Representation is an impulse, not a style.
Looking back on the New York art scene in the late 1950s and early 1960s you see quite a few artists, mostly younger ones, painting landscapes, still lifes, figures. Diving into back issues of art journals from that time, you glimpse the loose coming together of these artists in studios, clubs, galleries. There were a number of group shows back then that brought representational painters—most of whom had already been showing in downtown galleries—onto the uptown scene. One of these shows was “Nine Realists,” at the Robert Schoelkopf Gallery in 1963. The twenty-first anniversary of that exhibition was recently celebrated at Schoelkopf with a then-and-now show featuring the nine artists who, in 1963, were mostly in their early thirties and just beginning to be known. It was called “Nine Realist Painters Revisited: 1963-1984.” Three of the artists—Leland Bell, Gabriel Laderman, and Louisa Matthiasdottir—have exhibited at Schoelkopf through the years; the other six, whose reputations range from small-scale to nationwide, were: Lennart Anderson, Harold Bruder, Audrey Flack, Paul Georges, Philip Pearlstein, and Sidney Tillim.
“Nine Realist Painters Revisited” wasn’t a big show. The two paintings per artist—one from the 1960s and one recent—weren’t necessarily the artists’ best or most elaborate works, and for someone who didn’t know the work very well the show may not have made much sense. It was a bit of a scrappy little affair, but there was also a rough tightness about it, which came in part from the emphasis on the early 1960s. One could see, at Schoelkopf, a variety of approaches to the world around us that reflected nicely the variety of representational painting that was being done at the time. The range of the original show led Hilton Kramer, in a 1964 review in Arts Magazine, to comment that the majority of the artists weren’t realists. “Historically,” he observed, realism “means Courbet—but after Courbet, what? ... It can no longer be confidently assumed that the term refers to something specific.” The title still doesn’t fit, but in a funny way the lack of coherence gave the show a pleasant, unpolemical tone. “Nine Realist Painters Revisited” wasn’t one of those dumb, glitzy Triumph of Realist Art exhibitons full of over-rendered house plants and coffee tables —it didn’t offer us a slick, shopping-center-modern Vermeer. At Schoelkopf the paintings weren’t just beaming out a message: you could get involved with them.
Schoelkopf’s 1963 show was one among many such uptown debuts in those years; but it’s not as if there had been no interesting representational painting done in New York in the preceding couple of decades. Tibor de Nagy had been showing realists— among them Fairfield Porter—since the early 1950s, and there had always been independents like Edwin Dickinson, John Graham, and Earl Kerkam, who pursued their quirky representational visions without regard for fashion. So it’s not as if a movement suddenly sprang up in the early 1960s. And yet something about the painting of reality does seem to have started around then. When you try to summarize what that something is, it keeps eluding you—you're confronted by such a loose, divergent array of artists. Some were immersed in abstraction and came—at times with violent avowals —to representation; to others abstract painting never meant anything. All of them, though, seem to have felt themselves as a new force in American art, much as the pioneering American abstract artists had in the 1930s and 1940s. This new generation was not connected to the old realist line in America that ran from the Ash-can School to the Social Realists of the 1930s and was going to seed at the Art Students League and the National Academy of Design. The young painters of still lifes, landscapes, and figures were, in their vision of the artist as a man who breaks through to new things, related to the world of the Abstract Expressionists, who had been, for some of them at least, teachers. They felt that what they were doing was timely. Clement Greenberg has recently denied ever saying to de Kooning that “You can’t paint figuratively today.” But even if the story—told by Porter—is apocryphal, the idea that for Porter the inevitability of abstraction was a challenge to be met by representational art seems emblematic of the spirit of the day. Alfred Russell—a marvelous painter who moved back and forth between abstraction and representation in those years—wrote around then: “Now is the time to paint the wrong pictures in the wrong century and the wrong place: paint Diana of Ephesus.” There was a sense of moment.
When the Museum of Modern Art responded to the buildup of representational art in the 1950s with two shows—“New Images of Man” (1959) and “Recent Painting USA: The Figure” (1962)—the artists were angry. They knew that they were the ones who were putting things together and making the connections—and they were getting steamrolled. “New Images of Man” included a heterogeneous group of artists, some of whom the New York representational painters admired: there were Europeans such as Karel Appel, Francis Bacon, Dubuffet, and Giacometti, the Abstract Expressionists de Kooning and Pollock, and Californians Richard Diebenkorn and David Park. Porter, who was then reviewing for The Nation, wrote one of his angriest reviews. “The common superficial look of the exhibition is that it collects monsters of mutilation, death and decay.” Porter didn’t hate everything in the show, but he hated the mindset that had gone into organizing it. “The violent image of man has the purpose of making a creation acceptable to critics, it gives an easy subject matter to critical writing, for those paintings and sculptures seem to mean something profound in proportion to the amount of distortion and violence of their appearance.” Three years later, when seventy-four Americans were selected from a pool of nearly two thousand applicants for “Recent Painting USA: The Figure,” the show turned out to be another mosdy monster anthology. Philip Pearlstein has recalled that “Everyone referred to [“Recent Painting USA”] as the ‘Buchenwald show.’” Porter must have felt that he'd said his piece about the figure-as-monster. His review opened with the laconic observation that “some painters have never stopped painting the figure, and since the exhibit shows no change on the part of particular painters from a non-objective to a figurative style, it could be said to represent a renewed interest in the figure on the part of critics and the audience rather than among painters.” Most of Porter’s review was devoted to a general discussion of figure painting in the Western tradition. At the end he praised two painters in the show—Richard Lindner and Elaine de Kooning—and regretted the absence of Alex Katz and Paul .Georges. Georges, incidentally, was in Schoelkopf’s “Nine Realists” show. And both Georges and Katz were included in an exhibit called “The Figure” that the Komblee Gallery organized as a response to “Recent Painting USA.”
