PRINT November 1967

Unconventional Realists

THE CONVENTIONAL ARTIST OPERATES not only within the rules, precepts and formulas developed by earlier artists and given to him by his immediate predecessors but also within a ready-made social and institutional position inherited from them. At the moment, within representation, the two polar extremes of violent Expressionism and neo-academic realism are most conventional. A great deal of good painting by standards recently or more remotely evolved diverges towards these two extremes. The Pop painter is not on this continuum at all. He is essentially manipulating images and their stylizations within an abstract context. He is no more interested in the maniera of, say, a Parmagianino, a counterfeit, elegant yet self-consistent world, than he is in the believability of Chardin. What he is interested in is his stylization, the way in which he arbitrarily changes and manipulates the forms, taken as given, not seen as having inherent abstractable properties. Perhaps some 21st-century critic will find the legible images in Pop art a weakness, as Harold Rosenberg found them in Paul Klee’s work.

There are, however, a group of unconventional realists. They work outside of the Expressionist tradition, uninfluenced by Pop and disregarding academic practice. They have been working without a program, frequently unknown to one another until the work reached the galleries. Most of them matured during the Abstract Expressionist years and, trained as abstract painters, share with their nonfigurative contemporaries similar strengths and weaknesses. They think about pictorial actions in abstract terms but attempt to control the associative levels as well as the structural level in their paintings. Like the other artists of their generation their exposure to doctrinal, academic, or any kind of representation was limited. In the schools during the forties, fifties and early sixties traditional teaching methods and content became increasingly devalued and students learned less about perspective, anatomy, figure drawing (as a classical discipline) and pictorial composition in the 19th-century sense (i.e. the grouping of figures in related action). Color, drawing and composition, while well understood abstractly were not so well understood in terms of the representation of forms in space and light.

The unconventional realists include artists whose sensibility is Abstract Expressionist who modify their procedure to the extent of working from nature, but with a brushstroke which is functionally descriptive rather than itself an actor in the composition; artists whose procedure, though derived from Abstract Expressionism, has been modified by ideals for composition, structure and light derived from a restudying of the paintings and procedures of earlier artists; and artists whose entire process of pictorial composition is dominated by ideals derived from their idiosyncratic restudying of past painting, though their final procedure includes improvisatory structural development.

Among the artists who modify their Abstract Expressionist sensibility by working from nature, Philip Pearlstein applies his procedure with the utmost ruthlessness. He investigates the forms of the models before him little by little, shape by shape, overlap by overlap, space by space, tone by tone, as if he were slowly developing an abstract composition out of his marks on the surface of the canvas, without reference to any external starting point. Paradoxically, he is at the same time treasuring every bump and curve and quirk of the bodies and the drapery in front of him. His realism of technique, combined with his improvisatory abstract procedure, produces the apparent infelicities, distortions of anatomy and of the spatial arrangement of the forms in his painting. These distortions and infelicities are as precious to him as the areas which seem conventionally acceptable. His eye slowly roves over the spaces and forms of the models in their environment, engaging all of his visual and tactile attention. The slow jotting down of his perceptions and these perceptions themselves are the cause of the spatial and volumetric distortions which are the essential point of his procedure. His paintings, to be successful, must read as did the best Abstract Expressionist paintings, as a series of surprises, unexpected spatial and surface manipulations and groupings. In his case, the surprise is compounded by his realism of technique and the resulting shock when a figure seems to have three arms or one leg or a cut off elbow, so that the weight of the model rests on a form outside the canvas. The foreshortenings often produce enormous scale changes within individual figures and even larger scale changes between the two figures in some of his compositions. The distortion of the picture plane, caused by elision of any reference to walls and occasional bird’s-eye views, is a further disquieting factor. To some more traditional artists, Pearlstein’s arbitrariness in his handling of the forms and spaces of nature connects him with Pop. Pearlstein’s pictorial process, however, unlike that of the Pop artists, is an extension of that of the traditional artist. It is his sensibility and pictorial decisions which are unconventional. His work must be judged on its own terms and not by the standards of pictorial traditions foreign to it.

