PRINT Summer 1969

A Variety of Realisms

Modern art, like modern literature and modern life, has lost much. In some directions it has more than compensated for the loss, developing its own complexity and its own—far more subjective—inwardness. But as one brought up on the past (like everyone else), I cannot help regretting what has been lost. The regret is futile, yet I believe that this nostalgia for the past, responsible though it has been for academicism, has also been a vital ingredient of the greatest advanced art of our times. The artist immune to it has that much less to struggle with, but he is also so much the poorer for his immunity. A certain dosage of nostalgia, a certain twinge of academicism, the very struggle against it seem to me to have been indispensable to both Matisse’s and Picasso’s greatness and to have contributed to the superior largeness of their art. . . . Not that the work of the modern artist must by any means resemble the past, but he must show some sense of it, a realization of its presence and attraction. Otherwise he dissipates himself in sheer quality and fails to impose that order and shaping which are indispensable concomitants of high art, and without which the truly cultivated spectator is left thirsty. High art resumes everything that precedes it, otherwise it is less than high.
—Clement Greenberg, 1948

SINCE 1961 I HAVE SUPPORTED ATTEMPTS to revive an art that in the context of modernism would be radically representational. There have been many “new realisms” touted since that time, commencing with Pop art, but none have actually been engaged in what I think is the main business of any “new realism”—the production of an authentic new episode in the history of representation. Thus the work I have supported and, it must be added, identified with as an artist, is distinguished by the fact that it is basically an art of representation, whereas what is generally passed off as a new realism is rather a rehash of some older style like Dadaism, Surrealism or Expressionism or is simply another variant of Pop art. The latter seems to be the case with roughly two-thirds of the work in Aspects of a New Realism.

Aspects of a New Realism is devoted largely to what I would call second generation Pop art. Lawrence Alloway’s designation for much of this kind of work is post-Pop art, a phrase which because it is brief, catchy and sounds pertinent is likely to stick. But like the phrase “post-painterly”, “post-Pop” tends to imply more stylistic independence from the parent form than the work actually has. Post-Pop art quite plainly derives from major Pop art and is a dilution of it where it most resembles it, as in the work of artists like Malcolm Morley and John Clem Clarke. There is the same use of prefabricated subject matter (old master paintings, magazine reproductions, photographs), the cult of the banal and again an attempt, literally and symbolically, to reject “good taste”, in terms of paint handling, even in work which depends at least on facility, such as that of Wayne Thiebaud and Richard Estes. Even Lowell Nesbitt, who I think would be more fulfilled if he relished his facility more, imposes an austerity that compels his work to look Surreal.

As some of these names suggest, this new “Pop” realism isn’t exactly that new, but its recent notoriety is fairly new. In fact, if Aspects of a New Realism succeeds where like exhibitions have failed, it is because it is the only one to have ratified a movement or to produce enough work with the concerted effect of one. Movements are part of the received history of modernism, and Aspects of a New Realism provides in quantity work which, whatever individual differences there are, manages to agree on one point. All of it scrupulously seeks out but refrains from glorifying overtly inglorious subject matter—from sullen suburbia to seamy New York or, in the case of John Clem Clarke, George Deem and Malcolm Morley’s Portrait of the Artist in His Studio (Vermeer), reversing the process by taking old art as the point of departure and then painting out the glory in it.

Among the representational painters, however, there is almost anarchic disagreement. They all have completely individual, if not perverse, takes on the history of modernism in art and the history of art in general. Some are closer to the present in their thinking (Alex Katz, Jack Beal), some are far more reactionary, seemingly (Gabriel Laderman, myself) and some seem to equivocate (Alfred Leslie, Philip Pearlstein). All have a certain problematical quality that defines both their distance from one another and their distance from other kinds of allegedly figurative art. Thus there are no conceptual contrasts between the new “Pop” realists as great as that between say Katz, Leslie and Laderman, who run a gamut, respectively, of humorously sophisticated intimacy, dramatic confrontation and cerebralized perception. Surface similarities between Beal and Pearlstein disappear upon brief reflection into the deep conceptual gulf that actually separates them, as is evident in their handling of color alone, Beal choking his pictures with “hot” and “cool” hues, Pearlstein setting off basically cool chalky color schemes with sudden unbroken bolts of strong color, usually in his drapery. If there is any similarity between any of the artists it is the result of influence rather than affinity. Obviously Richard Joseph, who lives in California, has studied Pearlstein, though his use of large interior setups is somewhat reminiscent of Beal. (Similarly, among the Pop realists Ralph Goings almost too blatantly derives from Thiebaud.)