Two other painters in “Nine Realists”— Tillim, who was at the time writing regularly for Arts Magazine, and Pearlstein—went into print to protest the MOMA show. In a review with the fetching title “Waiting for Giotto,” Tillim observed that the monster images recalled social realism in the way “the message obscures or distorts plastic structure and organization .... So much moral stress is given to the new Figure (and the fact that the Figure is simply there), its anatomy as threadbare as a depression sharecropper or bloated by the excess of repressed violence, that we get very little of what we currently understand as a consistent painting.” And Pearlstein in an article in Art News—it also had a rousing title: “Figure Paintings Today Are Not Made In Heaven” —complained that “a moralistic ban has been placed on spatial illusion. But it is an arbitrary ban. The flatness of the picture plane is no more a truth than was the flatness of the world before Columbus.” It might seem madness, Pearlstein said, but it is still possible for a painter “educated in the 20th century modes of picture-making to take as his subject the human figure, conceived as a self-contained entity possessed of its own dignity, existing in an inhabitable space, viewed from a single vantage point.”
Pearlstein’s article probably came closer than anything written at the time to defining what separated the work appearing in shows like Schoelkopf’s “Nine Realists” and Kornblee’s “The Figure” from the pictures at MOMA: the artists at MOMA were using the figure, to quote Tillim, as an “apocalyptic” emblem. What was missing was the very thing the artists at Schoelkopf and elsewhere were so absorbed in: a belief that the coherence of nature could inspire a new kind of pictorial coherence. By giving oneself over to the integrity of nature, the artist could discover a new aesthetic integrity. “The artist working from a model,” Pearlstein wrote, “is guided by his particular interests to concentrate on the forms, or on their spatial relationships, or on light or color. These interests tend to be mutually exclusive. The space interests of Charles Cajori [a painter in the Matisse tradition], for example, are in no way related to the light and color interests of Paul Georges or Fairfield Porter. The paintings transcend mere description when these interests are intensely pursued. The paintings become explorations conducted in the full knowledge of the complex esthetic we have inherited.”
“Figure Paintings Today Are Not Made In Heaven” is an artist’s article—it comes straight out of the studio—and it conveys what a lot of artists were feeling at the time. They were all fired up over perception and the paintings that could be made out of perception. Pearlstein’s description of the process of making a representational painting leaves the possibilities fairly open. Though he may not have quite intended it, his description could as much describe Cubism as classic modeled form. You felt that variety at Schoelkopf, and that’s what was good about the show. For if Laderman’s View of Florence (1962-63) has a certain flavor of Quattrocento—or nineteenth-century—completeness, Bell’s and Matthiasdottir’s self-portraits suggest a relationship to nature that was hardly possible before 1890.
So what starts in the late 1950s and early 1960s—in the sessions of drawing from the model and the still life, in the visits to Corot and Velázquez and Poussin at the Metropolitan—is a new absorption in the relation between what is seen and felt in nature and what of that can be put on the canvas. The artists form not so much one group or movement but a loose commingling—a frieze of artists: individuals interrelated but in no fixed way, each on his or her own evolution. It’s a crowded scene. There are loud, factious meetings of the Figurative Alliance on the lower East Side; there are paintings, galleries, rising and falling stars, and articles and reviews in newspapers and magazines.
Most of the representational painting of the 1950s and early 1960s was affected in one way or another by the presence of Abstract Expressionism. Sometimes representation was a reaction against it, but this was not always the case. The new American painting had fired a reconsideration of Impressionism—especially the later work of Monet—which was suddenly seen as confirming the essentially improvisatory, rebellious nature of Abstract Expressionist structure. And many of the artists who turned to nature in the 1950s wanted to get loose before nature in much the way Abstract Expressionists let loose before the canvas. Porter is the most important figure in this group of painters. His best work stays close to the free-floating experience of nature, and some of his most interesting critical statements point at an essentially anti-structural, mysterious approach to nature and art. (Porter’s dislike of Mondrian, who improvised within a set structure, makes perfect sense when seen in this light.) In his criticism Porter sometimes blurs the line between art and reality, between abstraction and representation—in this he is rather de Kooning-ish. One of the last statements Porter published, in the catalogue of his 1974 exhibition, is a resounding rejection of programmatic thinking in art. “So far as it has merit, a painting is a fact, arbitrary and individual.”
This line of thought was echoed in the introduction to a show at the Ingber Gallery in 1975 called “Painterly Representation.” It included sixteen loose representational painters, among them Bell, Georges, Matthiasdottir, Porter, and Louis Finkelstein, who also organized the exhibition. In his introduction to the catalogue Finkelstein defined painterly vision as an approach in which “everything is up for grabs: the style, the space, the structure, the attitude, all affect, the way we are touched by the world.” The definition of representation as improvisation could apply to Porter and Finkelstein—who has painted some beautiful views of the freeways and fairgrounds of Queens—and a number of other painters in “Painterly Representation.” It doesn’t, though, tell us anything much about the painterly painters at Schoelkopf. This is because the painters in “Nine Realists"—both the painterly ones and the more detailed ones, like Pearlstein and Laderman—were rejecting improvisation. They were fed up with painting that was led on by experience; they yearned for a sense of limits. Laderman and Pearlstein recall, in their hunger for detail, the empiricism of Corot and Courbet. Lennart Anderson’s clear outlines and fading-away color echo the neoclassical antiquarianism of Puvis de Chavannes. And Bell, Georges, and Matthiasdottir recall the attitude of the post-Impressionists, who used modern techniques but were uneasy with the uncomposed compositions of their Impressionist mentors. It’s the yearning for order that links all the painters at Schoelkopf; they're all after an experience of the world that can be reconciled with the coherence of traditional painting.
