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Monday, January 10, 2011

Figure Painting

In 1958, the Museum of Modern Art organized an exhibition of first-generation Abstract Expressionists under the title "The New American Painting".  They sent it on tour to some eight European capitals where the paintings were well-received but the title was not.  There were growing suspicions that it wasn't, in fact, "new." Art critic Harold Rosenberg summed it up succinctly: "Today it is felt that a new art mode is long overdue, if for no other reason than the present avant-garde has been with us for fifteen years...  No innovated style can survive that long without losing it's radical nerve and turning into an Academy."  He dismissed second-generation Abstract Expressionists as "method actors", having lost any innovative edge.

Seated Figure with Hat,
1967, Richard Diebenkorn
The question of what was to replace Abstract Expressionism found a whole host of candidates waiting in the wings.  Pop Art emerged, as did Minimalism, but so too did representational art and in particular, a sort of rediscovery of "the figure".  Two artist emerged to lead this renaissance--Richard Diebenkorn, and Philip Pearlstein.  Diebenkorn (1922-1993) had. at one time. been an Abstractionist, teaching at the California School of Fine Arts where he was influenced by his colleagues Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still.  However, by the mid-fifties he began to once more use a model, and though his work continued to bear abstractionist painting techniques, he was able to capture new emotional elements associated with his figures that seemed to him more universal than what he'd experienced with Abstract Expressionism.  In doing so, he was accused to "caving in" to West Coast "provincial" tastes.

Typical nude figure by
Philip Pearlstein
Philip Pearlstein (b. 1924), also fled Abstract Expressionism when it seemed to him to have lost its "edge".  Over a period of several years, his paintings became more and more descriptive, eventually evolving into Photo Realism.  However, unlike Diebenkorn, any emotional attachment to his figures was often negated by his habit of hiding models heads or merely cropping them using the top edge of his canvases.  The result was that his nude figures (often with less-than-ideal physical proportions), though extremely realistic, became mere compositional elements, often twisted, overlapped, or cropped in such a way as to not only eliminated any erotic overtones, but any individual identity as well. In these two artist we see one, returning to subjective painting but in an abstract style, while another retained the strong compositional element of Abstraction but in a realistic style.

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