Iggy Pop Life Class by Jeremy Deller
Jeremy Deller: ‘Even though Iggy Pop's body has been photographed and reproduced in print millions of times I felt it could only be properly understood and appreciated by being drawn – the process in which you give the subject the attention it deserves.’
When iconic rock musician Iggy Pop, like many other future music stars, went to New York as a young man in order to make some money, he posed a few times in the nude. And because it was New York City, not his hometown (a working-class area of Detroit), he happened to model for famous photographers, such as Bill King working for Vogue, or Richard Bernstein and Gerard Malanga from the Warhol Factory.
The latter said in an interview for Dazed magazine: ‘What is fun for me, though, is photographing someone who is not famous at all. Those faces are not at all self-conscious, and so reveal so much more than what a famous face might try to hide or disguise. In that instance, the viewer's mind blocks out all else and only leaves the residue of fame. A truly successful picture, I hope, would go beyond that. I think I have achieved this in my naked Iggy Pop portrait.’1 Malanga’s photograph from 1971 has become one of the iconic images of Pop. Weirdly enough, forty-five years later – when he posed for a group of artists for the Jeremy Deller’s project of the Brooklyn Museum - his now 69 years-old body looks almost exactly the same.
‘Flipping through photographs of performances from San Francisco to Amsterdam, 1970 to 2016, Pop maintains an impossibly fresh-from-the-gym physique.’ He ‘is peacocking Michelangelo-worthy abs’ reads the article titled ‘Iggy Pop Holds the Secret to Maintaining Ageless Abs Forever’ in the American edition of Vogue.2 It is not surprising then that his muscular, pliable body has become a graceful subject for a life class study.
Iggy Pop is one of the most recognizable personas in popular culture. Throughout his career he has been well known not only for his music (such hits as The Passenger, Lust For Life or Kill City), but also for the image of his naked torso. ‘His body has witnessed much and should be documented’, noted Deller. Why particularly by drawing? The recipient of the Turner Prize believes that the best way to understand something is to study it. ‘Even though his body has been photographed and reproduced in print millions of times I felt it could only be properly understood and appreciated by being drawn – the process in which you give the subject the attention it deserves’, he explains in an exhibition catalogue.
And being faithful to his beliefs he approached the Brooklyn Museum in New York to organize a life class with Iggy Pop as a model. Dating back to 1841, drawing from a life model has had a long tradition in this museum, which has provided an art education by organizing open classes. Arranged by Deller and Brooklyn Museum, the one-day drawing session, led by artist and drawing professor Michael Grimaldi, took place at the end of February 2016 at the New York Academy of Art, and included twenty-two art students of various ages (between 19 and 80 years old).3
‘We were keen to identify a group of artists who would reflect the diversity of New York City, as much as twenty-two people can’, says Sharon Matt Atkins, Vice Director, Exhibitions and Collections Manager of the Brooklyn Museum. The group of participants was chosen by asking drawing instructors from diverse art institutions in New York (amongst which were New York Academy of Art, Art Students League of New York, Pratt Institute, Kingsborough Community College, and Gallery/Studio Program at the Brooklyn Museum) for recommendations. Students were informed about the premises of the project, but the identity of the model was unknown until the very last minute the class started.
Naturally, most drawing models remain anonymous, but in this case a rock star and idol was concerned. Iggy Pop is an icon, an art work himself. Almost everyone knows what he looks like, and probably most of the drawing class participants could depict him with their eyes closed. But after all, this is not what all this was about. The body needed to be seen as a collection of geometric solids; it was necessary for participants to eliminate the pop-cultural connotations from Pop’s body. Paraphrasing what Malanga said, a truly successful picture would go beyond the residues of fame. Pop’s body - not always in a flattering pose - was looked at and inspected in a different way than before – by admiring gazes of fans and fleeting glances of photographer’s lenses.
‘I am the first to admit there is a degree of absurdity to the idea of convincing someone, who is known for his dynamic stage presence, to be still for four hours’, confessed Jeremy Deller. The drawing session consisted of a few five-minute poses and one long one, which setting resembled to a classical seated figure of authority and power. ‘One can imagine Pop as a naked, unidealized version of the Napoleon in an Ingres painting’, said Atkins. The session resulted in a hundred drawings, half of which are currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum.
Iggy Pop Drawing Class by Jeremy Deller found its place in the backroom of the permanent exhibition of the museum’s collection, between American Art galleries and the art of indigenous peoples (Life, Death and Transformation in the Americas). One of the main premises of this project was to donate the drawings to the Brooklyn Museum, offering them to the public institution as a ‘gift to the Nation’ (as Pop said), residing between other artefacts from world history and cultures. ‘I was interested in the cross section of people that we had in life-class, and it was like America is looking at you, in a way. To me it was very moving’, said Deller in a conversation with Pop.4
The exhibition display includes two to three drawings by each artist (from sketches to more developed studies), accompanied by some objects from the museum’s collection featuring male nudes, which range from reliquary and tribal objects (like statues of Buddha or figures form Egypt and Nigeria) to Dionysus Torso, canonical Eadweard Muybridge’s series of photographs and Egon Schiele’s nude self-portrait to more contemporary art works (by artists like Max Beckmann and John Coplans). Deller wanted to see this selection as a juxtaposition of sacred and profane, holy and intoxicating, ‘which is the basis of rock-and-roll’.
But the very classical exhibition design – with properly framed, regularly hung pictures and artefacts in the glass cabinets – does not really express this tension. The drawings are clearly separated from the collection’s objects. They do not get into each other’s way; there seems to be no dialogue between them. Everything appears to be too neat (not to say stiff and fusty) in comparison with what we are used to see now in contemporary art museums.
Today, this kind of drawing rarely leaves the artist’s studio. Placed in an exhibition context, the drawings say more about the authors than Iggy Pop himself. He became a body, a flesh stripped of his stage aura. Although the names of the artists are mentioned on labels and all over the catalogue, Jeremy Deller refers to ‘drawings’, not to ‘art works’. The project as a whole is the art work; there is no doubt about that.