Wrinkles, lines, scars, spots. There are many ways time leaves its mark on the human body. Mainstream culture typically dreads the aging process and all its defining characteristics -- gray hair, sagging skin, translucent complexion. Of course, the transformation is not optional. And it doesn't have to be detrimental either.
Artists obsessed with the human form have long illuminated the nuanced process of growing older, its complex effects on the body and on the soul. The following icons, through painting, drawing and photography, explore the process of aging while challenging the dominant, negative perception of it. From series of confrontational nude self-portraits to a photographic documentation of aging drag queens, the following images capture the many particular joys, pains, fears and thrills of the aging process.
As Betty Friedan famously said: "Aging is not 'lost youth' but a new stage of opportunity and strength." We reached out to a selection of artists who visualize this sentiment better than we ever could. Behold, the words and images of eight artists providing visibility and respect for the aging body.
"Aging fascinates me as it something we all face. But, for the most part, society chooses to ignore or obscure truthful representations of aging. With age can come confidence. With my subjects, rather than perceiving imperfections, their age empowers them. It gives them freedom to realize who they want to be."
Beti Grace in her room at the America Hotel
Donna backstage at Aunt Charlie's Lounge
Olivia gets ready to perform at Aunt Charlie's Lounge
2. Joan Semmel
"I painted in layers so that the evidence of age would not be erased by virtuoso paint handling. The sensuality of the flesh permeates these paintings, a sensuality that is not confined to youth. I had entered into a relationship with artist John Hardy, with whom I lived for 21 years before he passed away in 2014. These late years were empowering and rewarding in every sense, something I hoped to communicate through my work.
"The issues of the body from desire to aging, as well as those of identity and cultural imprinting, have been at the core of my concerns. The carnal nature of paint has seemed to me a perfect metaphor, the specifics of image, a necessary elaboration. The last 45 years of work, I think, reveal my ongoing interest in both process and relevance."
Transitions, 2012, Oil On Canvas. Courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York
Recline, 2005, Oil On Canvas. Courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York
Skin Patterns, 2013. Oil On Canvas. Courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York
"Despite her great beauty, my mother, like most people, struggled many times in her life. Then, she had to learn how to cope with the failure of her own body. Yet, in spite of her illness, my mother was widely adored as a bright, lively and wildly fun character and was my muse throughout my career."
Sandra: She's a Beauty, 2009, C-Print. Courtesy of Mickalene Thomas and Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Madame Mama Bush, 2012, C-Print. Courtesy of Mickalene Thomas and Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Still from Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman, 2012, Digital Video. Courtesy of Mickalene Thomas and Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
4. Marna Clarke
"I didn't realize when I began this project five years ago that I would end up embracing it as a tribute to my life of 70 years, to living long enough to have experienced marriage, motherhood, grand-motherhood, satisfying creative work, deepening love, good friends, a twilight romance. I thought I was simply chronicling my aging. When I began showing the work, it seemed to resonate with all ages. I also shocked some with the sight of naked older bodies. I am obviously comfortable around nudity. I feel it is a natural aspect of life.
"I started with photographing my body ... face, hair, torso, hands, feet. I expanded these to include pictures of my daily life, my partner, my fears and fantasies and dreams."
"When I was in my 30s a friend talked about being in her 'invisible 40s.' At that moment, with two young children very attached to me, I couldn't conceive that anything in my life would change. I felt vibrant and necessary. I'm older now and it shows. My most fertile years are behind me. There's also been a shift in way I think about and carry myself ... This series is an extension of that idea and one that allows me to take stock of where I am right now -- as a parent, a partner and a woman at midlife."
"I am continuously obsessed by the sloughing of the body through time. In fact, I don't like to represent in a drawing the oldness itself but rather the passage of time that ends necessarily in this human state. I am deeply in love with the human body, with the skin -- its most external layer, that absorbs and records all the experiences of our life -- but most of all I am interested in a body's evolution, its transformation, throughout the years. I am intrigued by the signs, lines, points, which enrich our cutis year after year and testify all the changes of our lives."
"I am drawn to people who are in emotional conflict with themselves or those around them. The emotions in a story inform the visual interpretation of the subject; all my images are spontaneous, and the composition and makeup of an image reflects the emotion of that specific moment. Photographing the elderly body reveals struggles and desires of a person that have been left unmet. Documenting aging reminds me of documenting adolescence, as both are periods of identity and confusion. Both subject and photographer realize that embracing vulnerability is a means to achieve clarity and purpose."
"I have been taking self-portraits as my primary form of artistic expression since 2006 and began shooting in abandoned buildings in 2007, when I was 38 years old. I seek to adapt to my changing body, mindset and circumstances. I see myself as an extension of these abandoned spaces, using them as an echo of the push/pull of our identity as we age. There is light and dark, sadness and beauty, fear and acceptance, a folding into and a pushing out all at once. I work towards reclaiming my place in the world and defining my mid-life as one of transformation rather than crisis."