Artists sometimes resent it when their work is referred to as painterly. They see the term, with some justification, as a label that turns paintings into products. But they are reacting, I believe, to the most limited meaning of the term, in which painterly suggests a way of handling paint. Painterly can describe much more: a way of inventing and realizing pictures based on the evocation of forms rather than the strict construction of forms.
Modern painterly painting began with Manet, who has become, at least since his 1983 retrospective, the darling of the post-moderns. Postmoderns see in Manet the King of Deconstruction and Appropriation, ripping off the museums and turning tradition into a slapdash painterly cartoon. Their accounts at times jibe with elements in Manet, and it is surely the irreverence with which Manet can approach the past that has made many current painterly representational artists shy away from him a bit. If I am right, painterly painters in New York have never quite viewed Manet with the enthusiasm shown by Picasso, Matisse, Derain, and a more recent French painter such as Jean Hélion. For the French, who have never doubted their grip on tradition, Manet’s ambivalence toward the past and what may have been his nose thumbing (you can never be sure with Manet) was the liberating example. Americans aren’t so fast to snipe at tradition, since they don’t have such a strong hold on it. So while painterly was for France a way of suggesting through the flash of brushstrokes the breakup of the past in the face of the present, for many American artists painterly is a way of confirming the usableness of the past through dashing, brushy evocations of old styles. This attitude informs the work of a painterly abstractionist like de Kooning as much as it does any realist’s work. For American artists, painterly representation is a way of paying double homage: to the experience of the present and the meaning of the art of the past. Something like this double act operates in the work of Georges, Matthiasdottir, and Bell.
Paul Georges, the only one of the painterly artists at Schoelkopf who crops up much in Porter’s criticism, seems almost dazed by the way he sees art everywhere he looks. He’s one of those artists who wears his love of the past on his sleeve, and he seems to like the old ideas so much that they keep him from developing some ideas of his own. When, as in Paulette (1981), Georges paints a glass goblet, a pear, or a girl’s skin, you feel that he isn’t really thinking about anything that he’s seen so much as he’s caught up in a fantasy that he’s Titian or Tiepolo painting these things. I remember a show of Georges’s work at the Blue Mountain Gallery sometime in the 1970s in which —though the paintings seemed to slip out of your grasp—there was a likeable freshness about it all. I imagine that is what pleased Porter in Georges’s work. There is hardly a Georges painting, though, that doesn’t seem compromised by a fatal flaw in his taste which draws him, inexorably, toward the illustrative. He can get caught up in small details like the glints on the glass in Paulette that—though he obviously insists on them because they’re like details in classical paintings—throw the whole structure awry. Or he will grab onto some large, Old Masterish compositional conceit that is so far outside his direct experience that he can’t make it real for us. Georges’s paintings have a brazen look and a comic attitude toward the art of the past that sometimes makes me think of Manet. Certainly, Georges is the most Manet-ish of current painterly representational artists, and my own discomfort with his painting may have something to do with my problems with Manet. But even if one is completely convinced by Manet, his near-parody would seem to be different from Georges’s near-parody of a near-parody.
Manet was drunk on the capacity of sheer paint to evoke life. He uses the seductive qualities of paint, but sometimes the effects aren’t convincing—it just looks painty—and one feels that the physicality of the materials has gotten the better of him. There are moments in Louisa Matthiasdottir’s work— in the more virtuosic passages of glass objects in the still lifes, or in her occasional flower pieces—when she seems to recall Manet’s giddiness over the evocative powers of the brushstroke, but Matthiasdottir never uses the brush to rip things up in the Manet manner. For Matthiasdottir, the bigness of the brush is less a way of letting loose than a way of simplifying the tradition—of getting at essences. The modernness of Matthiasdottir’s painterly stroke is not in its freedom but in its synoptic concision. Though her painting carries along all the traditional baggage of subject matter, naturalistic atmosphere, and structural coherence, Matthiasdottir is very radical in the way she assigns value to these old verities. Often it seems that Matthiasdottir needs her mundane, traditional subjects so that there is something against which to measure the full effect of her painterly vocabulary of clean forms and high, singing color: the treatment doesn’t just support the subject, it poses a challenge. Matthiasdottir’s paintings present a tradition in the process of opening up and growing beyond itself into something new. She takes the old equations and abstracts them, multiplying implications to such a degree that the specific begins to point, in a very modern way, toward the archetypal and the infinite.
Matthiasdottir has a show at Schoelkopf every two years, and so it’s been possible to watch her go step by step through what has been one of the most impressive evolutions in recent art. Her painterly representation began as almost insistently naturalistic—as a style that meant to evoke no style. In the first works that were reproduced much in New York (in the early 1960s: they were mostly portraits) Matthiasdottir displayed a firmness and a directness—a way of locking into the big volumes of a face and a head—that remains a glory of her art. There’s an im pressive scale to her brushstrokes, and she always knows how to use those broad, flat strokes of paint to convince us of the reality of anything she’s looking at. Up until recently I’d say her most exciting paintings were her still lifes. She was completely comfortable with the combination of bourgeois domesticity and formal composition; but something about the centrality within the Western tradition of made-up landscape and figure composition seemed, in the early 1970s, to be beckoning to her. At that time she began to exhibit big, imagined compositions—and it felt like a step into the unknown. Matthiasdottir had always been sure of nature; now she wanted to make paintings whose logic came from outside of nature. Matthiasdottir wanted something more planned; she wanted to take upon herself the art of the past and let it become a second skin.
