PRINT February 1969

The Reception of Figurative Art

FIGURATIVE ART IS NOT YET “IN”—far from it. But it is no longer the orphan of modernism that it was until only recently. Though hardly commonplace as yet, a few exhibitions have been devoted to the subject and others are planned. Of those already on record, most notable, perhaps, was the “Realism Now” exhibition presented by the Art History department at Vassar College late last spring. Causing considerably more critical agitation however (since “Realism Now” went largely unnoticed), was Norman Geske’s selection of figurative painters and sculptors to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale. The impact of recent figurative art was also reflected in, if not actually the subject of, “The Humanist Tradition in Contemporary American Painting,” organized by Paul Mocsanyi and shown at the New School for Social Research last fall. Finally, a major national museum outside of New York will mount what it hopes will be the most selective and definitive exhibition on the theme to date next summer.

Critical interest has likewise increased. Lawrence Alloway, who coined the term Pop art, created a post-Pop category in 1967, in an article in Arts, to describe a number of artists who shared many of the sources of Pop art but who painted in a more traditional manner without (of course) being “traditional.” His views were shared to a certain extent by Linda Nochlin, who wrote the catalog for and, apparently, masterminded, the Vassar exhibition. But to Alloway’s mass cult esthetic she added a sort of hip phenomenology, what she called “the assertion of the visual perception of things in the world as the necessary basis of the structure of the pictorial field itself.” Now, Rosalind Constable has passed the Alloway line on to the masses in a recent article in New York Magazine. Elsewhere, the ever-alert Time magazine last January unveiled a figurative movement which it wrote up as if it were an iceberg that suddenly had confronted it, with Alfred Leslie and Philip Pearlstein its visible part. Last but not least, was Philip Leider’s unconsciously patronizing remark in the New York Times to the effect that the best figurative art was, after the best abstract art, the art most worthy of serious critical notice. (Nonetheless, it was still only a “respectable but minor” art.)

This is not to ignore the fact that I have been writing about figurative art since 1961, about, that is, a pre-Pop but post-Abstract Expressionist figurative art.1 I not only disagree with the Pop-oriented writers and impresarios, but reject much of the work they have chosen to represent contemporary representational art.2 It seems to me that a fundamental misunderstanding is involved when a Mel Ramos is considered more pertinent than a Philip Pearlstein, or when a Malcolm Morley is placed on a par with a Gabe Laderman. Representation is an impulse, not a style. Yet the tendency today is to judge it in terms of received ideas about modernism and, therefore, style. A straightforward approach to representation, to art which quotes the Renaissance rather than comic books, is dismissed as academic, while the possibilities of a new narrative art are not even imagined. Instead sociology is substituted for literature, trends for history and topicality for quality. The past is denied a role in the vision of the contemporary experience.

Consequently, as far as a figurative art that is concerned with the problem of representation rather than the problem of style goes (or which recognizes style as not existing a priori to the act of representation), the growing pool of misguided attention threatens to flood the scene with impostors and to swamp it with misconception. Indeed, as my preamble implies, this is already happening.

A single, even singular, conceptual error is at the heart of all of this misunderstanding. It is the failure to recognize the relationship between what I have elsewhere called a radically conventional figurative art and old (master) figurative art. Instead, as I have said, writers and curators have assumed a relationship primarily to the modern, to the avant-garde tradition, and ignore the antiquarian basis of its radical reform of a once either moribund or fitfully eclectic figurative tradition. There is after all a difference between Eugene Speicher or Leon Kroll and Philip Pearlstein. Still, Mr. Alloway abhors “revival” realism while Mr. Leider sees figurative art as the minor version of a major style (Abstract Art) which is utterly unlike it in every respect. It is, indeed, “something else,” as Michael Fried put it, unwittingly defining its freedom from avant-garde and historicist inevitability, though, as I have written on several occasions, figurative art is an extreme expression of a common impulse shared by other recent modernist styles. Meanwhile, Mr. Geske seems to have thought of figurative art in terms of the now belated “new images of man” which could assimilate both modernist brushwork and two-dimensional design, while Miss Nochlin sees it as a virtually new avant-garde style, which could be flattering were it a less conventional idea about art.