My own feeling is that the representational camp need not, perhaps ought not to be so diversified. Still it is not surprising that stylistically the work is anything but homogenous, since everything depends on where an artist stood in relation to modernist art when he made his commitment to figuration. Alfred Leslie was a well-known younger Abstract Expressionist until the early ’60s whereas Pearlstein was only influenced by it externally. Katz has always accepted the surface weight of a residually Cubist picture plane while Laderman, who once studied briefly with de Kooning, has to all extents and purposes always been a highly conceptual artist who worked from nature.

This ideological disunity has not, however, hurried the revisionist impulse of the new representation into collapse before the new Pop realism. It has, however, contributed to its peripheral assimilation by post-Pop art and slowed its development generally. If Aspects of a New Realism makes anything clear, it is that the new representationalists share with the “new realists” the same reluctance to shed certain modernist attitudes especially with respect to the picture plane. Specifically, frontality (Leslie), cropping (Pearlstein), shallow modeling (Katz, who years ago anticipated Pop art and then was influenced by it) and abstract color (Beal) all evoke a surrogate planarity, the latent iconoclasm of which is confirmed by the fact that the problem of subject matter, especially narrative subject matter, is ignored in virtually all of the work. Pearlstein, in fact, has denied that he is interested in anything but a way of seeing, Beal’s new pictures are abstract to an almost alarming degree and Laderman has yet to create his first major figure painting.

Correspondingly, post-Pop art is not only not interested in representation as such, its most representational artists, Thiebaud, Bechtle, Estes, exhibit both the same frontality or actual flatness that inhibits maximum illusion. In fact, Estes, in order to deepen the space of compositions beset by too many overlapping planes set down in crimped, Manetesque style, is obliged to paint illusionist “abstractions”—the reflections of the city in hubcaps and shiny automobile bodies.

The ambivalence of the new representation is further underscored by the fact that its regressive modernist elements notwithstanding, there are literary associations in Pearlstein’s powerful portraits (AI Held and Sylvia Stone), Katz’s feeling for genre is rich in sophisticated sentiment, and Laderman’s recent and exceptional landscapes, with their feeling for the classical picturesque, have psychological as well as historical overtones. The still life was once his forte. Finally, Alfred Leslie has attempted a very large “history painting,” an extremely problematical work which, at the time this paper was written, was still unfinished and not expected to be included in the exhibition. (My own interest in narrative painting is evident from my picture in the exhibition, A Dream of Being, and I must apologize for mentioning it, except that it is pertinent at this point in my argument.)

It is clearer now why Pearlstein and Leslie have been singled out in the mass media (which have ignored more conventional representation) as singular figures of the “new realism” as they call it, or worse, the new “inhumanism.” It is not merely that Pearlstein’s almost unsavory preoccupation with detail and Leslie’s preoccupation with giant, frontally posed figures (Self Portrait and Constant West, the latter his best single figure to date) evoke the popularized enfant terrible. Rather recognition of modernist structure is by now reflexive, especially as the effect of one or two figures is, despite the complexity of the forms, essentially reductivist in spirit. Theirs is a kind of Minimalism in figurative terms. Some ineluctable modality seems to conspire to keep the figures from being much more than presences. They are powerful presences, even terrifying, to be sure, but their rhetoric is not as complex as that evoked in the painting of true monumental narrative.

But the modernist tic that post-Pop and pre-Pop figurative art have most in common, albeit with different results, is a tendency to serialization. Serialization refers to the variation of formal themes within given conceptual conditions with a given number of elements and a characteristic combination of these elements. It is not merely a variation on a theme but a renewal of the basic problem each time. All painting, insofar as it is a problem-solving activity, involves a form of serialization, but it is particularly characteristic and most clearly seen in certain kinds of abstractionist art such as Noland’s targets and chevrons or Stella’s shaped diagrams or looping bands. Serialization lends itself particularly well to the principle of reductiveness in art, i.e., the increasing simplification of structure to the point that shape and composition as such virtually disappear from the pictorial surface.

