Dead Letter Men: Nicola Tyson Reads at Petzel


Last week in New York at Friedrich Petzel’s Chelsea gallery English painter Nicola Tyson read letters she’s written—mostly to artists, all to men—while standing in front of the paintings that make up her current solo show there [through Nov. 5]. In a double-breasted charcoal suit, the fair-skinned, redheaded artist cut a dramatic figure as she took to the microphone and explained that she was flustered after a challenging day: “My car broke down today on the Thruway.”


By way of introduction, Tyson explained that her letter-writing started when Ridykeulous (a multi-platform project by artists A.L. Steiner and Nicole Eisenman) invited her to participate in “Readykeulous: the Hurtful Healer: The Correspondance [sic] Issue,” an exhibition the collective organized at New York gallery Invisible-Exports in 2010. She submitted one letter, “Dear man on the street,” and since then the enterprise had taken on a life of its own, the letters to artists coming later. “I didn’t so much want to write about my own work,” the artist told the audience, “and this gave me an opportunity to write around it.”

The reading started with “Dear man on the street,” a tirade against hecklers who call out to Tyson to smile as she walks by with knitted brow. An annoyed Tyson: “I resent even the energy expenditure in just the act of ignoring.” All too often, as a reflex, she smiles, and is “instantly sodden with disbelief, shame, and the poison of self-betrayal.” This tortured relationship with the opposite sex sets the tone for the remaining five epistles, all of which are addressed to past masters of painting. Each letter is playfully resentful and lovingly confrontational and easily runs to over 1,000 words. The artist raced through them in less than an hour.

Tyson proceeded with “Dear Picasso,” which grew out of a journalist’s question about whether Tyson had been influenced by the Spaniard, “which I thought is a bit like asking if my diet had been influenced by Monsanto.” She’s tired of him now. “Christ,” she says, “all those clunky female—what else?—nudes . . . I can count a million of them just from where I’m sitting right now.”

As a frequent point of comparison for those writing about Tyson, Francis Bacon was, perhaps inevitably, on the roster (“I’m getting so weary of how often my work is compared to yours!”). Riffing on gay slang for sexual roles, Tyson writes to him, “I was seduced into wanting to be a top to your bottom, or rather I wanted to top your painterly top, except that you weren’t really a top . . . Anyway, I wanted to top patriarchy and that included homosexuals ‘cos they still had it better than women.” Apparently minorities, too, can be oppressors.

Addressing artists from the past leads Tyson to piquant observations on the present. Noting that James Ensor lived through the Surrealist period without seeming to notice it, she muses, “I don’t even know why people use the word anymore, as in ‘It was so surreal.’ What isn’t? Surrealism is the norm now, and reality the tricky concept.”

It might be too easy a device to describe the acid hues of Tyson’s excellent paintings as a fitting backdrop to the sharp wit on display in the missives. Or to find in the ambiguous, awkward duos that populate the canvases an analogue to Tyson’s uneasy relationship to the men she writes to. Yet those were the linkages that sprung to mind. When A.i.A. later asked a perhaps obvious question—no letters to Artemisia Gentileschi, or, say, Louise Bourgeois?—the artist replied, “I have no beef with them!” Maybe, though, under the right circumstances, she’d sit down with them for a side of Bacon.