Sweet Intoxication

Martha Edelheit’s The Naked Truth: Works from the 60’s & 70’s at Larsen/Warner in Stockholm overflows with an irresistible sense of sensuality and liberation.

Martha Edelheit, Seals, Central Park Zoo, acrylics on canvas, 188 x 264 cm, 1970–71.

Walls of flesh, walls of skin. This is what greets me at Larsen/Warner in Stockholm, where I am overwhelmed by Martha Edelheit’s nude paintings from the 1960s and 70s. Edelheit has been living in Sweden since the 1990s, but in previous decades she was at the very epicentre, in New York’s avant-garde art scene, where she worked for many years. 

Paintings from this period are now being shown in two small galleries on Östermalm, Edelheit’s first exhibition in Stockholm in decades. Sometimes her naked bodies are close, enlarged in a way that almost obscures what we are looking at. For example, in small pastel drawings, zoomed in to the verge of abstraction, we can discern the volume of a thigh, the folds of a vulva, the curves of a buttock. 

Martha Edelheit, A View of Lake Atitlan, acrylics on canvas, 142 x 183 cm, 1973

The colours are vibrant, some might say psychedelic. But I prefer to call them fruity. Along with fleshy peach tones and blushing insides are blue, green, and yellow; a milky pink nipple is paired with the hues of an overripe banana. Edelheit’s colouring is phenomenal and emerges in the drawings as enticing, tempting, and somewhat repellent. 

This is also the case with the large acrylics, where people are depicted in full. These paintings show extroverted bodies stretching out and entwining. Sometimes they rest on lustrous satin; sometimes they appear in front of landscapes or cityscapes: high rise buildings, lakes and mountains, desert, the seals at Central Park Zoo. 

Martha Edelheit, The Naked Truth: Works from the 60s and 70s, installation view, Larsen/Warner, Stockholm.

These are paintings to lose ourselves in. I continuously spot new details. At first, the more striking ones: luscious and abundant bodies; the women’s long hair; the care put into each nook, bulge of fat, or dirty toe; a small shadow, a small dimple. The figures occasionally close their eyes, as if in sweet intoxication. Sometimes they turn away; sometimes they face us. On closer inspection, other things appear: the angle of a foot; a bedsheet trimmed with shiny oysters on which two lovers rest in the painting View of George Washington Bridge from Monument Valley (1975). 

In A View of Lake Atitlan (1973), a nickel-yellow woman in an armchair locks her eyes on us, introducing an aspect of voyeurism. In other paintings, the subjects appear enclosed in themselves. Kaleidoscopic depictions of the same person from different angles lend a dreamlike dimension to these enchanted portraits.

Martha Edelheit, Fleshcycle, acrylics on canvas, 212 x 173 x 3 cm, 1969.

In Fleshcycle (1969), the dreamlike and trippy elements take over. A naked woman on a motor scooter made of flesh and body parts appears doubled, like on a playing card. Compared to Lee Lozano’s (1930–1999) body parts turning into tools and vice versa, Edelheit’s organic scooters are more joyful, more affirming of the senses. It isn’t about a metal screw turning into a phallus; penetration isn’t being invoked. Rather, the scooter’s curvature echoes the softness of the body, conjuring pleasure and emancipation rather than sexual or mechanical violence. Women and women’s bodies are Edelheit’s main focus, but she also delves into the physical beauty and agency of her models’ unique personas, which emerge in the idiosyncrasy of the large canvases.

This exhibition leaves me thirsting for more. I want to see Edelheit’s paintings displayed in more galleries, in larger formats. I want to be completely immersed in her unique universe. The fact that she has been shown relatively little in Sweden is both inexplicable and unkind. Not as much to Edelheit as to the art audience, which as been deprived of the opportunity to experience her singular paintings. Hopefully, it is not too late to rectify this, and perhaps this exhibition can serve as a wake-up call.

Martha Edelheit, The Naked Truth: Works from the 60s and 70s, installation view with View of George Washington Bridge from Monument Valley (1975) to the left. Larsen/Warner, Stockholm.