In the early 1970s compositions, based on recollections of her youth in Iceland (some seemed to grow out of old snapshots), Matthiasdottir was obviously building on her experience of working from life (she’d always done landscapes). These big new compositions had a rare largeness of ambition—there was a whole world in them—but they didn’t electrify the viewer the way the still lifes did. It was as if Matthiasdottir had resolved to embrace figure composition as a conceptual activity, related to classicism in its detachment from experience. Matthiasdottir’s painting process here was the reverse of Manet’s. She was evoking tradition not in order to break it up and herald the triumph of the modern, but in order to see the present through the clarifying glass of the past. In a series of works from the mid-1970s based on a lake shore in Maine, Matthiasdottir threw herself into a Seuratesque study of classical landscape space, arranging the repoussoirs of trees and the silhouettes of close-up standing or reclining figures against a progress of space into distances of alternating dark and light bands. In another series from that time she concentrated on large, sharply silhouetted farm animals—a cow, a horse. Both groups of paintings had a density of color and shape—an abstract force—uncommon in her work up to that time. But these figure compositions shown in the mid-1970s seemed a bit overdetermined, as if the abstracting impulse were endangering that sense of life—of the volumes of things in nature—that had always come so easily to her.
At the end of the 1970s, the perceptual and conceptual strains in Matthiasdottir’s work cross-fertilized; she was suddenly buoyed up by history, as if her modern sensibility had been underlined by the echo chamber of tradition. The still lifes continued her old study of the bourgeois formalism of Chardin, but with a new and almost supernatural clarity of form—an original notion of the abstract value of two-dimensional conflations of three-dimensional objects. The figure compositions, especially the extraordinary views of Icelandic cities, had that sense of abstract form, but it was now animated in some rare way by the accidental and provisional. One wall of Matthiasdottir’s 1980 show, where the long, horizontal, brilliantly colored Vesturgata cityscape hung next to the big, pale, all grey-and-beige Self-Portrait with Umbrella, holds especially clearly in the mind: these paintings threw together the disordered felicities of the world and the ordering process of art to create dazzling metaphors of freedom within constraint. From Matthiasdottir I now expect nothing short of miracles. Particularly stirring from the past few. years is a large self-portrait in a striped sweater, in which the artist has her hands on her hips. The form of the figure—tight at the head, bowing out in the middle—is a conception worthy of Velázquez. And the new painting in “Nine Realist Painters Revisited,” of a horse and rider, is also remarkable: this single, massive volume takes hold of the picture space in much the way Renaissance equestrian monuments take hold of city squares.
Leland Bell is another artist who has gathered strength from a sense of connection to the great central line of European art: the line that runs from Titian to the seventeenth century in Holland and Spain and then on to France and straight into modern easel painting—both figurative and abstract. In an article Bell wrote about Jean Hélion in 1964, he recalled that “In 1940 [when Bell was eighteen] I had a passion for abstract art: at that time it appeared to me as the only true and possible path. I used to haunt the Gallatin Collection in Washington Square. My enthusiasms were Arp, Mondrian, Gris, Leger and Klee (though not particularly the Klees in that collection). I remember going day after day to stare at a favorite Arp papier collé.” Bell’s article, with its moving description of Helion’s evolution from abstraction (for which Helion was an ardent polemicist) to representation, suggests how significant Helion was for him. Bell, like Helion, has been preoccupied with an idea of figure composition borne of a post-abstract revaluation of traditional Western painting. Bell isn’t re-imagining the space of nature as Finkelstein’s painterly realists are; he’s re-imagining the space of art. Bell’s work over the past two decades consists of a limited group of motifs which he has returned to again and again: self-portraits; a motif of several figures behind a table gesturing at a butterfly or moth; and a motif of a bedroom with a man, a woman, a cat, and a bird. The fine, recent Bell painting at Schoelkopf, Two Nudes with Cat (1982-83), treated the bedroom motif on the biggish scale (roughly four feet wide by six feet high) he has been employing with increasing success in the last decade. (These days it sometimes seems that bigger is better with Bell.) Bell uses a relatively limited range of colors: warm terracottas, pale bisques, striking, yellowed or purpled blues. The bodies are colored in a few tones: on the figure of the standing woman, gesticulating wildly at the cat, a single red runs along her back contour, all the way from foot to neck. In turn, the few spreading tones are held in by black lines—a Bell signature—which announce, like great unfurlings of ribbon, the edges of the forms. The Bell figure compositions are thus, in some respects, reminiscent of the moderns he looked at in the Gallatin Collection: Arp, in their flow of forms; Mondrian, and a certain kind of Léger, in their reductive sensibility.
I once heard a painter complain of Bell’s recent figures that the simplification of the forms could not support the complexity of movement and anatomy that the contours seemed to imply. And although I don’t agree, I think he put his finger on the very odd flavor of the recent Bells. Bell has at times, and especially in his self-portraits, gone all the way into the little bumps and curves of human form; but in the last few years he’s been paring things down. Given the black outlines and flat color shapes of Bell’s figures, you might think they were related to Leger’s later figures. The Legers, though, read as static in a Byzantine sort of way, and the colors propel us over, around, and through the figures, rather than letting us sense the movement within them. In Two Nudes with Cat the movement isn’t around the figures, it’s in the figures. As you look at the simplified, clear yet telegraphic quality of the forms, you feel the pressing into space—the tension and release—that is implied in a tightened muscle, a raised arm. Bell is a Mondrianist in the sense that he thinks it’s all in the relationships; with Two Nudes with Cat you don’t fix on an arm or a torso, but on an arm against a torso, a leg against a bed sheet. Out of this process of balancing one element against another, you begin to grasp the coming-into-being of a world. That Bell should use such abstract means to convince us of the reality of his figures is one of the surprises of his art. But perhaps a strategy this radical was needed, given the largeness of Bell’s dream, which is to reinstate the idea of human movement in painting, lost, perhaps since Rubens—certainly since Delacroix.