A number of other artists have shown work in this tradition, some of whom, including myself, have since modified their procedure as a result of a restudying of the paintings and procedures of earlier artists. Sidney Tillim, Sam Gelber, Leonard Leibowitz, Jack Beal, Theophil Repke, Harold Bruder, George Nick and Arthur Elias are among the more accomplished. Although Fairfield Porter’s position is that of a programmatic romantic, his romanticism has on occasion allowed him to work out his compositions slowly and deliberately. Some of his figure groups, group portraits in which he was unwilling to distort the relative scale of parts of the figure and the relation of one figure to another, develop slowly into compositions of heavy volumetric forms in light and air within a spatial arabesque. In these paintings the forms seem to develop as a result of the same kind of close, little by little observation that one finds in Pearlstein’s work.

Sidney Tillim’s new figure paintings bring up several problems not touched upon by Porter or Pearl-stein. For one thing his figures are caught in action, for another he attempts to combine slow volumetric development with arbitrary compositional amputation of the forms of the figure. In his shown canvases, as well as in a series of larger and as yet unsolved figure paintings, he has been aiming at a kind of monumental wall decoration influenced by Puvis de Chavannes. The paintings of Tillim and Porter bring up the whole question of synthetic painting, the development of compositions including a series of figures which of necessity must be painted away from nature. Although Cezanne, Seurat and Balthus have been able to paint such compositions metaphorically, so that every stroke develops both the subject and the construction, the synthetic painting has been rarely successful in the 20th century. Artists such as Leland Bell, Paul Georges, Alex Katz, Lennart Anderson and Larry Day have attacked this problem with varying degrees of thoroughness. The problem of constructing synthetically is so enormous, however, that the metaphor may be temporarily blunted. The classical idealizing line of Puvis, which at the same time that it simplifies and idealizes the forms of the composition cuts the surface into a clearly defined pattern, is the perfect exemplar for the kind of painting Tillim is aiming for.

Some artists whose realism was based on an Abstract Expressionist sensibility and procedure, grew increasingly dissatisfied with their own stylization. The conventions which they had developed began to seem incredible relative to the forms and spaces which they were perceiving. For me, the crucial year was my year in Italy in 1962–63, where, contrary to my expectations, such paintings as the Signorelli chapel in the Orvieto Cathedral or the Mantegna Camera degli Sposi at Mantua, rather than questioning the reality of the space in which the viewer stood, had self-consistent, believable spatial and illusionistic reference points constructed by the artist. This discovery set me to searching for conventions of pictorial structure for believable representation rather than the different kind of abstract manipulation I was involved with before. The result has been that my pictorial search relative to the objects, the figure or the landscape before me began to consciously include such material as the apparent distortion away from the horizontal and vertical of lines parallel to the picture plane as perceived in 14th-century Italian painting and in nature, the simplification of the shape groups in landscape and cityscape into a series of light-dark bands as in Poussin and Claude Lorrain as well as the use of the repoussoir to establish the foreground and control the picture surface.

Bill Bailey, in his still-life paintings, breaks down the surface of the painting geometrically and presents a group of shapes which can be seen as an almost unending series of different groupings. These paintings at the same time develop a spatial arabesque which has its roots in Chardin, for one. This spatial arabesque in Bailey’s painting is primarily a movement over the surface of the canvas. Some younger artists, Stanley Friedman, Richard Chiriani and Arthur Kleinfelder have attempted to compose in Albertian and more esoteric perspective systems, to develop a movement through the space constructed by arranging the volumes on the ground plane while maintaining an arabesque depending on the arrangement of forms in the elevation. In quest of some spatial construction which would be an addition or corroboration of their sensibilities, they have been experimenting with spatial systems through which they can measure either in or out of perspective the distances between the objects in their paintings.

Bailey, in his figure paintings, is very close to working entirely as an idealist. He begins these from a model, but his paintings take many months to complete and the largest proportion of his work is done without reference to the model. The figures are exquisitely placed as much by the standards of Arp as by those of Ingres, whom Bailey reveres. This placement, however, is merely the beginning of the abstract development of the composition, not only as a series of interrelated shapes on a surface, but more importantly seen as a series of simplified abstract volumes, cylindrical, conic and spherical, which evolve from one another. They are modeled with the utmost clarity and simplicity and aim at the production of a classically simple and severe art. Bailey’s abstract sensibility, however, is more secure than the schema he has developed so far for representing the figure’s forms. Part of the problem in returning to a classicizing tradition, painting with true independence of spirit, is the contradictory necessity of rejecting contemporary schemata and conceptualizations for figure forms and the necessity of restudying both the figure and traditional painting in the process of searching for new and personal ones. This does not now mean that anatomy or proportion schemes override in their importance the kind of construction at which Bailey is already a master, but his chosen direction necessitates a restudying of schemata for such things as the head, the planes of movement at the ankles, elbows, knees, so that his forms can achieve a blend of idealization and particularity which the shapes of his figures in relation to each other and the shapes around them already possess.

