“In the Swim: Carole Feuerman’s sculptures stay in shape.”


by John T. Spike, Art & Antiques, May 2005

There are tides in the affairs of art. Photorealism made its debut in the ‘60s as an off-shoot of Pop Art, even if few saw the connection at the time. Richard Estes’ paintings of store-fronts and Duane Hanson’s sculpture of a supermarket housewife in curlers were gentle satires of junk-food culture. The irony was evident in the idea of a hand-made art vaunting the objectivity of photographs. Coleridge said that art requires us to suspend our “disbelief” - the superrealists proposed to overwhelm it.

John De Andrea and Carole Feuerman were other pioneers of sculpture that were both life-sized and life-like down to the tiniest details. De Andrea specializes in beautiful nudes whose blank expressions relate them to the emotional coolness of Minimalism and conceptual art. Unlike Hanson and De Andrea, Feuerman’s sculptures don’t give us the jumpy feeling they might be real people beamed down into the museum gallery. She tends to compose her figures in significant fragments, heads and torsos that are real enough to touch but not shake hands with. Her intimate individualism made her works out of step with the avant-garde movements of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Now, to a new generation of realistic sculptors, she looks like an old master.

“Catalina” of 1981 is from Feuerman’s signature series of swimmers. Each is named for a different island. She chose islands because they represent isolation from other lands. “When a swimmer submerges into the water they escape the stresses of the outside world, and they emerge cleansed and invigorated,” she says. “I tried to freeze that moment.” The water beads up on the swimmer’s glowing arms and shoulders, yet “Catalina” is not the usual invitation to fine art voyeurism, nor is it even about the attractiveness of this woman. It’s about how good she feels.

According to Allen and Barbara Pease, authors of the best-selling Why Men Don’t Listen & Women Can’t Read Maps, women have thinner skin than men, which makes them dramatically more sensitive - 10 times more - to the sense of touch. Skin has been called the largest organ of the body. Perhaps “Catalina” is an image that could only have been made by a woman. Certainly it helps to be a woman to identify with it, especially a woman who likes to swim (or so my wife tells me).

Capturing the tingling sensation of sun, sea and a good workout may not be a theme in the lexicon of post-modernism, but it’s one of the simple satisfactions that keeps teachers and office workers dreaming for the other 51 weeks of the year. Bernard Berenson praised Renaissance art for its “life-enhancing” qualities, by which he meant its truth to life. Feuerman’s ongoing celebration of healthy sensuality is a late 20th-century revival of those same values. Who says you can’t swim in the same river twice?


John T. Spike is a former director of the Florence International Biennial of Contemporary Art and author of more than 20 art books.