In his introduction to the catalogue of the 1975 “Painterly Representation” show, Finkelstein observed that there were too many theories to describe the new realism: “too much false, flatulent, weak theory . . . theory which stands in front of the work or which props up what would otherwise be too weak to be of interest.” This is definitely true; and yet, amidst the bad theory, some very beautiful thought has come out of the studios and classrooms of representational painters—about art in general as much as about the art of still life and landscape and figure painting. This art, which has involved a large-scale reconsideration of modernist art and its mythology, has given birth to a number of remarkable talkers and teachers.
Bell, who made it his business in the 1950s to get to know the great figures of postwar French representational art at firsthand, gained through his contact with Balthus, Giacometti, and Hélion a special appreciation of non-abstract European art since 1920. (Most representational artists in New York—like most abstractionists— thought that European art had pretty much collapsed before World War II.) I remember Bell, in 1971, lecturing at the New York Studio School—an important art school founded by the painter Mercedes Matter— on the later work of de Chirico, Dufy, and Picasso. I don’t think there were many people back then raving about these things; there are more now. It is, I would guess, in large measure Finkelstein and Laderman who have made the graduate program in painting, at Queens College, where they teach, one of the finest in the country. And Tillim, who teaches at Bennington, has an astonishing catholicity of taste. I once saw him take part in a critique of painting majors at an art school, and the way he could pass through student versions of Neo-Ex-pressionism, Color-field abstraction, straight portraiture, and traditional abstraction and bring to each the same largeness of vision was dazzling. Tillim may have it somewhere inside himself to write a great book of aphorisms and pensées. He can come up with unforgettable observations, such as this, from an essay on Walker Evans: “As there are no primitives among photographers, since the camera does the drawing, there can be no grand style in photography, since the camera cannot generalize.” Nothing I’ve read on photography in Walter Benjamin or Roland Bardies goes deeper.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s Laderman and Tillim wrote a series of articles for Artforum which, when read together, suggest an effort to find a safe and honorable place for representational art within the go-go atmosphere of late-1960s New York. (Scandalously, there is no trace of Tillim—who was a contributing editor to Artforum —in the recent anthology of articles from the magazine.) In the late 1960s Tillim was already painting figure compositions and Laderman was working on precisely rendered landscapes and still lifes. Although their articles in Artforum never quite have the wild, heady ease with ideas that sometimes gets into their stand-up remarks, they do have a weird, crabbed brilliance. I feel in the writing a quality almost of desperation.
Laderman and Tillim, like many of the artists who had been painting representationally since the beginning of the 1960s and earlier, were horrified at the way their art and the art of their friends was being associated with Pop Art. Or was being seen as a post-Pop realism; Pop Art gone normal. Tillim was trying to convince people that representation wasn’t just a joke on mass culture. He wanted people to see it as a new response to the crisis of modern art that Greenberg had described as the crisis of the easel painting. Tillim was interested in the huge dimensions of some 1960s paintings —Al Held’s abstract Greek Garden (fifty-six feet wide) and James Rosenquist’s Pop F-111 (eighty-six feet wide) are two that he mentioned more than once. (F-111, which no one talks about now, was shown at the Metropolitan and occasioned on interview with the artist in Partisan Review.) The sizes of these works struck Tillim as an effort to give a new monumentality—and perhaps a new cultural importance—to modern painting. Their failure convinced Tillim that modernist painting, with its emptying out of space and generalizing of forms, could simply not support a monumental art. The figure, Tillim believed, must be the carrier of monumentality. And, as well, in the late 1960s, at a time when Civil Rights and Vietnam were making a lot of artists feel that they needed a way to respond, Tillim saw representation as a source of renewal. “There is a nostalgia about the new figurative art that, far from being reactionary, expresses a desire to reclaim lost ideals in life and lost quality in art. It seems to me that the essential idealism at stake in civil rights, where it is not corrupted by power or destroyed by reaction, confirms a longing somewhere in the Western imagination for a ‘new order.’” Laderman wrote something similar in a 1970 article, “Notes from the Underground”: “A radical political artist must be a figurative artist.”
In the late 1960s, Tillim was longing for a true history painting—something that did not yet exist. In the summer of 1969 he wrote of The Killing of Frank O’Hara that “Alfred Leslie has attempted a very large ‘history painting,’ an extremely problematical work which, at the time this paper was written, was still unfinished.” Tillim’s own development as a painter—represented at Schoelkopf by an oddly cropped still life of Shoes and Socks from 1962—had by 1970 moved into figure composition. Between 1970 and 1975 his painting evolved from compositions that he perhaps felt related to Mannerism, to a sense of structure and scale increasingly neoclassical, which he combined with subjects derived from early American history and the Old Testament. These paintings never got over an embarrassing awkwardness—they're failed in realization if not in spirit—and there was a visible relief in Tillim’s show at Meredith Long Contemporary in 1979, when he embraced a wildly angled figuration in which men and women out of modern life and myth were caught in semi-abstract structures reminiscent of Jacques Villon and the German Expressionists. The best of these pictures—Murder Hollywood Style, Self-Portrait—had a harum-scarum, improvised feeling that left the viewer happy. There was no system, and the kalaidoscopic running together of life and art seemed to come from deep inside.
Tillim may have bailed out—he’s now painting abstractly—but the monumental figure composition that he was dreaming of in the early 1970s has, in a sort of form, come to pass, especially at the Frumkin Gallery. This is where Jack Beal and Alfred Leslie show—they are contemporaries of the Schoelkopf painters, though they started painting representationally a bit later— along with a painter of monumental still lifes, James Valerio. These artists can exhaust you with their craftsmanship: looking at their vast, multi-figure compositions one can’t help thinking of the hours of rendering that went into them. There’s something hard and calculated here that recalls middle-level Baroque painting. The subjects (modern America) and treatments (dark-toned, dramatically lit) come from an impersonal, central depository and the sizes seem calculated, like the sizes of really gory Italian altarpieces, to bludgeon the viewer into submission. Beal, Leslie, and Valerio are picking up on everything that is dubious in the grand tradition—they resurrect the plodder’s middle ground of Western art. It’s morning-after painting, hung over with great ideas the way dutiful Baroque artists were hung over with the Renaissance. All the joy is missing, and you leave the gallery wondering if the museums weren’t already full up with Caravaggisti.
