As Pablo Picasso once said, “sex and art are the same thing.” If you’ve studied art history, you’ve certainly seen your fair share of nudes. But what about more recent art history? Who are the artists making erotic art in the 21st century? Here we look at ten works of art from Phaidon’s The Art of the Erotic. While you've probably come to expect NSFW art from artists like Tracey Emin and Betty Tompkins, the titilating works by artists like Anish Kapoor or Mickalene Thomas might surprise you.
The Conservatory (2010)
The Conservatory, an oil painting by the American artist John Currin, depicts two women in sexual ecstasy. Its title refers to a music school, and the painting contains visual references to that, with one woman holding a violin and bow while a cello lies discarded on the floor beneath the lovers. In an earlier version of the painting, Currin made no reference to music, instead placing a bottle of wine in the scene as a prop. The finished work is changed to the more formal setting, suggestive of a music lesson abandoned halfway through in favour of a passionate encounter. Currin regularly explores the female form in his work, creating paintings that mix references to Renaissance and classical art, including the work of the sixteenth century German painter Lucas Cranach the Elder and the Rococo artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard, with lowbrow contemporary sources such as pornography or B-movies, as well as fashion magazines and copies of Playboy... The explicit content in Currin’s work has at times caused controversy. The Conservatory, however, is surprisingly chaste in modern pornographic terms. Both women are shown semi-naked and in the appearance of sexual rapture, but Currin has chosen to clothe the figures in elements of underwear, and exposes only one pair of breasts to the viewer, creating a scene of titillation for the onlooker, rather than outright porn.
Dark Hole (2009)
This embroidered picture of a headless woman pleasuring herself was made by the British artist Tracey Emin for an exhibition exploring love, loss and life at White Cube Mason’s Yard in London in 2009...For all the sexuality in Dark Hole, this is not so much an erotic image as one about lust and loneliness. One can imagine a solitary woman, abandoned by a man, masturbating nimbly, her body buckled and gently writhing under the pervasive exploration of her fingers. At the centre of the image is her vulva, which she presents to the viewer for inspection, yet there is nothing to see but a dark hole, a black void suggesting that the entry to her soul lies elsewhere. It was important for Emin that the disembodied figure look like an emancipated woman and not a girl. Her scratchy style, reminiscent of the Austrian artist Egon Schiele, adds to this illusion, as do the killer boardroom heels the subject is wearing. This is a picture about a woman trying to love herself, as well as others. In it, Emin asks what it means to be a woman and a lone sexual entity.
Figures in a Garden (2009)
The American artist George Condo has since the 1980s been creating figurative works that reinterpret Old Master painting in light of twentieth-and twentyfirst-century styles. His images are often shocking, grotesque and highly humorous. In Figures in a Garden, Condo uses the traditional motif of nude figures bathing in a natural setting, but transforms and distorts them using techniques from Cubism, Abstract Expressionism (à la Arshile Gorky or Philip Guston) and the visual idioms of twentieth-century cartoons and comic strips...The faces of Condo’s figures often look ghoulish and lecherous, but this is tempered by the seductively erotic curves of bodies that undulate with a calligraphic fluidity. The dominant yellow-green colour palette in the middle ground and the title of Figures in a Garden suggest a reference to Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights (c.1490–1500), which illustrated many delightfully perverse acts: stems from a bouquet of flowers penetrating a lover’s anus, couples riding each other while on horseback, individuals lost within the carnal pleasure of sensual masses of bodies. Certainly, this last element is one of the most powerful in Figures in a Garden, and in the middle ground it becomes especially difficult to discern where one body ends and the next begins. The loose patches of paint building up the background and the surface of the canvas tend to blur and obscure the masses of figures further. This expressive markmaking elicits a sense of Dionysian freedom as bodies entwine in orgiastic ecstasy.