Joseph Groell rarely refers to the model directly either in the drawings he makes for his paintings or in the process of painting itself. His paintings, invariably figure groups in a landscape, develop over a series of literally hundreds of drawings which go back to figure drawings made from the model a number of years ago and to sketches of landscape details and groupings from Central Park. He has been working with the figure over the past fifteen years, restudying anatomy and the forms of the figure with the greatest thoroughness. His figures are constructed volumetrically in a shorthand based on the knowledge of the figure’s structure and also on an awareness of his pictorial needs. None of his figures can be called graceful by modern conventions; modern conventions, after all, are based to a great degree on the aptness of the gesture of a moving figure and Groell’s figures to date are all at rest. Their volumes are clear, their gestures based on their pose. Individual figures are painted with great attention paid to the viewpoint of the observer relative to each form described. In Groell’s recent work the observer tends to be opposite every part of every figure. Groell’s eyes have roved over every part of every figure and environmental form in his composition hundreds of times, seeking those groupings which will most easily allow the eye to make a subtle and gentle movement over the canvas and into space. All of his distortions are derived from conscious manipulations within the painting and not from distortions observed in the process of reading forms in space in nature. He tends to unite in each single figure parts drawn not only from several different eye levels but also from different points of view in order to provide the movements and groupings necessary to the development of the composition. Following the example of Titian and the Mannerist painters, the landscape forms repeat, continue and complete the movements begun within the figure group.

All of these artists value not only their constructional procedure, but also the forms which they are representing. They even tend to overvalue these forms as a reaction against the recent overvaluation of the artist’s action, process, brushstroke and personality. Their paintings tend to say “It is these forms representing these objects which count and, by virtue of them, the artist who painted them, and not the reverse.” The objects seem to be lit, handled, or painted as though they were intrinsically precious. The artists attempt to represent an ideal world of logic, order and gentleness as a counterfoil not only to the world of daily experience but also to the world of recent pictorial history. The shade of Caspar David Friedrich and the sublime art theory of the 18th century can be felt at times; the paintings may be detailed and gently painted but the effect of the composition, with wavering horizon lines and forms continuing beyond the edge of the canvas, is one which might be said to produce that terror and awe quickly transcended by our realization that it is, after all, a painting that we are experiencing.

All of these artists seen as a group are involved in redeveloping means for representing natural forms. They are unwilling to apply to the act of painting representationally a smaller degree of sensibility and intellect than they experienced as abstract painters. In order to produce representational painting that is valid today, they have found it necessary to reject any given conventions for representation, no matter how attractive and comforting, and instead, by trial and error, through a study of nature and past paintings, and more important, past pictorial practice, to try to evolve new, personally viable conventions. New conventions, whether in non-objective or representational painting, look clumsy at first, and while we are now willing to accept radical abstraction when the painting is presented as such, our eyes have been educated to accept photographic and photograph-influenced pictorial schemata as the true and graceful representations of reality. Recent photograph-derived paintings with Abstract Expressionist shape groupings superimposed are good examples of the application of one set of unquestioned conventions over another to produce work which has been accepted by some as possessing virtues in both representation and abstraction. The more rigorous the questioning of convention, the more questionable the images produced will be. These new, questionable images resensitize our eyes as a by-product of the artist’s search for true quality.

At a time when a taste for the bizarre has been institutionalized and originally within certain boundaries deified, these artists have chosen to paint ordinary and usual images and not to seek for originality. “Exciting” as a value in painting is absent from their vocabulary. It has been replaced by “thoughtful.” They have turned their backs on the celebration of the vanguard in the American art world and have chosen instead a private world in which to slowly develop quality—a world which paradoxically is more available to appreciation without critical and institutional intervention than that of the public mainstream.

Gabriel Laderman