The scale and the brassy, high-relief effects in the work of Beal and Leslie strike me as an attempt to compete in some way with the essentially extrovert character of abstract art, which rises out of the picture space to embrace the viewer. (Leslie’s figurative painting recalls his earlier Abstract Expressionist work in its insistent frontality.) The deep space of representational art can give a feeling of melancholy to viewers used to the up-frontness of abstraction, because representation—although in some sense more available than abstraction—always withdraws into a Active space: it’s a mirror of reality. The essential burden of representation in a post-abstract world is to persuade us that the flight away from the surface—the flight into fiction—isn’t neurotic escapism. All the moral imperatives invoked in the name of representation—about regaining some lost universe of values, etc.—won’t necessarily help the artist convince the viewer that a world receding from view is worth looking into. But if not the flight into space, then what? Matthiasdottir’s and Bell’s painting suggest that it is possible to be inside the picture space and in front of it simultaneously—a modernist solution. One can also create a paper-thin world of illusion that exists just at the surface: you don’t recede, but you don’t come forward, either. This sad fragility of things, pressed as if in an album for safekeeping, is what lies at the heart of Lennart Anderson’s work and gives it a smooth, lost-world charm.
Anderson was represented at Schoelkopf neither at his best—which is in some of his landscapes, though not the one here—nor at his most ambitious, which is in his beautifully painted pastoral compositions. These large works, the result of years of meditation (they have sometimes been shown and reproduced in unfinished states) seem contemporary in a distanced way. The landscape might be the northeastern United States, and the figures—misted dancers and lovers and musicians—might be at a 1960s Be-in. They’re sleepy and dreamy and they invoke a tradition that I, frankly, don’t find all that sympathetic: the tradition of Puvis de Chavannes and the earlier Degas, with its finely drawn outlines and delicately colored-in spaces. (Picasso was right to claim that Degas was best in the loosely improvised monotypes.) The beauty of the work lies in its faint-breathed loveliness. Anderson’s not a shouter; his pastorals are serene, but the serenity feels a bit like low-level depression —an inability to act that mirrors the refusal to break open the picture space.
Anderson has earned a special place in the hearts of younger painters with a vision of the classical European past that is sweetly melancholy and answers the craving so many feel to witness the crumbly twilight days of a tradition. I once knew two painters who got stoned and imagined they were Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci—and that strikes me as an especially American anecdote, because it suggests a wistfulness like the nineteenth-century painter Washington Allston’s in his later Boston days, when he was working hopelessly at Belshazzar’s Feast, the huge figure composition he could never finish. American art has up until recently stood outside the mainstream of European tradition: the best nineteenth-century American painting grows not from the central pictorial concerns of Europe but from extra-pictorial obsessions with reality or its mystical opposite. This is why Impressionism, which was the result of the pictorial revolution in nineteenth-century realism, never developed organically in America.
Recent representational painting—like abstraction since the 1930s—reflects a cosmopolitan culture that is less tied to the old America, and Anderson is, in his representational way, crying over the European culture he feels is now almost within his grasp in much the way Guston must have been in his best abstractions of the 1950s. Porter, Bell, and Matthiasdottir, each in his own way, exhibit a more vigorous, direct, and untroubled relation to the European past. For other realists, though, it has been important to feel the distance from European modernism as a positive thing. Part of what Laderman and Tillim were trying to do in their Artforum pieces was to set the stage for a New World representation that was ignited by the feeling of the place, which must have seemed to them so un-European. (Tillim was very definite, at one point, on using American subjects—George Washington, John Adams.) Hopper had already done something along these lines, but his achievement, though great, was idiosyncratic—you couldn’t build on it. For Pearlstein and Laderman, representation came to have a special meaning. It was an indigenous American value. They’re the only two of the highly detailed representational painters who have seen that high illusionism, in the wake of modernism, must be a poetic choice, vindicated in the realm of metaphor. For Pearlstein and Laderman illusion isn’t an act of imitation but an act of art. They glory in each detail as if it were the key to some esoteric, aesthetic knowledge.
With the possible exception of Porter (whose national, as opposed to local, fame was really posthumous), Pearlstein is the only representational painter of quality who has achieved a major reputation. I find something admirable—and Morandi-ish— in the way Pearlstein has continued to look for drama in the most ordinary and unexceptional encounters of the artists’ studio. When he’s gone out to look at the great ruins of the world, it has seemed like the same search continued through other channels. Over two decades, his paintings haven’t changed, just gotten better. He’s become a deeper artist because he’s lived out the contradictions in his view, painting not from program but from feeling. Although his 1962 article “Figure Paintings Today Are Not Made In Heaven” included a plea for deep space and against the roving eye, Pearlstein’s modern eyes have roved and the space has always refused to go back much, except in spots. The 1962 Two Nudes at Schoel kopf was interesting in this context, because (if I read it correctly) one could see that the floor plane, which had originally been rendered with floor boards rushing off to the left at a steep angle, had been repainted as a unified field. I expect that Pearlstein found the floor too spatial, and painted out the boards to bring the whole thing up to the surface. The truth is that Pearlstein’s paintings are nothing much as structure: they're triumphs of sensibility. (In this sense they recall Abstract Expressionism.) Pearlstein’s pictures have nothing to do with the classical idea of a self-contained image: they force you to see through his eyes—an eye that’s nuts over bumps and surface textures and patterns and shadows. Pearlstein’s recent paintings strike me as having some of that surprising, Caravaggesque spatial ambiguity that the abstract painter Frank Stella has been talking about recently but hasn’t really managed to incorporate into his own work. Pearlstein’s last show at Frumkin, in 1982, and his recent show at Hirschl & Adler Modern, in which the studio props of chairs and mirrors and the patterns of checked linoleum, rugs, and clothes seemed to be overtaking the models, contained his most exciting pictures to date. They have a hard-edged yet discombobulated air that reveals the delight with detail as an abstract value that you feel in some of the early work of Joan Miró.
