Text by Marlene Dumas
Described by Deborah Solomon in a New York Times profile as “one of contemporary art’s most compelling painters,” Marlene Dumas has continuously explored the complex range of human emotions, often probing questions of gender, race, sexuality, and economic inequality through her dramatic and at times haunting figural compositions. Originally published in 2010 on the occasion of Against the Wall, Dumas’s first solo presentation at David Zwirner in New York, this much sought-after exhibition catalogue—which sold out shortly after publication—has been reprinted to coincide with the artist’s 2014–2015 European retrospective exhibition The Image as Burden, organized by Tate Modern, London in collaboration with the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam and the Fondation Beyeler, Basel.
Throughout her career, the internationally renowned artist has continually created lyrically charged compositions that eulogize the frailties of the human body, probing issues of love and melancholy. At times her subjects are more topical, merging socio-political themes with personal experience and art-historical antecedents to reflect unique perspectives on the most salient and controversial issues facing contemporary society. The large-scale works included in Against the Wall are primarily based on media imagery and newspaper clippings documenting the conflict between Israel and Palestine, exploring the tension between the photographic documentation of reality and the constructed, imaginary space of painting. The Wall, the painting that began the series, at first appears to present a scene at the Western Wall (also known as the Wailing Wall), an important site of religious pilgrimage located in Jerusalem. However, this work is based upon a photograph from a newspaper that portrayed a group of Orthodox Jews on their way to pray at Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem. Through her delicate treatment of every scene, Dumas destabilizes preconceived notions about what, in fact, is being pictured—engaging the often ambiguous nature of ideas like truth or justice. “In a sense they are my first landscape paintings,” Dumas further notes in the catalogue, “or should I say ‘territory paintings.’ That is why they are so big.” The somber color plates reproduced in the publication are given context by Dumas’s own musings, a text framed as a letter to David Zwirner in which she tries to tell him “about the ‘why’ ” of this powerful series.