Jens’ Hand On Clemens’Back, Paris (2001)
The naked man in this photograph is surrounded by darkness, as if he is cut off from time in an elusive interior world, the kind of claustrophobic setting the director David Lynch makes films about. The shiny black bed sheets, suggestive of S&M, and the violet quilt bundled up by the man’s head frame the naked body. The hand pressing down on his back for support indicates that sexual intercourse is happening beyond the frame. Jens’ Hand on Clemens’ Back, Paris comes from the photo book The Devil’s Playground, made by the artist Nan Goldin in the early 2000s...Goldin has always been drawn to those who are estranged from society in some way, by their addictions, by their sexuality or by their identity. Her first portraits depicted drag queens living in the Bowery in Manhattan, and then she started taking candid photographs of her friends sleeping, having sex, getting high and dying, before turning the camera on herself, documenting the bruises from an abusive relationship and her problems with heroin. But it is the humanism in her pictures and her refusal to judge that give them so much power. In Jens’ Hand on Clemens’ Back, the viewer is witness to an intensely intimate act. The theatricality of the warm tones and luminous, baroque lighting, which evoke the painting of the sixteenth-century Italian artist Caravaggio suggests that this might not be as private as it first appears, but rather an erotic performance.
Sex Painting #3 (2013)
This closely cropped picture of a woman’s breast is part of a series of ‘Sex Paintings’ made by the American artist Betty Tompkins in the late 2000s, focusing on the theme of female sexual desire. The painting’s soft-focus grisaille and the darkened shadows, which are achieved using an airbrush, are suggestive of erotic black-and-white photography. Yet the unusual arrangement is made by cropping a vintage pornographic photograph down to an erogenous zone. In 1970s America, feminist artists began to represent sex from a female perspective, as part of a wider debate surrounding the way women were objectified and represented in art. Rather than being the passive subject of the male gaze, women became active participants, in control of their own sexuality...Tompkins trained as an Abstract Expressionist painter, but she found the medium of photo-realism better suited to her intentions. Taking her subject matter from hardcore pornographic magazines, obtained illegally from outside the United States, she cropped the pictures tightly until only the act of sexual intercourse remained. She then painstakingly re-created the crops in paint, in graphic detail on a monumental scale. Close up, the paintings appear to be hazy, abstract images; they coalesce into an erect penis or a vagina only when viewed from a distance. This dialogue with the paintings, of becoming absorbed in their soft forms before resolving them into discernible images, is where their erotic power resides.
Teenage Wildlife (2003)
The sensuality of this painting lies not just in the partially seen couple in the foliage, but also in the thickly applied oil paint itself. The marks are voluptuous and smeary, suggestive of bodily fluids and flesh, the pink, unguent colours of the lovers melding with the earthy tones of the tree branches. Cecily Brown applies her pigment in loose, slippery strokes with a rounded brush in Teenage Wildlife, in which she raises questions about the possibly illicit nature of the couple’s sexual pleasure and the viewer’s voyeurism...In this painting she refers to a classical arcadia, a subject popular since antiquity, in which beautiful nymphs are portrayed in lush forest settings. Here, the paint enmeshes the couple in a bucolic landscape, rendering them in close harmony with their surroundings. Ultimately it is this relationship between the figure and the landscape that remains the most compelling aspect of Brown’s paintings. The naked couple in Teenage Wildlife twist and evaporate into the feral congestion of branches while in other paintings it only takes the tiniest flick of paint, discerned through the untamed foliage for the erotic narratives to begin forming in the mind. Yet these stories are always sidelined by the sheer force of the paint. Luscious, filthy and teeming with color, nothing in Brown’s paintings remain sedentary, her pictures are constantly on the move and open to suggestions.
