PRINT Summer 1982


The method of our time is to use not a single model but multiple models for exploration—the technique of the suspended judgment is the discovery of the twentieth century as the technique of invention was the discovery of the nineteenth.
—Marshall McLuhan

THIS INFORMAL ICONOGRAPHIC SURVEY, begun several years ago, focuses primarily on American figurative painting from the late 1970s to the present. I have chosen to concentrate on the work that was the original impetus for this study and, with some exceptions, on artists who have been painting in a figurative mode for a considerable number of years.

The “pluralism” of the 1970s appears to have been the result of an artistic hand grenade lobbed into the unified surfaces, gestalt images, and singular critical mode of the preceding decade. Thus far, the figurative painting that has dominated the early 1980s attempts to construct meaning from the disparate shards flying in the wake of that grenade. Such a search for meaning expresses a fundamentally humanistic concern that has taken precedence over the more formalist considerations of the preceding period.

This contemporary figurative painting possesses a strong strain of romanticism, evinced in the determination of subject matter and composition by intuition, emotion, and the senses. Its most obvious precedent is of course Expressionist painting, and clear parallels exist in the subject matter, style, coloration, surface treatment, and attitude that informed German Expressionism in particular. Parallels can likewise be drawn between that movement’s romanticism, idealism, and strongly pacifist tendencies and the social climate in which today’s figurative painting has emerged.

In much recent painting, drawing techniques have been used to evoke a sensation of spontaneity, immediacy, and directness. This expressive drawing involves little problem-solving, and its primitive, deliberate awkwardness implies vulnerability and a certain kind of “accessibility,” in the sense that the work can be “read.”

The frequently observed fragmentation of images on a single surface creates a chaotic, littered visual field analogous to the information overload in our culture. Layering is often used to formally enforce ambiguity of interpretation and to oblige the viewer to spend a certain amount of time deciphering the images and constructing the subject of the painting. This fragmentation and layering is ubiquitous in recent sculpture as well. The work of artists such as Jonathan Borofsky, Jay Coogan, and Judy Pfaff combines painting, drawing, and sculpture in environmental situations and has much in common with recent figurative painting. Their environments treat the room as though its territory were that of the mind, and the results are unruly, paradoxical, and often quixotic. The work’s many components create a view of the world capable of expressing the entire gamut of states of consciousness.

Thus far, the diptych is to painting of the ’80s what the grid was to painting of the ’70s. The formal division of the canvas into two parts (either actual or implied) invokes traditional oppositions (good and evil, light and dark, male and female, public and private) as well as calling to mind the functional differences between the left and the right hemispheres of the brain. It is from the specific choices of image and the relationships between disparate images, styles, and points of view that meaning arises.

Unlike the didacticism and emphasis on formal innovation of the previous decades, these artists choose instead to confront recent esthetic taboos by openly referring to or directly borrowing from art history, mythology, and allegory. However, the extraordinary incidence of interest in other times, civilizations, and exotic locales produces less of the sense of nostalgia that one would expect from the process of looking back, and more of an art-historical sense of the present’s relationship to the past.

For instance, in the wake of the monumental “Treasures of Tutankhamun” exhibition which toured America in 1978–79, Egypt became a popular subject for Joan Brown, Earl Staley, and Shari Urquhart, who treated its iconography and mythology in both their classical and popularized forms; on the other hand, Charles Garabedian, who has used classical themes extensively since the late ’60s, chose to focus many of his works on China because, having never been there, he felt unconstrained by familiarity. Clearly these works of appropriation are both sophisticated and irreverent, with a strong satiric edge.

Severed from their torsos, the large heads that often fill the paintings are usually neither portraits nor self-portraits: but abstracted images generalized by their context, by ambiguous gender, or by the absence of naturalistic rendering. The Janus head appears from time to time (for example, in Jeff Way’s work of the past several years), presenting simultaneous views which imply states of transition and contradiction—metaphors for the cultural, political, and personal schizophrenia afflicting contemporary consciousness. When divorced from the torso, the head comes to symbolize the whole person as the locus of reason and logic, thought and expression, ruling over and controlling the rest of the body, while the torso appearing alone represents the seat of intuition, feeling, sensation, physicality, and instinct. This split, which is frequently manifest in recent painting, suggests the presence of a profound mind/body dichotomy.

The search for the self, allegorical as well as literal, is perhaps one of the most common themes in the present period. In the ’70s artists began to appropriate theatrical conventions into their work. The centering of forms on a field (suggesting center stage and a frontal arena—the locus of narration, drama, and therefore of meaning), became a kind of shorthand for the concept of identity, a way of imparting significance to an image by intensifying and isolating it. In some instances, the figure pushes out against the impastoed surface of the canvas, as though trying literally to free itself from the restrictions of the material and to confront its maker. In other works, the contrast between inner and outer states of being is suggested by images in which a human figure struggles to “see” itself—through a camera, in a mirror, or with the help of another. The common image of the mask as alter ego or dual identity constitutes a metaphorical opposition between nature and culture. This search for self-knowledge also manifests itself in images of mythological journeys to unknown realms, in which the dream becomes a paradigm of the world-picture, and fantasy and reality are interchangeable.

