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At The Speed, A Problematic Painting Re-Examined For New Audiences

Curator Miranda Lash digs through a filing cabinet in the basement archives of the Speed Art Museum. There are files here on every piece in the museum’s permanent collection. Lash flipped through the alphabet: L, M, N, O…

“Here we go, ‘Purple Panties’ by John Kacere,” Lash said, slamming the cabinet shut.

The painting looks exactly like what you’d expect it to look like based on the title. It’s a matte-painted depiction of a woman’s body — from lower-back to upper thigh. The model’s wearing a silky slip that’s completely unzipped, revealing purple panties.

The painting, which Lash described as “titillating,” was brought into the Speed’s collection by a board of museum buyers in the early 70s.

“And it should be mentioned in 1972, buying this painting was considered revolutionary,” Lash said. “They were so proud that they were able to, sort of, break past the traditional societal mores of being ‘prudish’ about sexuality and put something out there that had a very perceptible sexual tone to it.”

Meanwhile, some people found that while Kacere’s work was sexual, it wasn’t necessarily substantive. That’s what past wall labels about ‘Purple Panties’ have focused on: that it’s made from and for the traditional male gaze; that’s in addition to Kacere’s problematic feelings about feminism.

“One thing I thought was interesting is that the artist was aware, even in 1976 that some women might be uncomfortable seeing his paintings,” Lash said. “He talks about it in the sense that he actually blames the women’s movement for creating uncomfortable feelings about the paintings.”

This is taken from notes from a talk that Kacere gave at the Speed that year. He died in 1999.

This was the basis of knowledge Lash had when the topic of displaying “Purple Panties” as part of a museum exhibition dealing with women and sexuality came up earlier this year.

One Of The Museum's Most Recognizable Pieces

The painting hasn’t been on-view since the Speed reopened, but for decades it was one of the museum’s most recognizable pieces.

“We used to sell posters and matchbooks with the print on it,” Lash said. “I’ve been in local bars and I see it hung, in like, the restroom.”

Lash decided -- amidst the national, ongoing conversation about art created by problematic people -- it might be time to do a deeper dive into the background of this piece, the artist and, for the first time, the model.

“If you go back to his talk in 1976, it says the model for "Purple Panties" was the daughter of Van Deren Coke,” Lash said.

Coke was a nationally-renowned experimental photographer from Lexington, Kentucky, and close friends with Kacere. Through newspaper clippings, Lash determined that the model for “Purple Panties,” Eleanor Browning Coke, would have been about two years out of college when she posed for him.

“So not a child, but a young woman,” she said.

Lash said she also pulled photographs of Kacere’s work from that time period. All of them have a sexualized focus on the female body.

“There would have been no ambiguity in what the painting would have turned out like,” Lash said. “Everyone involved, Eleanor Browning Coke, would have known this is what it’s going to look like.”

From this information it seems that Kacere’s model was an informed adult, but Lash found that things got complicated in 2004.

Van Deren Coke died, and Eleanor Browning Coke subsequently sued her father’s estate for nude photos he had taken of her as a young girl, which caused her, “extreme emotional injury.”

“There are these articles where she claims that Frank Van Deren Coke demanded she disrobe so he could pose her and photograph her,” Lash said.

Eleanor Browning Coke didn’t return requests for comment about this story, and Lash couldn’t reach her either, but Lash said knowing there’s a chance Coke felt exploited or coerced into posing for “Purple Panties”— a painting by her dad’s best friend — makes her feel differently about the work.

Recontextualizing The Painting

Lash debated re-displaying “Purple Panties,” and decided if the Speed were to do so, it would need to recontextualize the painting. Lash created a new wall label, which is three times the length of the original; it covers the original interpretations of the painting, Kacere’s views on women and the relationship between Eleanor Browning Coke and her father.

The painting, and the new label are now hung in a gallery between two contemporary works that offer more pointed critiques of standards of beauty and sexuality.

“What I found is that when people read this information, they almost uniformly say to me, ‘I feel differently about it now,’ or, ‘Oh, that changes things,’” Lash said.

And Lash said, that’s at the heart of what museums are dealing with right now when they find out unsavory elements of an artist or work’s background.

Some museums opt to immediately take them down. For example, in January, the National Portrait Gallery cancelled a show featuring the work of esteemed painter Chuck Close after allegations emerged that he made “vulgar comments” to two of his female models.

Other institutions decide to ignore the new information; in the Chuck Close case, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City decided to leave his work in its galleries.

“And somewhere in the middle is ‘We’re going to show it, but we’re going to talk about what we know and give people a chance to decide,’” Lash said.

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