COLLECTING THE CONTEMPORARY NUDE with Howard Tullman
WM: How many paintings are in your collection and what percentage of them are nudes of some kind?
HT: About 1500 paintings and 65% are nudes of some kind. (975 paintings in the collection are nudes.)
WM: Why are nudes such a focus in your collection?
HT: I think it’s the hardest thing to paint or draw, the human body, that’s one of the reasons. You can get away with a lot if you are doing a landscape, a building, but I think we know instantly if someone has done an accurate reproduction of a human face or body. So that’s why it’s always been of interest to me.
WM: We recognize that “uncanny valley” and immediately notice if a person looks asymmetrical or somehow wrongly put together.
HT: Honestly, we are all asymmetrical so what’s really interesting is that the artist has to make it look correct without symmetry because nobody’s face is identically the same on both sides.
WM. Do other people think it’s odd that such a large part of your collection is nudes? Do you get that reaction?
HT: I don’t usually discuss the percentage. When anyone comes to where we show the work there are a fair number of nudes among the paintings but there’s hundreds of paintings and it’s not as if you walk from room to room and all you see is nudes. There’s a lot of other stuff, there’s a painting of a woman’s head that’s nine feet tall, there are giant Japanese screens and many sculptures. There’s just about anything you can imagine. It’s all figurative and it’s all contemporary but it’s not limited to nudes.
WM: Have you ever wanted to collect any non-contemporary nudes?
HT: We only really buy living artists, we want to support living artists and that’s always been our focus. I don’t have an interest in historical nudes.
WM: The nudes in your collection cover a vast array of styles from comic book campy to hyper-realism. Not many collectors are so diverse. What’s your guideline?
HT: I’m not sure I have any comic book nudes, with the single possible exception of a Peter Saul nude that is so distorted you wouldn’t immediately think of it as a nude. Most of the work that we have is either literal, photo-realistic or narrative. I think that is the range. There’s some stuff that might be considered graphic art. The collection became as broad as it is because after a while all the hyper-realism started to get a little boring and the narrative art felt more interesting, that’s what drove it.
WM: Often, the nude gets tangled up in politics and censorship; it gets called pornography or blasted by political correctness. There is a lot of cultural effort in America to suppress nudity despite freedom of speech. Your thoughts on that?
HT: I’m discouraged that a lot of really good artists aren’t taking advantage of the broad distribution possibilities of the internet and how inexpensive it is to get their work seen, because of exactly that censorship issue. It’s not as big an issue or concern for me personally, because we have multiple venues our homes, where I work, my loft and my other office. So we have five venues. One of the ways I address people’s anxieties about nudity is not to force it, for example in our business office we have a very diverse group, two thousand people a day come through. I wouldn’t subject them to all my choices in art. But in our homes or the art loft, that’s a different situation. Censorship hasn’t really impacted me, but I am concerned about how sometimes I will send an article around; for example Jenny Morgan just had a good magazine review and one of the images was a nude self-portrait and I had a moment’s angst about putting it on Facebook because some of these bozos on Facebook get concerned and over-react. It is an issue. I don’t know how it’s going to be resolved, but it’s certainly not going to get resolved by the government. It has not been something that has directly impacted me.
WM: You’ve been smart — or sensitive — about where to display your nudes.
HT: I’m not trying to make a statement or offend anyone. This is art that I love. Keep in mind, we have more art in this genre than any museum in the world, and making it available to art students is very significant to me. We do this on a regular basis. We have classes of art students come to the loft because they aren’t going to see these examples in their own museums or schools. The museums, by and large, are pretty modest about how much nudity they will display on a regular basis. And museums have very few contemporary realist nudes.
WM: I was at a group exhibition at a prestigious small museum in California, and there were a few nudes in the show catalog. But when I got there, nothing on the walls. I asked one of the organizers and they said they didn’t want to hang art that made anyone uncomfortable.
HT: It’s unbelievable. It’s very strange.
WM: It’s sexual repression. Sometimes nudes are “sexy” — and then sometimes they are just people without any clothes on. Do you find either of these approaches more interesting or productive as a collector?
HT: I don’t have a lot of nudes where the artist went out of their way to make the nude sexy or erotic. Not because I have consciously avoided it, I just don’t feel there are many in the collection like that.
WM: There have been some art collectors, like Charles Martignette, that amassed very large collections of sexy pin-up style art.
HT: Those to me are illustration, not really fine art nudes.
WM: Having made the collecting of nudes such a focus for many years, what do you look for in a nude now?
HT: I look for something now that has execution, is narrative, something that viscerally appeals to me. We don’t buy just to have reference works.
WM: What does it reveal about an artist’s psychology by the way they paint a nude?
HT: Very often I buy work and later meet the artist but I rarely meet the artist in advance. I’ve been shocked at how typical, normal and every day-ish some of the artists are who do some of the most radical work. I think of Nadine Robbins, Victoria Selbach, or Terri Thomas. These people if you met them on the street you wouldn’t think they did nude art or portraits in the nude. I can’t know by looking at any five pieces if an artist is an exhibitionist or terribly distraught. On the other hand Matthew Cherry, he has in his art been really involved in telling the story of many things he’s been going through and his emotional feelings, also how his life continues to change.
WM: Do you feel that when an artist is doing a nude they are letting their wild side come out?
HT: There are a few instances of that, but if you meet the artist, you might discover that wildness was something you read into the work.
WM: I’m thinking of Suzy Smith who could play an All-American mom on TV, but paints pop art nudes.
HT: I think she comes across as a normal suburban housewife, and yet if you looked at her artwork, objectively, you’d say that looks pretty close to beauty-pageant porn. It’s right at the margin.
WM: When any artist, male or female, paints a nude some judgement gets put on it that’s always unfair. If men paint women they are objectifying. If men paint men they are gay. If women paint women they are lesbian. I promised “no censorship” in this issue and I was surprised at how many male nudes were submitted for consideration. A large number.
HT: People ask me all the time why I don’t have more Mapplethorpes or nudes of men. And the truth is there is not that much being done with male nudes in the whole space and even if there were I am not sure I’d find it as attractive or challenging. Some of most interesting nudes I see now are paintings of elderly men and women, amazing work, not focused on the body but on older faces which are remarkable.
Interviewed by Walt Morton May 30, 2017
View of the Tullman Collection Loft, Chicago
Photography by Gregory Rothstein