Susan Hauptman: Delicacy and Daring

by Allison Malafronte

Susan Hauptman (1947–2015) was an American artist known for her largescale charcoal and pastel self-portraits and still lifes that challenged feminine ideals—among other conventions—in direct, theatrical and sometimes facetious ways. Her recent passing on July 18, 2015 at the relatively young age of 68 has brought fresh attention to her professional accomplishments and to the oeuvre of consistently thought-provoking work she produced during her lifetime. The first thing you notice about her drawings is their fine-textured delicacy; then you realize that subversive daring is working against, yet paradoxically enriching, the old master refinement.

Hauptman received a good deal of critical attention and acceptance from the art establishment throughout her career. Born in Michigan in 1947, she studied at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, the University of Michigan and Wayne State University and first exhibited in New York with the Allan Stone Gallery in 1984. She began showing with Forum Gallery in 1999 and became a staple of their roster for the next sixteen years, with five major solo exhibitions to her credit. During that time, she also exhibited her work at such institutions as the San Francisco Museum of Art; the Corcoran Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C.; The Georgia Museum of Art, in Athens, Georgia; and the Yale University Art Museum, in New Haven, Connecticut, among others. She also garnered regular reviews in such publications as The Los Angeles Times, Art in America, The New York Sun, Art Papers and more. Her work is represented in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Considered a photo-realist by some and simply a representational artist with flair by others, Hauptman had a unique style and singular vision that defied usual definition or categorization. She was continually commended for her skillful draftsmanship and wild imagination, but she was also challenged Hauptman’s tiny details—a deliberate pinhole in the gullet of one figure, slight rouging of part of an ear on another—remain idiosyncratic. Lacking the scathing emotional drive of New Objectivity, Ms. Hauptman’s whiff of corrosion is offered only in irony. Her work does not pretend to be about anything more than her own constructed identities. Therein lies the poison. Her imagery repeats without demur, a reigning lie of contemporary culture…1

L'après-midi D'un Faune Self Portrait, 2014, © Estate of Susan Hauptman, Courtesy Forum Gallery, New York City

Hauptman’s drawings were not necessarily pleasant or pretty: they were quirky, slightly eerie, and often explored concepts and experiences that seemed to trouble or vex her. In some works we see the artist objecting to these ideas; in others there is an amusement that borders on flippancy; and in still others there is a complacency and sense of surrender. In all of her self-portraits, from her first to her last, Hauptman was commendably unflinching and honest with herself. Although there were often stark contrasts and confounding constructs found among the drawings, the artist dared to lay it all bare before her viewers.

Repeated themes in the many self-portraits Hauptman created were her identity as a woman—specifically the juxtaposition of how she saw herself and her gender versus what society saw and expected—and how the presence and gaze of a male affected this viewpoint. In many of her self-portraits from the 1990s and early 2000s, her husband—the writer Leonard Post—figured prominently. Sometimes he was a disembodied head, hanging upside down and gazing sideways at her; other times he was a part of a figurine, or a silhouetted profile in a vase she held onto half-heartedly. Her view of herself was an exaggeration of androgyny and the “butch” stereotype: she sported a shaved head or buzz-cut while simultaneously adopting the frills of femininity with contempt and sometimes confusion. A good example is her ballerina costume in L’après-midi d’un Faune (2014). Her expression was often worn and indifferent, or in some instances beguiling and crafty, as if concealing a secret or harboring an ulterior motive. “As in earlier works, Hauptman’s costumes—a ruffled dress, a grass skirt, a retro beaded sweater—suggest different personae,” writes Suzaan Boettger of Art in America after the opening of her first exhibition at Forum Gallery in 1999: “…Hauptman’s complex consciousness of herself as an artist/maker and woman/wife challenges us to look as closely as she does.”2 Self-Portrait (with feathers) (2007) is a double portrait, with her husband, in clown regalia.

Self Portrait (with feathers), 2007, © Estate of Susan Hauptman, Courtesy Forum Gallery, New York City

Another article from 2000, from the writer Lizzie Zucker Saltz of Art Papers Magazine, suggested that Hauptman’s close examinations of herself were actually not self-conscious. In her review of Hauptman’s exhibition of self-portrait drawings at the Georgia Museum of Art, she writes:

… Susan Hauptman’s life-scale charcoal and pastel self-portrait drawings hold their own at the denouement of a feminist century. The 52-year-old Hauptman, like some menopausal Snow White, eyes the societal mirror warily, daring someone to cease calling her the “fairest of them all.” While Hauptman may be perceived as just one more in a long line of self-deconstructionists, producing gender-destabilizing counter-representations which undermine the stereotypes they flaunt, she integrates such complexities with an unprecedented lack of self-consciousness.…3

Whether in self-portraits or still lifes, symbolism was a consistent part of Hauptman’s body of work. Sometimes it was easy to decipher what the artist was saying through the objects she selected, and other times it was ambiguous. Vases, figurines, fans, frilly dresses and costumes and feathers were regular props in the artist’s stories. While those objects often appeared in black and white, accents of color pop up in the form of beach balls, flowers, candy and signage, as well as prints and patterns on the artist’s clothing or curtains. In many ways she was setting the stage—creating a candy-box mise-en-scène with a film-noir-like undertow to present her surprising thoughts in as theatrical a way as possible.

Although hints of comedy were often at play, Hauptman always pursued her craft with wholehearted devotion and attention to detail. She spent on average three months on each image and was meticulous with her technique. Several critics who reviewed her work noticed the skillful and serious approach belied by her work’s flippancy. Writes Saltz:

Hauptman has spent the better part of the last 15 years scrutinizing herself in the mirror.…The payoff is the existential pitch reached in meticulous, tangible moments—in the glint of dampness under a nostril, the ripple of flesh beneath a perturbed lower lip. Though such technical fluency has long been a noted result of her discipline, as is her effectively sparse use of color, there is no doubt that these latest images represent a quantum leap in Hauptman’s playful strategies. Whereas her earlier self-portrait figures tended to sit or stand passively and iconically at attention, these figures are assertively in the process of doing and becoming something cockily self-contradictory.4

Surely Hauptman’s signature perspective and singular voice are ones that will not soon be replaced or forgotten. Even as a younger artist, Hauptman seemed to always have the forthrightness of someone nearing the end of life who suddenly has the courage to say what she really wants, how she wants, without concern of criticism or judgment. That tenacity, as it were, was certainly one of her standout qualities, as was her committed approach to art-making and her willingness to use her work as a vehicle of powerful communication.

At the news of Hauptman’s passing, Forum Gallery published the following statement on the artist:

With great sorrow Forum Gallery notes the passing of Susan Hauptman on July 18, 2015. The world has lost a gifted artist and we have lost a great friend. For Susan Hauptman, art-making was a fully devotional act. In her absence, Forum Gallery remains devoted to the inspiration she brought to us and countless artists and patrons, and to the exhibition and dissemination of her art.5

 

NOTES 

1. Maureen Mullarkey, “Art in Brief: Susan Hauptman; Drawings,” The New York Sun, December 21, 2006, n. pag. http://www.nysun.com/arts/art-in-brief-2006-12-21/45542/

2. Susan Boettger, “Susan Hauptman at Forum,” Art in America, September 1999.

3. Lizzie Zucker Saltz, “Athens,” Art Papers Magazine, May/June 2000.

4. Ibid.

5. Forum Gallery statement in “Passing of the Gifted,” featured in Fine Art Today http://www.fineartconnoisseur.com/pages/21804668

 

American Arts Quarterly, Summer 2016, Volume 33, Number 3