Consequently, much of post-Pop art is either serialized “realism” if indeed it is not defending itself against inevitability by satirizing the very process which seemed to hasten its development toward an almost absurd over-simplification. Thus John Clem Clarke will use the same painting by John Singleton Copley again and again (Gov. and Mrs. Thomas Mifflin is but one of a series) and extrapolate from it different abstract combinations that are colored, but not shaped, in a way that is closer to Kenneth Noland than to “nature.” Serialization in the paintings of Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol, two artists whose influence on post-Pop art is particularly strong, comes off partly as satire, however inadvertent, of abstract serialization. But the serialism of some post-Pop art is actually corrupt. Both Lowell Nesbitt and Bob Stanley have done a series of pictures that depend on subject for variety because the formal problem at stake is virtually non-existent. On the other hand, Wayne Thiebaud is very closely related to Leslie in his serialized frontality, but there is very little room for profound serialization, hence, variation in frontality. Just as Thiebaud then has moved away from frontal figures into tilted landscape, or turned his figures somewhat, or always denied them hieratic formality (unlike Leslie), so too has Leslie felt the restriction of the frontal format, hence his significant plunge into anecdotal subject matter.

Among the pre-Pop illusionists (I am running out of synonyms for representation) the most prominent of serialists are Beal and Pearlstein, particularly the former as more and more he combines two- and three-dimensional design in the same pictures and constructs setups that are obviously “machines” which provide an endless flow of varied shape, pattern and color. This may be the place to say something about Beal’s recent use of color, since it links up with serialization as an anti-representational element. Color has become Beal’s way of deepening a figurative statement expressively because he is unable or unwilling to reject the serialized format of the still life with figure, the figure itself being an addition to implement the expression of the still life. Gradually color, optical color at that, has inundated his compositions at the expense of his now residual subject, thus heightening the incidence of serialization and confirming his enveloping withdrawal from virtually any true representational interest whatsoever. Of course, Beal does not have to be a figurative artist, but he was a very promising one. His case, and the way his solutions have turned into a rejection of the basic problem, is a particularly dramatic illustration of the difficulties that beset the new representation which must, in fact, come to grips with subject matter, and the requisite attitudes it requires, to break out of the grip of latent serialization.

As for Pearlstein, he has been endlessly inventive in putting one and two figures through a series of frequently provocative compositions, but he turned some time ago to portraiture, obviously to heighten the complexity of a style in which technique was developing faster than his conception could find challenges for it. In his latest one-man show in New York (in April, at the Frumkin Gallery), there was a skilled clarity of handling that seemed almost too fine for the still somewhat grossly proportioned male and female nudes which Pearlstein continues to paint. Because of this subtlety, which records his increasing visual acuity, I thought I detected some loss of monumentality. Interestingly enough, serialization is incompatible with anecdotal painting, thus paving the way for the return of the masterpiece.

No confrontation develops, then, in Aspects of a New Realism which, despite a ratio of three to one in favor of “new realism,” held out the possibility of one. At that, one can find at the extremes of both ideologies profound unresolvable differences. Otherwise, the boundary line between post-Pop “realism” and the new revisionist representation is blurred, if not generally, in enough instances to justify a redefinition of the possibilities of outright representation at the present time.

Indeed, one must concede a connection between the persistence of Pop ideas in realism and the conceptual diversity of the representational painters. I don’t think that Pop consciousness generally would have assumed the dimensions it has attained, had a radical reorientation of art in terms of representation been attempted with greater ideological solidarity. As it is, second generation Pop art itself, is inclining in some instances towards representation, confirms the long-term trend towards a restatement of art in terms of imitation and invention. Not that radical representation has failed to develop or, at least, evoke a sense of style. I remain convinced the groundwork for a major new figurative art has been and is being established at a ratio proportionate to the growing attenuation and inbreeding of modernist art, which is overly simple if not simplistic now. Furthermore, considerable conceptual and technical progress has been made in the last nine years; the artists have persisted and in most instances the work is far more convincing than it was nine years ago. Nor is it in any way “minor” art. It is an independent entity with its own “minor” figures and not a lesser version of some presumably “major” current statement. If anything, what I have called the new representation is experiencing its first crisis—that of expanding its conceptual beachhead into an enduring community of ideas. A crisis of this kind presupposes very real basic accomplishment.

