Sex, Please, We're French

The French didn't actually invent sex, but they sure know how to make a big deal out of it. They've given us the Folies Bergere, French postcards, French kissing and, of course, vive la difference itself. So if anybody's qualified to put on a big museum show about sex and modern art (which was actually invented in France) it's the Parisians. "Feminin-Masculin, The Sex of Art," at the Centre Georges Pompidou through Feb. 12, contains 500 works by 100 artists--famous, infamous and unknown--that run the gamut from symbolic to explicit, tender to tough, and hetero to omnisexual. Walking into "Feminin-Masculin" (yes, the words are in that order; it's part of the show's point) is like entering a strange, rubbery Bloomingdale's of copulation. The walls and floors of the Pompidou's Grand Galerie are festooned with pictures and objects in which just about anything that protrudes stands for a penis and any concavity connotes a vagina. It's hard to tell whether we're looking at art or appurtenances.

But "Feminin-Masculin" is less horny than it is heavy. The show's curators (a man and a woman: Marie-Laure Bernadac and Bernard Marcade) know that the favorite subject of contemporary art for the last decade has been the body--the abused, diseased and politicized body, that is. Instead of gathering a chronological survey of eroticism from Manet to Mapplethorpe, they've organized "Feminin-Masculin" around five beard-stroking themes. "The Origin of the Word" (the title of Gustave Courbet's notorious gynecological close-up from 1866, which is in the show) asks whether anatomy is really destiny. Not anymore. "Identities and Masquerades" says "the question of sex is classically an issue of roles." Annette Messager's 1975 "The Woman and . . ." (photographs of a woman who's cartooned male organs on herself) seconds the motion. "Stories of the Eye" concerns voyeurism, castration and "blindnesses." (Yikes, Grandma was right!) Paul-Armand Gette's "The Visit" (1987), a photo-installation of a fantasy women's bathroom, is an elegant peep show. "Attractions and Repulsions" documents "the difficulties, if not the impossibilities of representing the sexual act." That can happen if an artist obsesses too much, as weirdo Hans Bellmer's X-rated puppets and fetish photos from the '30s and '40s kinkily confirm. And the last category, "Natural Histories," collects "images and metaphors related to germination, fertilization, and reproduction." The show has only one Courbet, so it puts Georgia O'Keeffe's majestically fecund "Black Hills and Cedar" (1941) in this section. The copiously illustrated catalog, which is definitely not to be read on a crowded Metro, contains a bevy of essays including Marina Warner's "The Vile and the Vigorous, the Mane and the Stubble: On Hair and Its Language." Like we said, heavy.

"Feminin-Masculin" is oddly at home in the creaky culture hangar that the now dilapidated Pompidou has become. The 1977 building will be partially closed for a major rehabilitation when this exhibition finishes. But this show would be almost unthinkable in a major American museum. There would be so many curtained-off alcoves with parental warnings out front (there are none at the Pompidou), it would look like a psychic readers' convention.

What do the French think? To judge from visitor comments in the Pompidou's guest book, no one in Paris is either apoplectic or in a swoon. A woman named Cecile claims the show is evidence of a "dictatorship of heterosexuality and American 'culture'." Helene, 22, laments: "That the intimate becomes public is either damned courageous or completely unhealthy. A bitter after-taste." (To which appends: "Tight-ass Helene.") The French critics have fallen back on reflexive responses. The down-market daily France-Soir devoted a page to the Pompidou's "Sexpo" and declared, "That's all [the artists] think about." Higher-end Le Monde wondered about grammar: why the show is subtitled "the sex of art" instead of "the sex in art."

Still, "Feminin-Masculin" does have something valuable to say. Our irrepressible urge to get together--literally--with somebody besides ourselves (oh, and that, too) is far too complex to have to do only with the physical procreation of a species of mammalian bipeds. "Sex is part of the very process of art itself," contend the curators. They're right, and not only about the art in her own exhibition; half the high-minded old-master paintings in practically any museum double as erotica. As the English art historian Edward Lucie-Smith writes in his concise book "Sexuality in Western Art": "A work of art may be full of sexual feeling without depicting sexual activity."

"Feminin-Masculin's" convincing thesis is that while Picasso represents a continuation of the old-fashioned male gaze upon the female form, it's Marcel Duchamp who handed out gender-bending licenses to artists like Messager and Mike Kelley, whose diagrammatic, almost abstract 1987 painting, "Incorrect Sexual Model: Mommy's Penis," makes you wonder if you took the right biology class. Duchamp, whose alter ego was "Rrose Selavy" (Eros, c'est la vie), had the mindiest dirt of them all. His ultra-deadpan "Fountain" (a urinal from 1913) and subtly nasty "Female Fig Leaf" (1950) are linchpins of the show. Duchamp's cerebral licentiousness inspires both cook sexist trivialities like Allen Jones's Hefnerpaddish sculpture "Green Table" (1972) and the raft of incisively naughty recent art by women that enables "Feminin-Masculin" to put the female first in the title.

As clumsily as "Feminin-Masculin" tries for inclusiveness, the show performs a timely public service. From the blowsy Venus of Willendorf to the armless goddess de Milo, from Titian to Toulouse-Lautrec, eroticism has always been part and parcel of great art. But more often than not, the big guys (and the sad truth is that they were mostly guys) managed to sublimate the tease, so that grace and solidity of form could hold their own with the heat and urgency of content. During the 20th century, the wraps on sex in art have gradually come all the way off. At the same time, movies, TV and the tabloids have replaced paintings, sculptures and framed photographs as the great media purveyors of sexuality. One Saturday night in an American cineplex reveals as many collisions of flesh as there are in one salon of "Feminin-Masculin." Explicitness may be a hot-button issue when tax dollars underwrite it, but artistically speaking, if you want to show it you can show it. Today's private, commercial galleries are filled with veritable instruction manuals for every sexual identity known to humankind. But now that S-E-X is so emphatically out there on the street, scaring the horses, perhaps we can return to the bedroom. close the doors and get some of the old intimacy back. And when Paris puts on its next sex-in-art exhibition, maybe it won't need so many intellectual categories.