PRINT January 1972

Problems of Representation

WILLIAM BAILEY’S NEW WORK is basically not different from what he showed in his last exhibition—it’s just better, and I was looking forward to discussing it. Now that the moment is at hand I see that I am not the right person for the job: there is simply too much in it that I don’t understand. I see, for example, that placement is very important in Bailey’s work. Without an extreme attentiveness to positioning, he would never be able to achieve the stasis that he gets; but I can’t make any sense out of the spatial intervals I find in his paintings, if in fact they do make sense. I don’t see how he makes his shapes, either—his is not a style of contour, but neither is it one of shading. In nonpictorial terms, the general characteristics of the work are equally hard for me to characterize: is it cerebral or emotive, rationalistic or Surreal? Maybe, at this level of generality, Bailey’s approach involves objects that have neither thoughts nor feelings but which are simply there. But I cannot rid myself of associations with Balthus’ work of the thirties (these are even more inevitable in the case of Bailey’s drawings) or with Pittura metafisica. In the end I have come to think that what the work is “about” is a kind of conflict in which opposing impulses, motivations, characteristics, fight each other to a standstill. Perhaps I should add that for someone of my temperament this kind of fixity is of great interest. And it is, in a way, a tribute to Bailey’s ability to impact problems in a stasis of oppositions, that one can say as much, and no more, of his figure paintings as of his still lifes; yet the consistency of such divergent motifs shows a rigorous sensibility and a subtle intelligence. But the question remains, what does Bailey think he is painting, subjects or objects? If I am at all correct in feeling that his work is as ambivalent as I do, he will have to make a choice fairly soon.

I have a few ideas about what the choice must involve, but before putting them forward I want to say something about the latest show of sculptures by Richard Miller. Technically, these pieces are extremely good. Stylistically, they are coherent but eclectic—surprisingly obviously so for an artist of Miller’s expertise: to some extent it is Maillol or Dalou or Rude, much more often Rodin or Rosso, but always one thinks of someone else. There’s nothing wrong with this (I don’t see why an artist has at all costs to try to be original, especially as no one ever really is anyway) and, as I say, the models to whom Miller has turned are fairly homogeneous in themselves and as he uses them. The difficulties arise from the fact that these works are being made and looked at by people living in the 1970s: the question is whether, in an artistic context so completely dominated by abstraction, the figure at rest is sufficient to make a figurative art convincing, not to say important. What Miller could have found in most of the 19th-century sculptors he has studied is a way of representing action that he has not chosen to assimilate. On balance I think that a sculptor enjoys a significant advantage over a painter in this respect, because the tradition of representing heroic action survived about a century longer in sculpture and had never been as utterly swamped there as it had been in painting—a painter almost has to think abstractly, while a sculptor can find nearly contemporaneous models of great quality and vitality from whom he can learn, if he wishes, how to render motion and, in a general way, involvement.

To my mind Miller’s problem is not very different from Bailey’s, and by way of introducing it I should mention a small but in some respects very worthwhile show of paintings and drawings by Isabel Bishop, Paul Cadmus, and Robert Vickrey; you can find it at the Museum of Natural History, in the dinosaur hall on the fourth floor—oops, I mean at the Midtown Galleries. Apart from Vickrey’s work it was very interesting, and Cadmus’ drawings were especially instructive. In them one finds the Mannerist echoes that were such a pronounced aspect of the best styles of the ’30s—in Benton it was Veronese, in Curry it was Rubens, Marsh looked most at Parmigianino and the school of Raphael. In Cadmus one sees also the Roman styles of about Raphael’s time—one has the feeling that Cadmus was actually thinking of Raphael or Michelangelo, but what came out is more like Sebastiano del Piombo or Fra Bartolommeo, although there’s nothing wrong with them! Cadmus’ best painting in this show, Venus and Adonis, is taken directly from Veronese in composition, drawing, and color; the décor is a tennis court out of Scott Fitzgerald. Bishop’s most ambitious painting, as well as her most successful, is Virgil and Dante in Union Square. Both are narrative paintings.

Why did these painters, whose styles were formed in the ’30s, turn to classic literature and the courtly styles of the 16th century, although they were painting local, not to say parochial, subjects? Because they were painting local subjects, yet wanted to endow them with importance—or, to be more accurate, felt they were inherently important and that the high styles and images of the past were most appropriate to indicate their dignity. So Virgil and Dante appear in Union Square as they had appeared in the afterworld of the Divine Comedy, and Veronese is revived beside a Long Island tennis court. It is, very simply, a way of saying these actions are as significant as were those of grand-manner history painting.

