the interpretive possibilities multiply exponentially.”

“The figure in The Secret seems like a twin of the figure in The Painter.… Both are single iconic images which, through their isolation and large scale, seem to be assigned to a generation of divinities.… Most certainly they are ‘not from here’ and yet both are familiar.… The offstage object that has been painted by The Painter, as well as the nature of the object hidden in The Secret, is a question of endless suggestion.”

—“Seven M-blems for Marlene Dumas

Installation view of the exhibition titled Marlene Dumas: Measuring Your Own Grave at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, dated 2008

Installation view, Marlene Dumas: Measuring Your Own Grave, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 2008. The Secret can be seen second from left.

Installation view, Marlene Dumas: Measuring Your Own Grave, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 2008. The Secret can be seen second from left.

“Ultimately … the work stands as a testament to the limits of intention and interpretation versus the grace of experience.… One is bathed in the work’s ‘traces,’ … and free to imagine a liminal state of between-ness—a ‘binding factor’ that connects mother and child, artist and subject, while allowing each their distinctness.”

—Lisa Gabrielle Mark, “The Binding Factor: The Maternal Gaze of Marlene Dumas,” in Marlene Dumas: Measuring Your Own Grave, 2008

A installation view of a painting titled The Secret by Marlene Dumas.
“Human beings can’t live without secrets.”

—Excerpt from a poem by Marlene Dumas, quoted in “Seven M-blems for Marlene Dumas”

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