Hysterical Sexual (2016)
The Bombay-born British sculptor Anish Kapoor evokes the human body in a primal way: through curving forms, inviting recesses, tactile materials or resonant colours. A sensual, anthropomorphic quality permeates his work in a broad range of materials, scales and colours, and he has spoken about sexuality as fundamental to life and origin. Of his sculptures, Hysterical Sexual is among the most blatantly suggestive. From afar, it looks like a cold, abstract ovoid form split in the middle; at the same time, it bears an undeniable resemblance to the most intimate part of the female body, the vulva. This elegant fibreglass-and-gold artwork is rife with such dichotomies. For instance, its smooth, sensuous form entices the viewer but is hard to the touch, the antithesis of the yielding flesh of female genitalia. Its mirrored surface invites the external world in through reflections, while the central seam resists entry, parting only enough to reveal a tantalizing glimpse of its inner chasm. The use of gold equates the vagina with preciousness, but also emphasizes its material value as a desirable commodity. Thus this work conflates notions of abstraction and figuration, interior and exterior, intimacy and exposure...While Hysterical Sexual can be appreciated as an exploration of surface and space, the solid and the intangible, on another level it can be seen as a playful celebration of female sexuality. As such it fits into a proud lineage of female genital depictions in art.
The contemporary artist Gillian Wearing explores questions of identity in her work. She is particularly interested in examining the difference between our public and private personas, and how we express—or conceal—our dreams and fantasies...The ‘Pin-up’ series of 2008 features seven paintings framed in pale wood, from which this artwork is taken. The idea for the series was sparked when the artist heard a statistic that announced that two-thirds of young women in the United Kingdom wanted to embark on a career in glamor modelling. At the time, the success and wealth of glamour models such as Katie Price (known as Jordan) were widely reported in the British press, a fact that perhaps led to the high level of interest in this area of work. Wearing decided to explore this desire in a series of artworks, and placed advertisements online and in newspapers for women who would like to be transformed into a pin-up. Of the hundreds of replies she received, she chose thirty to audition, and from those women she created a series of works that show the participants adopting the provocative poses associated with glamour modelling. She photographed the models and then doctored the images in Photoshop to express the often unrealistic physical proportions—long legs, unfeasibly large breasts, tiny waists—that appear in glamour shots.
In this large painting by the British artist Jenny Saville, two figures—a male and a female—are sprawled, entangled, on a bed in the foreground. They are naked and intimate, although not shown engaged in the act of lovemaking; the mood is instead contemplative and calm, and while the man stares impassively down at the female, she is distracted and stares into space. This scene appears realistic, but on closer examination the two central characters are shown in repeat, and in other positions, across the painting, including in a mirror propped up at the back of the scene. The movements are suggestive of film stills or still photographs merged to create one fluid work. Odalisque is one of a series of Saville’s paintings that draw inspiration from the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, a set of manuscripts that date from between the first and sixth centuries ad and were discovered in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century at an ancient rubbish dump in Egypt. Among the documents found, many of which are now housed in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, were diagrams from Euclid’s mathematical treatise Elements and fragments of poems by Sappho, who is known for her works on themes of love and desire.
La Leçon d’amour (2008)
In reference to the pietà of the art historical canon, a sitting female figure anticipates the passage of the body that lays provocatively across her lap. While one hand clutches the seduced woman’s hand and the other rests on her slender and sensually parted leg, the upright figure affectionally looks on and waits. This tableau is situated within a collage of pattern fabrics and surfaces, layered and juxtaposed with textures, flattened and pictorial space. The painting has a bold quality, reminiscent of 1960s Pop art, while the women’s postures are a clear reference to Balthus’s notorious painting The Guitar Lesson, which was considered so sexually explicit when it was first exhibited in Paris in 1934 that it was hidden behind a curtain in a back room...Mickalene Thomas’s painting commands a very different reception. Her paintings use a mixture of media; acrylic paint, enamel and also rhinestone crystals that heighten the painting’s glamour and seduction. The Virgin Mary of the traditional pietà is here replaced by an African American woman. The reclining girl looks out of the painting with a strong, uncompromising gaze. Her sensuality is put on show, raising questions about how women are objectified and represented in art. Measuring 3 metres (10 feet) across and 2.4 metres (8 feet) tall, this is an impressively powerful picture of female sexuality.