Iggy Pop doesn’t play an instrument when he performs on stage. “He plays his body,” according to artist Jeremy Deller. “The way he manipulates it, damages it, bends it and flaunts it has become his way of communicating. His body interprets the music but it’s also playing its own tune.”
In fact, for nearly half a century now, Iggy has presented his naked torso as a central part of his art, displaying it in a way that is so disruptive and unfettered, it suggests a sound wave made flesh. The form and fury of Iggy’s torso has become as recognised as Mick Jagger’s lips or Elvis Presley’s hips. Before Iggy’s emergence in the late 1960s, no male musical star had bared so much flesh so comfortably. What’s more, he has consciously put it in peril, cutting himself with glass, or throwing himself into the audience, decades before the ritual of “stage-diving” began.
For his latest project, Deller decided to highlight all this history in a new setting: a life-drawing class. “There are hundreds of thousands of photographs of him,” says the Turner prize-winning artist, “but very few drawings. I thought his body deserves to be looked at differently, to be taken more seriously, in a way that would connect him to art history.”
Deller convinced the Brooklyn Museum, a group of local artists and Iggy himself to play along. The result, Iggy Pop Life Class, opens at the museum next month. The show involves 107 interpretations of the star’s nude physique by 22 artists, ranging in age from their teens to their 80s. The museum will pair their work with objects from its collection depicting the male figure over the last few centuries: sculptures from ancient Egypt, Africa and India; drawings by such artists as Egon Schiele and Max Beckmann; as well as photographs by Jim Steinhardt and Robert Mapplethorpe.
There was certainly a serpentine beauty to Iggy in his youth, but the drawings gently highlight the singer’s broadening torso and weathered features. “It looks like his body has been through the ringer,” Hagen says. The mere fact that a man pushing 70 would choose to go topless challenges assumptions about what’s appropriate – and that’s all to the good, says Deller. “It’s really important for an older person to behave badly. There are no rules to follow for his generation, the rock generation. There are many ways to go. And he has gone his way.”
Deller, best known for creating vast imaginative works with a political theme, first approached Iggy 10 years ago, but the star demurred. “Ten years ago I was a little too young,” says Iggy, now 69, in the book that accompanies the show. “I thought I didn’t have the weight. Now I feel like a lot has happened with and to my body. For some reason, it felt important for me to just stand naked for a group of human beings and have an exchange.”
He always has though; as Deller points out: “There’s nothing narcissistic about his presentation.” Instead, Iggy’s frolics have always been about self-expression, freedom, naturalism and accepting our animal selves. Seeing Iggy flail his naked torso can feel like stumbling across a creature in the wild. It’s both liberating and frightening.
Jim Farber via The Guardian