That the new representation is a growing influence also cannot be denied. I have traveled around the country and encountered students in Syracuse, Bloomington and Baltimore, to mention just a few of the places, who know what is going on, who write letters and ask for slides of work which the commercial slide companies ignore. In New York a figurative artists discussion group, involving many younger painters, has sprung up. It is an utterly disorganized, rancorous group already threatened with domination by several older artists, but portentous, nonetheless.

Still, the fact is that the will to representation has not yet yielded enough major work of individual conviction and quality to establish anything but its greater probability now. Instead there are a number of individual artists whose main distinction outside the quality they have managed to wrest from extremely problematical terrain is to have been among the first to both perceive the possibility of a new representation and accept the difficulties inherent in any attempt to translate possibility into probability. There are those who think it can’t be done. In any event, the strain of conception is evident in the work, proving at least that the new representation is as difficult a mode in which to create as any other form of modernist art.

Before going on, first to some critical and finally some theoretical matters, one basic misunderstanding surrounding the new representation has to be cleared up. Most people are especially unclear as to the historical line to which the new representation belongs or rather the historical moment which it represents. It is true of course that a traditional, realistic sort of painting persisted in the shadows of the New American Painting (Abstract Expressionism) and, in fact, still does in the era of late Painterly Abstraction. The names most frequently mentioned in this connection, though more than half a generation separates them in years, are Fairfield Porter, the elder of the two, and Richard Diebenkorn. Both are impressive painters; Porter is the more consistent figure but has not tried to be the innovative figure that Diebenkorn, the more conceptually uncertain artist, was, theoretically, in the late fifties.

Nevertheless, much of the appreciation of these artists epitomizes, I fear, the generally patronizing attitude of the avant-garde towards new representational art in general. In the case of the elder statesman and independent, Edward Hopper, adulation in vanguard circles can, at times, be as obsessive as tokenism is invariably obliged to become in rigidly liberal milieus. But of the moderns of roughly Diebenkorn’s generation (these include, incidentally, quite a number of accomplished artists working out of various French precedents of the late 19th and early 20th centuries), not even Diebenkorn has challenged modernist assumptions about art fundamentally. He has not, that is, brought an essentially new historical perspective to problems of modernist style as I think others have been attempting to do since the early sixties.

And a function of a new representation would be to effect this historical reorientation. Consequently an alternative to West Coast realism, its brushwork congenitally afflicted by Abstract Expressionism, was required. The impetus of a new post-abstractionist representation thus returned to the East and in fact began to make itself felt just prior to the advent of Pop art. It was especially dramatized by an exhibition by Philip Pearlstein in 1963, but seeds of the Eastern figurative idea were already sown in the early work of artists like Larry Rivers, Jan Muller, Wolf Kahn and Paul Georges. Georges, in fact, has for some time attempted to restore a grand manner to figurative art. He lacks, however, a conceptual temperament.

As I have already indicated in some detail, Eastern representation has not developed either as a movement or with as much clarity of intention as movements generally imply. Its best known artist is still Pearlstein whose “brutalist” inclinations have earned him both the criticism that he cannot draw (which is absurd) and a sensationalized image that for the mass media is all you need to be avant-garde. But Pearlstein was the first artist to reestablish credible volume in credible space in figurative terms and thereby to infer if not actual linearity a positively dense, rock-like painterliness that is an effective substitute, restoring as it does unbroken, unflecked color surfaces and with them a new integrity of shape.

Thus if the wide and disparate assortment of artists who can, however tenuously, be associated with revisionist values have anything in common, it is a comparable lusting after tactility, after strongly modeled form, clear contours and deep illusionistic space. Second generation Pop art is more illusionistic than the first generation kind, but its insensitivity to value as demonstrated by its most illusionistic artists (Morley, Thiebaud and Estes) combines with an essentially impressionistic attitude towards the painting of mass to cancel out the gain.

Figurative tactility is actually the exact opposite of the new abstract illusionism which is based either on color or diagrammatic surface division, or both. These are designed to preserve the highly generalized facade of the typical modernist abstraction. But it is an illusionism without real tactility. Touchability is never evoked, despite the discrete surfaces brought up into fields of color which stain them, despite the shaped surfaces of diagrammatic painting which infer tactility only when thought of as a kind of flat sculpture. Hence a phenomenon of color painting and the shaped canvas I once called “bulked space.” Figurative tactility, then, is the most radical implication of the new representation and that which separates it from as distinctive but overly painterly and therefore anti-tactile a style as that of an artist like Diebenkorn.