While the nude female figure abounds throughout Western art history, the nude male appears less often. Its frequent appearance in contemporary painting has little voyeuristic appeal and rather is used to suggest the heroism of ancient mythological figures battling the forces of evil. At the same time, their nakedness reflects a metaphorical vulnerability in their relationship with the contemporary world.

Animal images are frequently used in this work to represent the “other” aspect of human personality, the unconscious, the uncontrollable, the taboo. When humans are transformed into animals, as for example in the popular mythology of vampires, werewolves, or cat people, there is traditionally the assumption that evil forces are at work. In classical mythology the centaur (half man, half horse) symbolized savage passions and excesses; he personified the battle between good and evil in one body, man divided against himself, just as the satyr (half man, half goat) signified unbridled lust and licentiousness. When animals take on human characteristics, however, the effect is considerably more benign. In contemporary figuration, animals are anthropomorphized through their activities or by the genre in which they are depicted––for example, the portrait.

Sexual themes are most often treated obliquely; the fantasies that are explored probe the psychic interstices of sexual experience, suggesting and insinuating rather than graphically depicting. Many of these artists exhibit a fascination with the forbidden, with extreme states of being, with unusual situations that confound and repulse the viewer rather than elicit an erotic response. (Love and joy are not altogether absent from the iconography of contemporary painting, but they are tinged with a frenetic melancholy, and, like the images of death, are fraught with contradiction.)

Increasingly common are depictions of private places as metaphors for private activities and states of mind. Images of the studio, the bed, and the bath range from the mundane to the highly charged. The bath, with its ritual overtones and religious implications, seems to have become a particularly poignant symbol of solitude and freedom from the constraints of self-consciousness. Water has traditionally been a symbol of purification or reclaimed innocence; here large bodies of water evoke voyages, transformations, and struggles with the forces of nature.

One startling aspect of much contemporary painting is that many formal parallels with the art of life-threatened children exist. The prevalence of black and red (the colors most frequently employed by life-threatened children1) in so much recent figuration conforms to traditional color symbolism. The predominance of pictures oriented to the left suggests in both cases not only an emphasis on the intuitive, emotional half of the brain’s two hemispheres, but also indicates melancholy and nostalgia, and in extreme form the terror of death. Emphasis on the upper- and lower-left quadrants of pictures by seriously or terminally ill children has been interpreted as symbolizing the setting sun, the road’s end, or the draining of life. As Paul Gauguin remarked in a letter written from Copenhagen in 1885: “From the point of view of literal truth, there is no such thing as right and left; but to our sense of things, lines running to the right advance, and lines moving to the left retreat. The right hand strikes, the left hand is the one used for defense.” Thus compositions which lean to the left are often associated with the past rather than with the future, with the end rather than with the beginning.

Images of destruction and loss, both literal and metaphorical, are accompanied by an obsessive concern with death. On occasion this obsession becomes a means of celebrating life, but more often it is couched in sarcasm, or treated with forthright humor. Visions of the end of the world—of death and destruction on a massive, impersonal scale—have recurred periodically since ancient times. Images of a contemporary apocalypse involve devastation wrought both by natural forces and by such malignant forces of civilization as nuclear weapons.

Violence, in all possible forms, is perhaps the single most prevalent theme in recent painting. Depictions of rape, torture, and assassination abound, as do images of domestic violence, self-inflicted violence, and violence that is implied rather than stated. These representations of violence are about power, oppression, victimization, control, and differences of gender, class, and race. These artists have not remained neutral.

In the past few years, artists have been leaping from the ivory tower onto the pavements of such places as the South Bronx, Fourteenth Street, and Times Square. Much figurative painting of the past ten years results from the desire to recoup a visual language that can be shared by a larger public than the art community. There is a need to address ontological rather than formal issues in the work, to create content that participates in the concerns of the world at large, to create a visual fiction that will metaphorically remake a world gone awry.

Marcia Tucker, Director of the New Museum, has written extensively on contemporary art. Among her publications are monographs on John Baldessari, Al Held, Barry Le Va. Joan Mitchell, Bruce Nauman, and Richard Tuttle. In January 1977 she organized an exhibition entitled “Bad Painting” which was accompanied by an extensive catalog essay on recent figurative painting. The author wishes to thank Evadne McNeil and Nina Garfinkel for their suggestions and assistance.



1. Carol Perkins, “The Art of Life-Threatened Children” in Creativity and The Art Therapist’s Identity: The Proceedings of the 7th Annual Conference of the American Art Therapy Association, Baltimore, Maryland, Oct. 28–31, 1976.