The case is, rather, that the new and radical, if you will, figurative art relates to the modern by a conscious—more or less—reorientation to the old master tradition. Old master art is, I mean to say, nothing less than the antiquity from which modern figurative art can derive its ideals, just as the Old Masters derived theirs from Rome and Greece. The relationship of advanced figurative art to the modern is implicit, however, in that it sees the past through modern eyes and with, therefore, a purposive nostalgia. The formal revolution of modernism is a fact, but its conceptual application is no longer limited to the terms of that revolution. It can be implemented with other meanings, with other modes of signification.

What this means, among other than merely formal things, is that a new figurative art first of all rejects modernism’s antagonism to history or its tendency to see history as essentially an inevitable and linear progression toward the modern and beyond. It therefore rejects much—not all—of the Romantic inspiration of the modern, and places much less of a premium on issues such as inspiration and spontaneity, not to mention freedom, whatever that ever meant. It is a more Classic kind of art without being what Classic and neo-Classic art were. We are too removed from the Greeks historically and too removed psychologically from the naiveté that led to a belief in their perfection. Furthermore, as “democrats” our notion of what is ideal must accommodate the realism from which the modern has sprung. For it was realism that led to a subjective approach in art. The re-admission of illusion in some abstractionist art reasserts abstract art’s. origin in 19th-century realism. At the same time, it is evident from the sense of scale of modernist art that qualities more transcendental than realism are also desirable.

This, I confess, is general if not slick. But it is I think unarguable that figurative art and modernist abstractionism relate to past art in entirely different ways. I know this from numerous conversations with artists of both persuasions. The fact is, the figurative artists I know have history and old artists at their mental fingertips, while the abstractionists, some of whom know a great deal about old art, simply do not. Certainly the latter are not involved with the past as such. For them the future is a delta into which the mainstream must inevitably flow and the backward glance for instructional purposes is essentially heresy or reaction. It is also considered perverse.

The notion that figurative art is minor, or that it is avant-garde, or the tendency to reject its roots in classic conventions betrays similar modernist thinking about art history. All are attempts to find a context for figurative art that is compatible with modernism’s “tradition” of deprivation and revolution. They ignore the possibility that a truly new figurative art would represent another version of history, one in which Surrealism, Dadaism and Abstract Expressionism explain virtually nothing about what this new figurative art is about. These various theories, for instance, do not differentiate between a nostalgia for the twenties or thirties and a profound affinity for Mannerist art. And sociological, philosophical and psychological approaches to the iconology of the new figurative art do not really deal with the problem of subject matter. At least they do not deal with it in a way that sheds light on the way in which a given subject is painted. Some familiarity with this aspect of the problem would have prevented Miss Nochlin, for example, from attempting to link conceptually a latter-day Ingriste like William Bailey with a Pop naturalist like Malcolm Morley.

The relationship between technique and subject matter in the new figurative art is as important as the relationship of figurative art to past art. For a long time I thought that subject matter by itself was a central problem in figurative art. Lately I have come to the conclusion that it is, at best, just half of the problem. The other, and as important, half is the problem of what I shall call rhetoric. By rhetoric I mean the desire to elevate, to ennoble a subject, thereby virtually moralizing it. As a myth reflects the morality of a culture, it must follow that the purpose of rhetoric in figurative art is to mythologize the secular experience. A subject matter cannot be idealized unless a rhetoric exists that enables it to be idealized. We must first will to see the subject in a new way and find the style to match the will. This automatically excludes any sort of art with “Pop” tendencies.

