New York

22 Realists

Whitney Museum of American Art

Too much representational militance of late. The rash of exhibitions began in 1969 at Vassar; then at the Milwaukee Art Center, the Riverside Museum and now at the Whitney. A broad-based amalgamation of representational painters talk shop in East Broadway as once the Abstract Expressionists met at The Club. Numerous one-man shows and group exhibitions have familiarized the viewer with the work of most of the participants of the Whitney assembly; William Bailey, Jack Beal, Robert Bechtle, Harold Bruder, John Clem Clarke, Charles Close, Richard Estes, Howard Kanovitz, Gabriel Laderman, Alfred Leslie, Malcolm Morley, Philip Pearlstein, Sidney Tillim and probably some of the others too. It is a wonder that the survey managed to look as fresh as it did.

The discussion generated by so many like events naturally rendered Curator James Monte’s catalog a bit déjà entendu, an essay of class and sensibility but little more than a modification of the crucial suite of articles written by Sidney Tillim of which the key piece is “A Variety of Realisms” (Artforum, Summer 1969). In that essay Tillim drew the line between a grand tradition of representational painting and one which was a residue of Pop art. The latter, according to Tillim, was identifiable in terms of a reliance on the photograph rather than on nature itself, and, too, on a dependence on mechanistic procedure. This development was surgically excised from the more aspiring, historically continuous representational idiom. Curator Monte, himself, endorses this distinction when he writes that “The wholesale use of the colored slide, photograph, postcard and mass-produced lithographic reproduction is a very real issue which divides the two groups.” But Tillim went one step more bravely than Monte. On the basis of his insight he was able to distinguish between important and unimportant representationalism—in short, between good and bad art. If little else, the Whitney selection demonstrates the perspicuity of Tillim’s polemic and, although this result was clearly not Curator Monte’s intention, the abject bankruptcy of Pop-derived representationalism, a blanket charge which I think covers all such painters except, perhaps, Richard Estes, whose color and surface is somewhat at variance with the generally frigid effect of a representationalism based on the mechanistic imitation of a photograph.

Certainly, a polemical disdain for photographically based realism is, in itself, as ill-considered as any support for grand tradition representationalism based merely on the testimony of what that tradition once meant. Still I will not relinquish my view. If the newcomers are going to stress cold photographic representationalism then their error lies in the representationalism, not in the coldness. Chilling antisepsis is entirely legitimate as a mode of feeling—only the focus on representationalism seems misplaced. Instead of painting pictures after photographs, the young artists possessed of this sensibility ought to elevate this feeling to a strong and logical end and devote themselves to unalloyed technology. Otherwise, however commendable their coldness, they are compromising their feelings for sure through the creation of what ultimately must become still more petty and needless “emotional icons.” Their emotional and technical predispositions suggest that they are—far more than most self-congratulating “technical” artists—capable of bringing art to where McLuhan predicted it would at last arrive, namely at the point of pure technological research. Everything that passes for the latter in the present moment has in fact been so hybridized by questions of style that it can only be looked upon as tinkered, cumbersome collage.

All this need not mean that photographically or photo-mechanically derived representationalism cannot be interesting or touching. It can, as indicated by John Clem Clarke’s new pochoir tableaux which are tinged with a grecophilic nostalgia. Sentiment? Yes. Importance? Hardly. On the other hand, just because one may be a representational painter of the older tradition is, in itself, no guarantee of success. Sidney Tillim must own up to this in his role as painter. His work is awkward and pious. His weakly integrated space and deadbeat surfaces may attest to a refreshed feeling for Mannerism which is equally sensible, for example, in the more accomplished efforts of Philip Pearlstein and Harold Bruder. Still, I endorse Tillim’s view in my general repudiation of photo-representationalism although some new names in this respect have cropped up in this exhibition which may bear mention—Audrey Flack, Paul Staiger, Richard Joseph, Maxwell Hendler. As to Bechtle, Clarke, Close, Leslie and Morley, they are so widely known that, in all fairness, they need no extended discussion here except perhaps to note of Morley that the blood-red X across the face of his Greyville Race Track, Durban, South Africa, struck me as a hokey expression of moral outrage. Howard Kanovitz’s work is a trashy illusionism which comes out of Pistoletto without mirrors crossbred with Alex Katz’s cutouts. On the “grand realist” side, William Bailey’s pretentious idealizations strike me as cheapenings of Ingres and of George Tooker—who cannot support too much adulteration—not to mention Hugo Robus.

Gabriel Laderman was assisted by the hard light of the Whitney, which aided in knitting the surfaces of his landscapes together in the far more convincing way that he usually reserves for his still lifes. Philip Pearlstein was also well served. Since Pearlstein obviously paints out from a single realized element—an eye, an ear, a cheek—his figures tend to lose an integrated sense of overall regular proportions. But the resulting Mannerist giganticism suddenly seems like a conscious aim, a bit like the Giulio Romanos of the Palazzo del Tè. This Mannerist thrust was also sensible in the new paintings by Harold Bruder. His difficult pictures suggested that he had been drawn to academized Pre-Raphaelitism (e.g. Albert Moore, Lord Leighton). And his blunt and chalkily colored draped figures with their exaggerated spatial interstices also suggested that II Rosso Fiorentino was being examined closely. If I am right in these intuitions then the development of a Mannerist sub-genre within grand tradition representational painting seems an interesting evolution. Arthur Elias’s modest still lifes, with their casually tossed hand puppets indicated that he alone of all the Realists shown wanted to link tradition with the late 19th-century illusionism of Haberle and Peto. My highest and unreserved praise however goes to Paul Wiesenfeld. Wiesenfeld, in his pietistically dappled and polished surfaces, plays the souvenir of Intimist painting (the bourgeois interior) against the lethargic female nude—possibly out of Magritte, possibly from Balthus, but with a touching suppleness which the last two names fail to conjure, The luminousness of the painting leads back, I think, to Caspar David Friedrich or to Philip Otto Runge—although the theme of the nude in the living room is obviously foreign to German Romanticism.

Robert Pincus-Witten