San Francisco

“Recent Painting, USA: The Figure”

San Francisco Museum of Art

This exhibition is a black eye which will be a long time in wearing off the face of the Museum of Modern Art. Some sort of Junior Council put it together, which is less of an excuse than it is a warning––unheeded by the San Francisco Mu­seum––to other museums to be wary in booking it. This Junior Counci I sent out a broadside a couple of years ago, announcing the exhibition and request­ing figurative work to be submitted by artists all over the country. After seeing the response, the logical thing for the Museum of Modem Art to have done was to simply call the whole thing off, but––who knows what concessions have to be made, Junior Council-wise?––this is not what happened, and the show has been dragging its dreary length across the country, being picked up here and there by museums which would not touch it were the packing crates not labeled “Museum of Modern Art.”

What good painters there are in the exhibition––and there are several­––simply cannot be appreciated in the context of heavy-handed “human condi­tion” painters, phony symbolists, and mawky sentimentalists. One even re­sents their being there at all.

The scholars, the psychologists and the historians will one day explain, no doubt, why, as this exhibition defini­tively establishes––and this is certainly its only value––the figure is a hopeless direction in contemporary American painting. The arguments about Pop Art, much less Abstract Expressionism or Assemblage simply vanish in the face of this exhibition, and we get an inkling of why serious artists pursue almost any direction that promises vitality, some genuine visual engagement, even shock and outrage rather than turn out works as tiresome, dismal and embarrassing as these. The temper of the time is not here; there is an edge to our lives that the Junior Council, alas, has failed to feel.

––Philip Leider