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June 18th, 2012 - 08:12 AM
Harold Stevenson painted Sal Mineo as The New Adam in 1962. It is considered by many art critics to be the “great American nude,” even though it was born in Paris. I consider it to be the great American dinosaur.
Sal Mineo was only 24 and already descending from the height of his fame. He never became the new James Dean, just as the painting never became the new Adam. The artwork is hardly mentioned in art history books, but holds a place in the collections of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The usual interpretation is that it is a representation of homoeroticism.
It is composed of nine sections eight feet high and 39 feet long. It is impossible to view all at once, even at a distance. You can’t get far enough away from it to see it altogether. It is often shown bent in the middle at 90 degrees and covering two walls. Stevenson intended to cover all four walls of a room, leaving no exit for the viewer.
He painted The New Adam for a pop-art show at the Guggenheim in 1962, but when the curator saw it in the raw, rejected it, because it was too large and stark. To be sure, it popped as an in-your-face proclamation on gay freedom, but Stevenson didn’t know that Sal Mineo was a famous gay actor when he painted him. Mineo was supposedly a substitute for someone else who was unavailable. His hand covers his face, which might be hiding the artist’s inability to paint a good portrait, or deference to the friend he wanted to paint in the first place.
The size of the work works against itself. It shows only the torso of Mineo’s body. This suggests the freedom possessed by the new Adam, the inability to be captured totally, least of all by paint and canvas and the museum it hangs in. The main parts are there in full glory, and his all-important hands, obviously belonging to Adam himself and no one else, though the visual connection is not made. The hands are mirror images and reversals of the ones painted by Michelangelo in the Creation of Adam. This is not the instant of creation, but one of narcissism and denial, not only of the face but of the body.
Our understanding of the body as a being-in-the-world depends upon our perception of the body’s horizons, its relationship to objects around it. The philosopher Sartre posed the illustration of a baby who crawls off a plank, because he does not perceive empty space at the edge. The New Adam denies our knowledge of his body, not only because we cannot perceive and master its size, but because the body is cut off at the edges. We cannot walk to the edge of the plank and experience our being. Adam creates himself and we are not invited. “I exist my body!” (Sartre). Even inside you, I exist my body, which can never create another body.
But isn’t this true of all two-dimensional paintings on canvas, that the objects they depict cannot be perceived fully and really but only imaginatively? Yes, but this is the beauty of art, that it allows us to perceive two dimensional images as three dimensional objects. It exalts our powers of perception and understanding. Cezanne, Picasso, and Matisse made a point of showing their images fully and completely on canvas, and not hiding any aspects from the viewer. This was precisely the meaning of cubism, fauvism, surrealism, and even pop art. It can be said that multiplicity, as in the case of Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans, is a greater statement of denial, for though the artist puts everything on the table, the viewer cannot really know the full measure or being of the objects that exist on it.
Enormousness is not a sign that a new Adam has been born. Dinosaurs were enormous but became extinct 65 million years ago. Five-foot-eight Sal Mineo was probably the spitting image of Adam, but Stevenson didn’t know it.