Gabriel Laderman’s revelation about space came at just about the time Pearlstein was working on “Figure Paintings Today Are Not Made In Heaven.” In 1962 Laderman was, as he recalled in a later article for Artforum, in Italy, “where, contrary to my expectations, such paintings as the Signorelli Chapel in the Orvieto Cathedral or the Mantegna Camera degli Sposi at Mantua, rather than questioning the reality of the space in which the viewer stood, had self-contained, believable spatial and illusionistic reference points constructed by the artist.” The fruit of this revelation, which was shown in “Nine Realists” and “Nine Realist Painters Revisited,” was the 1962-63 View of Florence. It’s a big, somber picture, and has some of the quiet drama of the foreigner’s contemplation of the heartland of European art that we know from nineteenth-century paintings of Italy. No other painting from the early 1960s at Schoelkopf exemplified so thorough an embrace of classical spatial development, and yet one of the interesting things about View of Florence is the degree to which its pictorial drama (as opposed to its spatial logic) has to do with two-dimensional composition. What really catches the viewer up in View of Florence is not so much the spatial regress as the little compositions of counterposed rectangles—rhythms of opened and closed shutters, of walls, roof lines, and window frames—that you discover within that overall development of space. The evolution of Laderman’s landscapes since the 1960s has involved an attempt to place the pictorial drama within the spatial development. He manages this most fully in the landscapes done in the Malaysian city of Kuala Lumpur in the mid-1970s. Here, in a land of onion-dome architecture and banal modern office buildings, you have the odd jumps of space and scale that inform the View of Florence, but realized within a fuller plasticity. These Kuala Lumpur roofscapes are as clear and as fluid as Canalettos—and yet they’re empty, unpeopled, and have a poetry that is completely of the twentieth century. The Kuala Lumpur paintings are Canaletto redone after de Chirico—and they leave you with a chill.
Laderman has not had a show since 1977, but the few recent paintings I have seen suggest that his work has now taken a fascinating turn. A recent still life shown at Schoelkopf last fall was the most complex he has ever done. This painting reminds me of Tillim’s comment about Laderman (in an article in Artforum in 1968), that he has “a mannerist feeling for space but a classical feeling for volume.” After years of exemplifying a taste for cleaned-up, spiffy spaces, Laderman is getting into the poetics of mess. The most exciting of the few new Laderman paintings I’ve seen is a three-part series called Murder and its Consequences, the middle panel of which was shown in “Nine Realist Painters Revisited.” Laderman has done figures before—but nothing like this. The paintings are not especially large— roughly three by four feet—and the drama they relate is chamber-sized. The compositions turn dramatically away from the viewer, either through the conceit of a foreground figure with its back to us, or through a precipitate perspective. The flight from the surface becomes a shrieking metaphor. The surfaces are extremely broken: big forms, wrenched into odd, disturbing angles, are cut through by shadows and the irregularities of complex shapes and patterns. It’s a claustrophobic urban world of boredom and hysteria and it reminded me, immediately, of the Martin Scorsese movie Taxi Driver. Everything’s bombed out and the lives are like nightmare mutations.
In the first of the three panels (which is vertical) we are in an ill-furnished room with the thick, bland moldings of old West Side New York apartments. There are two figures. A young, attractive woman sits naked, head down on a miserable unmade cot. She is dominated—and the painting is dominated—by the figure of a young man who stands in the foreground with his back to us gesticulating at her: it’s definitely a lovers’ quarrel. In the second painting (which, like the third, is horizontal) we're brought close to the bed. Now the woman is lying on it, and the man sits on the edge, again with his back to us, in such a way that from where we are he seems to split her in half. To the right we see her legs, visually severed from the rest of her, so that the open space between her pelvis and her feet, which are touching, describes a strange, vaginal shape. To his left we see her head, flung back on the pillows with his right hand firmly around her neck; he’s strangling her. The encounter of the two faces is repeated in the mirror on the door behind the bed—a second view, as if this were a movie and we were seeing the same action from two camera angles. In the mirror the man looks strangely calm. In the third panel we see the same young man, now reclining, eyes closed, hands folded on his stomach, in another, equally crummy room. The figure is stretched out on a bed with his feet—great lumps in socks—sticking right into the viewer’s face. He recedes away from us across the painting, while the rest of the picture is jammed with a chaos of junk—chairs, old crockery; on the radiator next to him sits an alarm clock. The color in all the panels, mostly bluish and pinkish grays, rises from a dull, gunmetal dark to occasional, hysterical pinks or yellows. The paintings have a disjointed, demented poetry: the forms seem too big for the spaces, and there is a constriction that goes beyond the physical to the psychic.
Although there would be no way on earth for a gallery-goer to realize it by just looking at the pictures—and this is a point I’ll return to—Murder and its Consequences grows out of Laderman’s reading of one of the Inspector Maigret novels, those fast-moving, beautifully wrought policiers by the French writer Georges Simenon that have such a big following among intellectuals. Maigret and the Loner, published in France in 1971, is one of the later Maigrets. The atmosphere is less picturesque than before, and the rawness with which human emotions are presented makes it sometimes almost painful for the reader to go on.
