Using the body's largest organ as art supply.

skinlang1.jpg Catherine Opie; Self Portrait/Cutting, 1993; Chromogenic color print; 39 5/8 x 29 15/16 in. (100.7 x 76.1 cm); Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from the Photography Committee 94.64; © Catherine Opie

We know it as the human body’s largest organ and as a faithful reporter of sensory information, but our skin is simultaneously a ready billboard, equipped to tell the world who we are and, both literally and metaphorically, where we’ve been. Skin Is a Language examines these dual roles.

Tucked into a top-floor gallery at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the exhibit isn’t tremendous in scope, but its impact is remarkably lasting. And that itself speaks to one of the collection’s main points: Beyond expected themes like race, age and tactile experience, the exhibit examines themes of permanence—what vanishes; what lasts; what seems to vanish, but never will.

The complex connections between skin and society thread through many of these works. Glenn Ligon‘s Untitled (Ralph Ellison) (oil on paper, 1994) offers text from Ellison’s Invisible Man—invoking racial issues without actually showing the skin that is their basis. Annette Lemieux‘s three-piece lithograph Stolen Faces (1991) presents soldiers’ bodies, with their varying skin tones rendered clearly but their facial features a blur. This piece has a particular resonance in this day that the artist couldn’t have forseen, as it addresses a conflict we now refer to as “the first Gulf War.”

Catherine Opie‘s Self Portrait/Cutting (chromogenic color print, 1993) shows the artist’s bare back. Cut into her flesh is a stick-figure scene: a cottage, a cloud, two birds and two female figures in the foreground, holding hands. A peripheral image is the ink tattoo on the artist’s right arm. Presumably, that tattoo will last as long as Opie’s flesh does, but viewers are left to wonder about the scars—bothphysical and psychological—that the tableau will leave on its maker as well.

Technical questions about the work also arise: One viewer wondered aloud whether Opie had done the cutting herself (this work is described, in texts on Opie, as an “automutilation”). Another wondered, frankly, how she had gotten all her incisions to bleed at the same time. No clear answer is offered, but if skin can be our canvas, as this work makes clear, then blood can be our paint. Nearby—continuing the theme of body material as art supply—is Bruce Conner’s Medusa, a wax sculpture from 1960, showing a head that seems to be either rising from or melting into the surface on which it rests. The piece includes human hair—as well as rubber tubing and nylon stockings—among its materials.

A work by David Wojnarowicz is perhaps the emotional core of Skin. Untitled (1992)—the year of Wojnarowicz’s death from AIDS, at age 38—is a screenprint with text in a shade evoking dried-blood over a black-and-white gelatin print of the artist’s hands, wrapped in dirty bandages, palms raised as if to beg. Enraged about the AIDS epidemic, the artist addressed it in his life and his art: Many were dying “slow and vicious and unnecessary deaths,” he said, “because fags and dykes and junkies are expendable in this country.”

The vividly candid text shown is from the artist’s Memories That Smell Like Gasoline (1992), an illustrated memoir:

“The person I was just one year ago no longer exists…I can’t abstract my own dying any longer.”

“I am shouting my invisible words. I am getting so weary…I am vibrating in isolation among you.”

“I am waving. I am waving my hands. I am disappearing. I am disappearing but not fast enough.”

Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ contemplative Untitled (Sand) (photogravure, 1993-1994) is a sort of companion piece to the Wojnarowicz. Its images are of sand covered with footprints—the feet that created them have passed from view, and we are asked again to consider what permanent means.

Gonzalez-Torres, a Cuban-American artist, also died of AIDS, in 1996, at age 39. His piece and the exhibit itself remind us that our lives are our legacies—and that our skin can leave its mark even after it has moved on.


Skin Is a Language will be on exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art through May 21, 2006. All of the pieces in the collection reside in the Whitney and will be available for viewing at exhibit’s end.

skinlang2.jpg Annette Lemieux; Stolen Faces, 1991; Color lithograph and photo-lithograph 30 3/16 x 94 1/8 (76.7 x 239.1). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from the Print Committee 91.45a-d. Photograph courtesy I.C. Editions, New York; © Annette Lemieux.

Originally published April 27, 2006

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