Meaty Matters: “Soutine/Bacon” at Helly Nahmad Gallery; Keith Haring at Gladstone Gallery

Portrait of the Sculptor, Oscar Miestchaninoff by Chaim Soutine.

Looking at Chaim Soutine’s 1925 oil painting Flayed Beef is like taking mescaline in a slaughterhouse. Many artists start with studies, but Soutine did little drawing; he did almost everything with paint, and you can see it in both the ethereal freedom of his shapes and the fact that he manages to get more color into every square inch than you’d think canvas—or the eye—could hold.

The decapitated carcass is suspended by its legs, as it would be in the market, but Soutine makes it look more like it’s doing an exuberant backflip. Paint is equated with flesh, as in the ordinary artist’s eucharist, but then flesh, in turn, is equated with life—a life unaffected by the death of any one organism, by the exchange of growth for decay. Slaughter becomes the liberation of life force.

Art historians Maurice Tuchman and Esti Dunow, who curated “Soutine/Bacon” at Helly Nahmad Gallery, explain in their catalogue essay that Soutine was inspired by Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Ox, which he saw in the Louvre, to buy a carcass of his own. One of his neighbors called the police, because—as you can almost infer from the painting—he tried to keep the carcass fresh, while he was working, by dousing it with extra blood.

Mr. Tuchman and Ms. Dunow also suggest—in fact, it’s the premise of their show—that what Soutine got in the Louvre from Rembrandt, the younger English painter Francis Bacon got in London from Soutine. But while Soutine’s revelation concerns the motion in flesh, Bacon addresses the motion of flesh. For Bacon, as for Soutine, color is no mere partner of line, but a complete force in its own right. But where Soutine simply juxtaposes his colors, leaving their relationships to be implied like afterimages, Bacon pushes them together to create distinct eddies of tension. It’s as if he were using a stripped-down, mathematical rigor to uncover the laws that order Soutine’s explosions.

In Bacon’s painting Triptych (Left Panel), a plucked fowl hangs from a taut line over a pile of its own gray feathers. A dark outline creates a virtual room into which the bird hangs—the taut line stretches through the room’s ceiling to the top edge of the canvas—but aside from the bird, its feathers, and the gray counter on which they rest, we see only a field of rich, bloody orange. A red arrow points to a blushing spot on the bird’s naked breast, and it bucks its legs and flaunts its wings in a kind of Vaudevillian slapstick routine. As in a well-considered joke, this gesture unifies the painting by simplifying it: everything points to the punchline.

Soutine’s maximalism and Bacon’s minimalism continue on the gallery’s second floor, where raw flesh is confined to portraits and landscapes. In The Old Actress, Soutine gives us precariously dignified desperation: her thinning hair; enormous, glassy eyes; and coquettishly dropped shoulder—even the way the red background suggests oncoming hellfire—are attacked with a kind of pantheistic exuberance, as if it didn’t matter what anything does so long as it does it completely. Meanings don’t converge, they concur. The man in Portrait of a Man in a Felt Hat is skinny, but he is also pompous, and nervous, and orange—all of these things separately, and all at once. Woman in Red has a big, floppy personality to go with her big, floppy hat. But it remains a big, floppy hat nonetheless. Praying Man may or may not be Jewish, but the green and yellow brushstrokes of his suit certainly know how to daven.

Bacon, by contrast, digs in. Triptych: Three Studies of Isabel Rawsthorne shows a woman’s face caught, with layered, overlapping bursts of color, in the act of turning. At a glance, it seems as though the artist is using approximate strokes, as in a first sketch, to feel out the shape of his subject; but the precision of his approximations suggests that the real line is a mathematical ideal that can be approached with infinite closeness but never truly reached; the outer two faces are facing in.

Chaim Soutine as an alchemist of color, Francis Bacon as chemist of the flesh—the progression is clear, even if, as with any narrative of progress, its simplicity makes it feel dubious. It also feels nostalgic, and this is to Bacon’s disadvantage—the clarity we gain with chemistry can’t quite make up for the loss of alchemy’s romance.

In 1982 Keith Haring executed three tapestry-size drawings as live accompaniment to performances by dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones at the Kitchen; Gladstone Gallery is displaying them until the end of June. Dancers, crosses and a dog-headed figure with a giant snake for a penis are rendered in a line that manages to simultaneously convey shape and motion. Red, in which black-outlined figures and the spaces between them are filled in with equally thick red lines, is arresting in its stillness. As with Soutine’s trembling carcass and Bacon’s dancing fowl, you can’t quite believe it’s not moving. A final word from Soutine: “Once I saw the village butcher slice the neck of a bird and drain the blood out of it. I wanted to cry out, but his joyful expression caught the sound in my throat. … When I painted the beef carcass it was still this cry that I wanted to liberate.” Meaty Matters: “Soutine/Bacon” at Helly Nahmad Gallery; Keith Haring at Gladstone Gallery