Maigret and the Loner opens in a hot, muggy, tourist-ridden Paris (it sounds rather like New York in summer) and Inspector Maigret is glad to leave his office when he is called to Les Halles (this is before the market has moved). In an abandoned building scheduled to be razed, he is confronted with the corpse of a bearded man who looks to be in his sixties: he’s lying flat on his bed, dressed in rags, but with impeccably groomed hands and hair. He’s been shot three times in his chest, apparently while sleeping. The room is littered with odd objects—things obviously pulled off the street —and everything about the case is strange: the condition of the room, the exceptionally finely groomed tramp, and the rarity of tramps being get murdered. Eventually, Maigret learns that the man is Marcel Vivien, who twenty years ago walked out on his wife, his eight-year-old daughter, and a successful business for a girl of nineteen —Nina Lassave. It’s one of those classic Simenon stories of the character who drops out of society. He and Nina hung out together for a few months, until he caught her one day with another man; in a fit of hopeless rage, he strangled her. There was an investigation, but both Marcel and the other lover, Louis Mahossier, got off. Marcel drifted into the underlife of Les Halles. But Louis Mahossier, although he married and made a great success in business, was equally in love with Nina. And when, one night twenty years later, coming out of a restaurant in Les Halles, he recognized Marcel Vivien, he ran home for his pistol and returned to murder Marcel among the junk and detritus of his wrecked life.
The murders in the Maigret novels are always described at second or third hand, so Laderman has had to invent them to a degree, but the first two panels of Murder and its Consequences—the argument and the strangling—stick pretty close to the novel. Scene three—with a still-young Marcel lying amidst the junk of his Les Halles hideout—is not so clearly related. Looking at the painting, you can’t be sure if Marcel is asleep or dead—so the scene could be Laderman’s imagining of Marcel just after his arrival in Les Halles, as a young man contemplating his ruined life, or else Laderman has pushed the second murder up in time, to bring it closer to the time of the strangling.
I’ve talked to a number of people who saw Murder and its Consequences, Part Two at Schoelkopf and found it hopelessly ambiguous. It does have a bit of the quality you sometimes feel in New Wave movies (and the movies that have been influenced by them), where you don’t exactly know what’s going on and aren’t sure if you’re just being dense, or if its intentional, or if the director’s off his rocker. This ambiguity flies in the face of most current attempts at narrative painting, which have aimed at a sharp-focus clarity. Jack Beal’s titles, for instance, always match his paintings: Harvest shows two people picking autumn vegetables, in Hope, Faith, Charity, Charity holds a coin. This legibility is perfectly all right, except that in recent practice the paintings with clear messages have usually turned out to feel one-dimensional, probably because the themes aren’t enlarged by the viewers’ recognition of some commonly held experience or belief. Certainly Murder and its Consequences doesn’t send out a clear message, but Laderman’s very lack of clarity may signal a new and interesting approach. Laderman’s figure composition has nothing in common with the religious art of the Western world, which assumed a general viewer’s immediate sympathy; his work is more related to the secular figure composition of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, which was designed for an educated elite. In an article in Artforum in 1970, Laderman called for “a truly elite art... in which artist and patron share an esoteric knowledge, such as that shared by the Sung painters and patrons.” Simenon is the esoteric (or not-so-very esoteric) knowledge that will unlock Murder and its Consequences; but the narrative here is probably esoteric on another level, since what Laderman really asks of the viewer is a poetic rather than a literal reading. Laderman leads us to expect old-fashioned storytelling; but then he makes us respond to the painting as if it were the private dream-narrative of a Surrealist—a better Delvaux. Following Laderman from the paintings into the Maigret and then back to the paintings has given me a kind of exhilaration rare in my experience of current art: for once, a real pictorial imagination is wrestling with a real literary imagination.
The fact that Murder and its Consequences is based on Simenon is the big tip-off—you really don’t have to read Maigret and the Loner, doing so only deepens your understanding. The name Simenon alerts the viewer to expect a parable of the collapse of bourgeois life in the face of dark passions (that’s Simenon’s persistent subject), in the way Poussin’s classical references tip you off— even if you haven’t read Ovid—to the beautifully distanced, nostalgic tone of his moralizing. Simenon, with his wealth of chamber-sized scenes from modern life, is an inspired choice as the subject for figure composition, and Laderman’s use of him has reminded me of Guy Davenport’s comment, in his essay on Balthus, that the world of Balthus’s The Passage du Commerce Saint-André, with its muffled mysteries, is the world of Inspector Maigret.
There are things in Maigret and the Loner that you could see Balthus being attracted to. The girl is always described as very young, pretty but unadorned, dressed in black. In death she might be the woman pictured in that most grisly of all Balthuses—The Victim—though it’s a stabbing, not a strangling. Through Simenon, Laderman has keyed into the sleazy side of Balthus in a way no other American painter ever has: when Americans are inspired by Balthus, they usually give us Balthus with the kinks removed. The slightly nauseating color in Murder and its Consequences, the love with which Laderman has painted all those ugly New York apartment moldings, the weird spider-shadows, the disturbed, too-close compositions—all of this puts you on the defensive. Laderman gets you there, and then he carries the whole mess up—as Balthus did in his queerest paintings of the 1940s—into the realm of high, elitist art. Murder and its Consequences is the best narrative painting ever done in America. Marcel Vivien amidst the chaos of his junk-heap room is a trashy-tragic figure. This group of paintings is a shocker; it takes us into the back rooms of modern experience just as Manet’s Olympia and Déjeuner sur l’herbe did, back in the 1860s. Laderman’s great subject —darker toned than anything in Manet—is the miseries beneath the splendors of life in New York, 1984.
- “Nine Realist Painters Revisited: 1963-1984” was on view at the Robert Schoelkopf Gallery in New York from December 8, 1984 to January 2, 1985. Go back to the text.
- Looking Critically: 21 Years of Artforum Magazine, edited by Amy Baker Sandback; UMI Research Press, 342 pages, $29.95. Go back to the text.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 3 Number 8, on page 20
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