By now the reader will have sensed what I think is the choice facing Bailey and Miller. If representational art was not being made in what I called a context so completely dominated by abstraction, it is possible that it would not need to be figural. Even as things are, there is no doubt that Bailey’s work is concerned with formal problems with which Noland’s, say, is not, and to this extent it makes a real contribution. But in the end form is form, and the number of ways of dealing with it in colors on a flat surface is surprisingly limited; the experience of Bailey’s still lifes is inevitably a kind of adulterated or compromised one, a reflection or a shadow of other formal experiences in which we have more direct access to the elements involved, namely abstraction. And to me it seems unsatisfactory that Bailey deals with figures in the same way in which he deals with bowls and eggs: it is indicative of the extent to which the problems in his work are primarily formal problems, that two motifs or subjects, which should seem to be very different, are treated identically. I suggested that the content of Bailey’s still lifes may be Surreal, that the paintings may not be formal constructs but as it were fuses to emotional dramas, albeit of a very muffled sort. But if this is so, plainly he should leave off painting eggs and do work in which the figure occupies a predominant position, since it is in the human figure that experiences involving human emotions are preferentially to be expressed, that they assume the fullness of their sense. And by this I mean figures which are not treated as bowls or eggs.

Miller has taken this step, probably aided, as I suggested, by a sculptural tradition that makes the task easier, but it is striking that his figures are not doing anything. To me it seems so striking that I wonder if, in fact, he conceives of his figures in any more humane a way than Bailey. We know that Bailey renders the figure in the same way as he renders an egg, because the eggs are there for comparison; if Miller were to sculpt a still life, would its content be any different from that of these still figures? Certainly his conception seems more authentically figural, if only because all he does are figures, whereas in Bailey’s work the figure is the less frequent subject; but their inactivity calls into question the authenticity of the subjects. Because for the human figure fully to embody, express, or arouse the meanings of which it is capable, it has to be doing something that characterizes humanity; it has to be engaged in a significant action.

To find action in figural art is still uncommon today, although I think very few people can doubt that, for the reason I have just given, a truly representational art is a figural art and that a truly figural art involves the figure in action. More problematic is the necessity for the action to be significant—problematic in the sense that the test of significance does not depend on the artist, or even on art. The history painting of the past was an authentically figural art in this sense. It was composed of figures engaged in significant actions; what gave the figures their significance were the values espoused by society as a whole, or at least by that segment of it which was running things. Those values predominated, and in their terms the actions depicted by Michelangelo or Poussin were important. But is a kind of history painting possible where collective values are lacking—or, what is equally important, where the images that translate collective values do not seem to take a figural form?

To me it seems notable that, when this problem was last faced with determination, in the ’30s, the artists who faced it turned to the art of the past for the means by which to convey the importance their subjects had for them. For them, but not for everyone who would look at their work: in order to suggest that it was significant also for the viewer, the artist borrowed artistic modes he felt reasonably sure the viewer would consider authoritative. So Bishop suggests that what goes on in Union Square is important, involving ultimate values, by placing Virgil and Dante there as observers of the action, just as Dante had done in the Divine Comedy; so Cadmus suggests that a tennis court romance is important because Veronese painted the gods in the same poses and the same style. In other words, past cultures thought these devices appropriate to important actions, and the artist thinks these actions are important. Because he does not find in his own culture the means of stating their importance persuasively he turns to other cultures for his means.

In this way the central problem of figural painting can be seen to be a societal problem, not an artistic one. Certainly it involves technique, but before that it is a problem of subject matter—where technique is important, as in the painting by Cadmus, it is so as a kind of adjunct to subject: for Cadmus, as indeed for Veronese and for Veronese’s public, Veronese’s style connotes a kind of dignity or significance (in the action), of which the style is the appropriate but ancillary vehicle. And still more basically the significance of the subject is derived from its cultural sanction—its importance is not limited to the artist alone but is recognized by all those whose values give to that society its particular quality. So, to take what I said two paragraphs ago a step farther, there are really three problems: what experiences does society consider to be especially universally significant; what images does it attach to those experiences, by means of which the experiences can be expressed; and, are those images figurative ones? So far as the last factor is concerned an artist, once he has decided to work representationally, can do nothing; necessarily his effort is confined to the search for images, for subjects, through which to depict thoughts and feelings deep enough to have general significance. It is important to ask whether a representational artist has arrived at his subject matter through this kind of search, especially since, for reasons I have tried to give, the outcome certainly involves the figure in action; the question is only, which actions? In any case, it can be seen that the central difficulty of the representational artist is not in working but in getting himself to the point where he can set to work, in achieving the intellectual and emotional conditions necessary for this: because it is not a question of how to represent, but before everything else of what to represent. This is a problem that I think Bailey and Miller have not wholly faced, and I think it is fair to say that representational artists generally are very much hung up on it.

Jerrold Lanes