T hough his bright yet brief career ended when the artist was only 28, Egon Schiele left behind a radical and lasting body of work. Primarily portraits and self-portraits, his dynamic compositions radiate a psychological potency, vulnerability and frank sexuality that scandalized twentieth-century society and established the young artist’s groundbreaking vision. Part of Schiele’s distinctive style rests on his highly innovative and unmatched skill as a draftsman – his preternatural ability to define a subject’s intimate and often erotic truths with extreme dexterity. With contorted forms in bold hues, Schiele lays bare the psychic interior of his subject.
This season, two outstanding works on paper by Schiele will be highlighted in The Modern Evening Auction: a weighty self-portrait bearing the artist’s singular gaze and an audacious depiction of a woman caught undressing. Yet Schiele’s influence is to be found everywhere. The painter’s extraordinary output has continued to inspire generations of artists who resonate with varied aspects of his life and oeuvre. In recent years, no painter has drawn more parallels to the Viennese master than Amoako Boafo – whose monumental celebrations of Black identity evoke the free line and unflinching intensity of Schiele’s figuration.
On the eve of The New York Sales, we examine some of the contemporary artists inspired by the visionary Viennese Expressionist.
Francis Bacon’s pantheon of images is considered among art history’s greatest achievements. Visceral, enigmatic, haunting – his searingly personal portraits cut to the psychological core of his subjects. Bacon, like Schiele, painted a close circle of friends, reserving the iconic 14-by-12-inch canvas that formed his triptychs for these favored subjects, like in Three Studies for Portrait of Lucian Freud, 1964.
Both artists laid bare the interiority of the figure they depicted: Bacon’s primal images excavating the deepest complexities of the human psyche; Schiele investigating his characters’ unconscious psychology and emotion, often through frank sexuality. Distorting their figures to often unsettling effect became the ironic means to reveal their truest essence.
Schiele and Bacon also turned to self-portraiture as a way of expressing their own inner nature. Selbstbildnis (Self-portrait), completed in 1910, the year Schiele fearlessly pushed his self-fashioning to reveal new, intense sides of himself, readily aligns him to Bacon’s raw and intensely scrutinizing self-images.
Jean-Michel Basquiat’s unrivaled brilliance reinvigorated the visual tradition, leaving a mark on the art world that reverberates today. The artist’s prodigal style often draws parallels to Schiele – especially their shared ferocity of mark-making, where even in painting, both artists showcased their virtuosic feats of drawing.
Basquiat’s draftsmanship is remarkable for its intensity and visceral aesthetic impact, seen readily in Untitled, 1983, where the artist’s own poetic thoughts and illustrations underscore a ghostly mask-like face. In the frenetic, fragmented figures that inhabit Saxaphone, 1986, Basquiat renders some as mere silhouettes, while others are painted with X-ray vision, detailing the outline of bones, sinews and organs. This oscillating synthesis closely aligns with Schiele’s Selbstbildnis (Self-portrait), where the highly finished hand, leg and head stand in contrast to the abstract simplicity of the outlined garment.
Each artist explored their concerns for the intricacies of human anatomy – Schiele, famously searching for a “signature” way to pose his own body, and Basquiat’s constant referencing of Gray’s Anatomy, the medical textbook he explored as a child. Historically, their careers follow a similar path: both forged a powerful individual style, benefitted from strong artistic mentors (Andy Warhol for Basquiat and Gustav Klimt for Schiele) and left the world all too soon.
Vietnamese-American artist Julien Nguyen merges classic themes of art history with contemporary imagery, such as video games and science fiction. Meticulous depictions of friends and lovers, including the youthfully rendered boy in Noli me Tangere, 2018, have distinguished the Los Angeles–based artist, known for his queered renditions of classical iconography.
Nguyen acknowledges a relationship to Schiele – especially his representations of figures’ inner worlds – through the rendering of strange tensions and transformations in his own figure’s bodies. Here, the sitter’s lithe posture nearly transcends his earthly surroundings, invoking the sensuous physicality of Schiele’s paintings, where elongated figures gesture at the carnality of their inner psychological states.
“Egon Schiele was working in turn of the century Vienna, when everything was coming under question: whether these images were relevant to the production of art, whether the figure should even be in the image,” the artist told TheGuide.art. “And I think the specific stylizations that I use are an attempt to ask myself and the viewer, where does the figure fit in? Where does the body fit in?”
American artist Elizabeth Peyton rose to prominence in the 1990s with intimate portraits of her friends, celebrities, cultural icons and historical figures seen through a distinctly feminine gaze. Her work has often drawn affinities to Schiele: both artists define their subjects with gesture and feeling rather than faithful representation. As with Peyton, Schiele incorporated his contemporaries into his work, transforming lovers, friends, artists and critics into otherworldly characters.
Peyton’s Nick with His Eyes Shut, 2003, a compassionate and vulnerable portrait of her friend, the artist Nick Relph, recalls the languid posture of Schiele’s bodies; it takes form in fluid washes of rich color suggestive of Schiele’s own assured hues. Depicting the dreamlike subject, Peyton bares the psychological aura and inner vulnerability of her subject.
Mesmerizing tangles of abstracted androgynous bodies populate the uncanny worlds of American artist Christina Quarles. Featured in the prestigious Central Pavilion of this year’s Venice Biennale, Quarles has seen an ascendant rise in critical acclaim, drawing parallels to artists as diverse as Salvador Dalí, Francis Bacon, Marlene Dumas, Georgia O’Keeffe and Louise Bourgeois.
With the sensuously ambiguous Bits n’ Pieces, 2019, her distinctive phantasmagoric forms contort in writhing gestures that recall the visceral corporeality of Schiele’s elongated, hyperarticulated modeling. A queer, cis-woman born to a Black father and a white mother, Quarles addresses and upends fixed identities in her work, often embracing an eroticism and sensuality – a focus that places her in line with Schiele’s unabashed, and provocative, embrace of his sitter’s energy. In Stehendes Mädchen in Weissem Unterkleid (Standing Girl in White Petticoat), Schiele’s subject wears only her white underclothes, absorbed in a moment of private introspection. Her red-tinged garment stands between the viewer, and this gesture of concealment, combined with her piercing gaze and furrowed brow, confounds the sensual undertones of such a personal encounter.