In this respect the case of Richard Diebenkorn, a crucial personality in the history of new “realism,” is very instructive. Diebenkorn received his rhetoric entirely from Abstract Expressionism while his sense of subject, basically intimiste, resisted the moral elevation implicit in Abstract Expressionism’s “sweeping” painterly grandeur. I suspect that his return recently to abstraction was compelled by the fact that he could not fulfill a rhetoric to which his subject matter was essentially antagonistic. Diebenkorn’s rhetorical style elevated his subject matter to a plane of significance greater than anything accomplished by Pop rhetoric, but his painterly instincts apparently insisted it was not enough. His reversion to abstraction then, is, I think, more a matter of uncertainty rather than conviction and is not actually contradictory.

But his example proves the error of the assumption held by some that figurative art somehow came out of Abstract Expressionism. It is more likely the case that the contemporary sense of rhetoric, or the necessity of rhetoric, relates to Abstract Expressionism, especially with respect to scale; but the evidence is clear that when combined with a proper subject, the esthetic is otherwise altered drastically. Thus recent figurative art has kept pace with various “hard” abstract styles that, between them, constitute a general movement away from excessive painterliness in art. It is nonetheless painterly, just as color painting is still an essentially painterly style. The real difference between the two is not that one is figurative and the other is not; it consists in the way each has related to the Cubism in its past.

By way of conclusion, only one more thing need be said. It is that of all misconceptions about recent figurative art, the notion that it is involved with realism is the most misleading. Figurative art, I have tried to make clear, is involved with some sort of new idealism. Despite the emphasis by an artist like Pearlstein on the close perceptual recording of appearances, the fact is that in his art monumentality is the result. My own interest in the studio is a modern equivalent of historical painting; it is apparently Leslie’s interest also. Laderman generalizes while painting from nature and Katz stylizes and monumentalizes. Bailey draws from the model but paints provincially classicized nudes from memory. A proper definition of the new figurative art would account for the special relationship between perception and conception in the new representation in the wake of modernism’s preoccupation with generalized form as a particular truth of optical sensation.

Sidney Tillim


1. The fact that I broached the possibility of a new realism, albeit with some caution, in 1961, while most other writing on the subject is very recent, has to be significant, or ought to be, though I’m not sure how. Obviously I derive not only from a different tradition but from a different sense of tradition than that of both artists and critics of post-Pop art. Mr. Alloway is a transplanted Englishman with a long history of interest in the mass media and art. Miss Nochlin is a historian whose essay on “Realism Now” is, I gather, her first venture into critical writing on new art. Also I believe that as an artist, my critical reflexes were simply more sensitive to change. After a number of years as a geometric abstractionist, I had begun to paint in a figurative manner late in 1958. I painted in a flattish style until one day I suddenly realized—as did several others around the same time—that a painting did not have to be flat, and on this issue the new figurative art came into being. The figure then was returned to art not as a matter of principle but because as the most complex volume it demanded the most complex definition of space. Obviously in 1961 figurative art was not nearly as technically developed as it is now. Its conceptual advance however has been something else. I interpret the rise of a post-Pop art as a symptom of the failure of pre-Pop figurative art to develop more radically beyond its formal perimeter than it so tar has. But as I indicate at the close of this piece, this situation is not likely to continue and indeed this article may he construed as an attempt at an ideology of figurative art that will ultimately transcend the problems which beset it at the moment. In any event, the next five years will be crucial for serious pre-Pop figurative art.

2. This is the place to note an exhibition, “Recent Figurative Art,” which I organized for Bennington College in the fall of 1967. The painters involved were Philip Pearlstein, Alfred Leslie, Alex Katz, Jack Beal, Gabriel Laderman and myself. There was one sculptor, Richard Miller. To this list I would probably add today the names of William Bailey and Milet Andreyevitch. They are not all artists of equal quality nor do they necessarily share the same interests. There are, I have been told, a number of younger artists who feel themselves ready to take over the “movement.” But the artists I have named above are the ones I more or less have in mind in this article when I refer to pre-Pop figurative art, and I have suspended certain critical reservations, frankly, for the sake of ideology.