I am also suggesting that a new representation would constitute the most radical solution to the “crisis” of shape which developed in modernist painting with the ascendancy of color over all other considerations. The same phenomenon in sculpture, as demonstrated by the work of Richard Miller, comes to a rejection of open form, the restoration of the monolith and the repudiation of the influence of painting on sculpture. As the latest forms of Minimal sculpture indicate, this is very difficult, if not impossible, to do in nonfigurative terms. It is nonetheless worth recognizing that Minimal art and relevant figurative art share a common problem but represent opposite poles of the same impulse. The rest of modernist art has another, and older, history.

The interest in realism has been different, in degree and kind, than the interest in any other kind of modernist art. Some of it is purely “political,” of course, but I do not think that politics accounts for both the persistence of interest and the aura of hope and anticipation that frequently surrounds the issue of a new figurative art. There is a nostalgia about it that, far from being reactionary, expresses a desire to reclaim lost ideals in life and lost quality in art. It seems to me that the essential idealism at stake in civil rights, where it is not corrupted by power or destroyed by reaction, confirms a longing somewhere in the Western imagination for a “new order.” Technology is the avant-garde of a bourgeois imagination; we must have instead an art which once more transmits individual pride to humanity. It is right, then, that racial issues and issues of identity are synonymous, but the identity of the human race is also at stake.

It therefore seems to me that the issues involved in the question of realism, or representation, as I prefer to call it, are ultimately moral ones, and that a choice between Pop sensibility and revisionist consciousness is a moral one. By moral in the context of art I mean a style which executes the deeper social and psychological function of form, as opposed to a particular aspect of vanity called taste. Pop sensibility, Pop consciousness, Pop sentimentality have been invaluable in clarifying the provincialism and nostalgia that actually permeate a culture that has come to pride itself on its sophistication. But they have not resulted in a new high art simply because the requisite idealism has been lacking.

Indeed, the distinguishing conceptual feature of the “new realism” from its early moments to the present is that its relationship to realism as such has been at best symptomatic of its own failure to be realistic. I mean by this that where revisionist artists are working out of the possibility of a new figurative art, the “new realists” are motivated by or accept the impossibility of it. They possess the inclination to quite literally reshape the modernist picture plane with more than diagrams or “fields,” but lack the will to endure the difficulties a deep reform in these terms would entail.

Inclination directs itself to possibility but the will must, eventually, confront the probability and decide, usually in the face of great imponderables, whether to persist or desist. And a man’s choices have to be respected. Nevertheless, I feel that difficulty in both the conceptual and technical sense will be a decisive factor in determining the quality of art in the near future. The cult of intuition and spontaneity has recognized the significance of difficulty in art by inventing the notion of risk as a substitute. But it has not been enough to prevent the attrition of that meaningful friction that is caused by a confrontation of technique and inspiration. Technique is necessary for the sake of the imagination. Complex technical ability is frequently displayed in much “new realist” art, especially in terms of sheer illustration. Wayne Thiebaud and Richard Estes are nothing if not facile. But even as attractive as these artists momentarily are, conceptually their pictures do not meet the formal challenge raised by their illustrativeness.

The equation here is that of difficulty with morality and I offer it with some trepidation assured only by the fact that it is a commonplace of artists’ criticism of each other that some solutions are “too easy.” Alas, the principle is frequently only the affectation of an otherwise too permissive milieu in which indulgence has long masqueraded as freedom and self-expression. But I do accept the paradox of a negative conviction. The early works of Jasper Johns, still a source of inspiration to hew Pop artists, are among the most successful examples of unintentional parody that results from painting out of the despair of a conviction as to the impossibility of representation and illusion while desiring them all the same. It is a despair redeemed by the irony of anything like a subject—a number, a flag, a movie star, a photograph of anything—being there at all. And the way was paved for comic strips and candy. And beer cans. Johns’ sculpted beer cans et al merely underlined the sense of the impossibility of meaningful pictorial illusion. But in the end impossibility is a poor substitute for possibility and we can no longer choose not to choose.

Sidney Tillim