Paula Cooper Gallery is pleased to present Bathers, a group exhibition exploring the motif of the bather across eighty years of painting, drawing, photography, and collage. On view at the gallery’s Palm Beach location, the selected works expand on the dynamic possibilities of the genre articulated in the paintings of Cecily Brown, for whom the bather is a rich and compelling subject. Artists in the exhibition include: Milton Avery, Jennifer Bartlett, Cecily Brown, Deborah Brown, Paul Cadmus, Sarah Charlesworth, Jean Conner, Robert Colescott, Eric Fischl, David Hockney, Cheyenne Julien, Alex Katz, Sherrie Levine, Christian Marclay, Sigmar Polke, Laurie Simmons and Bob Thompson.
Both ephemeral and corporeal, Cecily Brown’s impassioned and expressive bather paintings exemplify the pleasurable and celebratory ethos of post-impressionist bodies in nature. The aptly titled Palm Beach Blues (2023), one of two new bather paintings in the exhibition, includes a nude seen from behind in the moment of undressing, a recurrent theme for Brown. Three watercolors by Robert Colescott consider the motif’s potential to anchor the political in the poetic––while discussing his Bather series, Colescott described the works as statements on “competing standards of beauty, and also about the intrusion of the white world on a black world.” Set in a fictional Eden filled with interracial encounters, the mysterious Gift of the Sea (1984), depicts a group of black and brown women surrounding an unconscious white woman who has washed ashore.
Alex Katz and Eric Fischl are drawn to pools, oceans and lakeside views where their subjects relax, undress, and appear at ease. Both artists have captured the informal human sociability that takes place on the beach, where bodies are thrown into relief against sunlit sea and sky. Christy (2015) is one of a number of paintings by Katz of fashion model Christy Turlington. Sporting a modest black bathing suit and posed with her hands behind her head, Christy’s easy confidence mirrors the immediacy of Katz’s conversational painting style. In Eric Fischl’s The Lesson (Mostly Forgotten) (2018) the artist employs dramatic beach lighting to vividly render naked flesh in a rich variety of tones. Fischl’s evocative title works with his arresting intergenerational figures to hint at an enigmatic beach day of distant memory. Paintings by Cheyenne Julien portray intimate scenes and relationships from the artist’s life in New York City. In a new painting made especially for this exhibition, Julien depicts two bathers enjoying a beach day at Coney Island, awash in rosy a golden-hour glow.
The California-born Jennifer Bartlett was a devoted bather, and aquatic themes frequently permeate her work. Six A.M. (1991-92) is from AIR: 24 Hours, a series of twenty-four paintings marking each hour in the day. The series documents the passage of time, depicting intimate scenes from the artist’s daily life. In Six A.M. a showerhead, faucet, and soap-stand float on an atmospheric pink and blue grid of porcelain bathroom tiles, registering the specific iconography of an early-morning bathing ritual. An abstracted bather is the subject of Sarah Charlesworth’s White T-Shirt (1983), excised from a magazine and re-photographed against a black background. Charlesworth exposes the viewer’s desire for the toned torso outlined by clinging wet fabric by isolating the body from its original context.
Despite the titillating voyeurism and joyful naturalism of outdoor bathers, the ubiquity of running water and policing of public space encouraged artists to retreat indoors and embrace bathing as a private ritual, as with Sigmar Polke’s curiously captivating Untitled (Frau in Badewanne) (c. 1963). Pierre Bonnard’s Nude in the Bathtub (1925) is depicted from the perspective of the bather, their legs elongated in a deep porcelain tub in a domestic interior. Challenging ideas of originality and authorship, Sherrie Levine framed and presented multiple postcards depicting Bonnard’s painting, underlining the motif of the bather as popular and picturesque object of contemporary cultural discourse.
 Robert Colescott in Lowery Stokes Sims, “Colescott in the 1980s and ‘90s: Stranger in a Strange Land,” in Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott, exh. cat. (Cincinnati: Contemporary Arts Center, 2019), p. 95.