Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Granting Department

Art History

Major Professor

Bradley Nickels, Ph.D.


Artistic reference, Race, Monochrome, Portrait, Figurative


Marlene Dumas is known for her portraits and figurative paintings and drawings. This study focuses on three paintings by Dumas that reference male icons of art: Stern (2004), Ryman's Brides (1997), and Reinhardt's Daughter (1994). In referencing Ad Reinhardt, Robert Ryman and in the case of Stern, Gerhard Richter, Dumas engages with each artist and the history of painting in specific ways. As this thesis title indicates, I argue that Dumas uses artistic allusion pervasively throughout her oeuvre to conduct an intervention in painting. I propose that this interposition is a way to navigate and question the canon, while strengthening her agency as an artist. Concurrently, this practice by Dumas provides insights concerning the status of painting in a contemporary art scene where new media is progressively dominant. By unpacking this artistic referencing through titling, concept, and the process of painting, I will demonstrate the significance of it to her production.

This analysis also functions as a commentary on the current state of painting and key aspects of its evolution over the last fifty years. I suggest that her use of incisive artistic reference interrogates power structures of the canon by disrupting boundaries, categories, and frames of enclosure. Her dialogue with art history ranges from homage and quotation to contestation and humorous exegesis. Dumas relies on photography including personal snapshots and images from news media as source material, but her painting process is transformative rather than mimetic. Her evocative and often provocative work is frequently discussed in terms of race, gender, and sexuality. I consider how Dumas explores socio-historical issues while creating a dialogue with art history. Dumas investigates the problem of how to paint and claim new territory in our high-tech age when painting is often deemed obsolete. This thesis topic is understudied in any depth and merits further inquiry.

By examining how these paintings engage with specific artists within Modern and contemporary painting, I seek to make a new contribution to the literature on Marlene Dumas.