The Figure in Process; de Kooning to Kapoor, 1955-2015
The current project explores how artists have addressed the human figure and its place in the world across the broadest spectrum – from verisimilitude to the cusp of abstraction, from the grotesque to the ideal, and from two into three dimensions. Its scope begins in 1955 and spans six decades, extending from the United States to Europe and Southeast Asia. The chosen individuals hail from compass points as disparate as Washington state, Tehran, Dublin, Bombay, New York City, Melbourne and Barcelona. Still, the subject’s magnitude means that any claims to comprehensiveness would be absurd. Instead the aim is to offer a microcosm, a focused window of possibilities suggesting larger vistas withal. How better to broach this perspective than with a painting executed precisely a decade beforehand? That the work reflects a moment when world history stood at zero heightens its relevance.
Philip Guston’s If This Be Not I is a nocturnal allegory of the human condition in 1945. The title refers to a nursery rhyme about an old woman who forgets who she is, while the masked and blindfolded children, plus the striped fabrics, point to the Holocaust. It was a survivor of the death camps, the Italian chemist Primo Levi, who famously reiterated that the Nazis’ strove to erase the identity of their victims. No wonder the title of Primo Levi’s book If This Be a Man (1947) echoes, by telling coincidence, Guston’s. If This Be Not I also signaled how human identity reduced to its uttermost limits lay at the crux of abstract expressionism. Understood thus, the many-sided movement becomes a touchstone for the art that followed it – whether in the same spirit, in opposition, or as a complex mix of both. To survey the vast panoply of figurative art created during the past half century or so is to witness both abstract expressionism’s legacy as well as its antitheses.
Take Barnett Newman’s avowal that “the self, terrible and constant” constituted his subject matter. This voiced a similar existentialism to Guston’s. But Newman translated his beliefs into a radically non-objective language of stark verticals that stand amid engulfing color fields. Notwithstanding, it was in Alberto
Giacometti’s attenuated sculptural figures that Newman recognized his own preoccupations. Around the late 1940s Giacometti and Newman tackled the same ideas, albeit from opposing standpoints. Giacometti’s genius was not to distill our being in the world into signs, as did Newman, but instead to seek it in process – as many subsequent artists in this exhibition would – suspended between presence and the void, matter and dissolution. “Process” – grasped in its manifold senses as involving flux, metamorphosis, materials, the play of meanings, and so forth – offers a text for the otherwise impossibly multifarious scenarios comprising figuration after abstract expressionism.
Willem de Kooning epitomized abstract expressionism. In his great abstractions of the late 1940s de Kooning had shattered human anatomy into a kaleidoscopic painterly labyrinth. Then, in 1950, his indomitable Women began to reassert the centrality of the human presence and its driving force, eros. De Kooning’s pivotal Woman as Landscape marked the stage at which the angst- filled figure shed its urban associations to meld into nature – the metamorphosis captured by the mutability of paint that serves simultaneously to represent and erase, as the female shifts in and out of focus. De Kooning thereby announced a central preoccupation for certain ensuing artists and one that informs this survey. In sum, a tug of war between the urge to seize appearances versus the abstract mark making inherent in the medium itself. This polarization assumes countless forms.
At one end of the scale, artists such as Giacometti, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and Lita Cabellut uphold a humanism that pits representation against the annihilation of the self threatened by World War Two. Even as Giacometti and Bacon’s tortured protagonists reflected this anxiety, they also embodied a confidence in the materiality of clay and oil paint to fix in space or on canvas the residues of observation. Going further, no matter to what degree Freud reveled in rich impasto, it ultimately buttressed the humanness of his subjects. Large Interior W11 (after Watteau) transports the titular French old master to what we might call a kitchen sink setting. Yet in so doing Freud stressed not chill objectivity but the tender immediacy of his vision. A similar sentiment informs Cabellut’s people. The craquelure of her exquisite surfaces is meant (in the artist’s words) to be “symbolic for the skin that shows the real condition of a person”. The pathos of Cabellut’s paintings rests upon their mix of forthrightness and masquerade. It is as if the figure, repressed by modernist puritanism, must perforce return precariously.
The notion of the self as imperiled had one root cause in the cataclysmic twentieth century. Since then, other factors have challenged our subjectivity. Modern mechanical mass reproduction – photography, cinema and television – long ago engineered a seemingly infinite continuum of images that redefines the boundaries between the real and the illusory. More recently cyberspace and cognate breakthroughs – from computers and smart phones to digitization, nanotechnology, genetic engineering, emails, tweets, instagrams, and so forth – have revolutionized attitudes to space and time. The boundaries of where selfhood begins and ends have become porous. The same applies to our temporal awareness: past, present and future now commingle at our fingertips. The ripple effects have permeated art.
Firstly, certain painters, together straddling older and young generations, have continued in the aforementioned humanist tradition of Giacometti, Bacon and Freud. Among the former is the ninety-five year old Wayne Thiebaud. Much as Thiebaud revels in his quasi-abstract handling of juicy oil paint, his women confront us with the statuesque calm of ancient Greek kouroi. They seem like Technicolor glimpses of the ideal clad in everyday clothes. Among a much younger generation, Cecily Brown’s celebrations of eroticism echo de Kooning and thence such old masters as Rubens and Veronese, not to mention thought-provoking titles (Tender is the Night alludes to John Keats via Scott Fitzgerald). Despite this august lineage, deliberate regression informs Brown’s tableaux, as though libido had the upper hand, transforming erstwhile legible scenes into a polymorphous perversity, its near-formlessness at once joyous and edgy. Comparable energies inform Julian Schnabel’s paintings on shattered crockery and velvet. They combine alluring tactility, vivid colorism, symbolic and personal clues with an air of barbarism. As Schnabel remarked, he wished to make “something that was exploding” as well as “something that was cohesive.” Such conflict thrusts representation into a medley of urgent and fractured traces.
By contrast John Currin and Kehinde Wiley restore some stability to the body physical. Emulating old masters such as Lucas Cranach, the former crafts sugar-sweet yet sly paeans to delight and beauty. This historicism – a leitmotif in contemporary figuration suggesting the ubiquity of art’s histories in an omniscient present – recurs in Wiley’s takes on black identity. Surrounded and even entwined by decorative backgrounds that are their conceptual bling, Wiley gives his youths venerable poses. For instance, Young Man Holding a Skull adverts to Frans Hals’s treatment of the same theme, a swagger portrait for the twenty-first century. Light years distant in mood although equally concerned with other types of identity, in this case often Near Eastern, hover Y.Z. Kami’s sitters who inhabit seraphic, if often elegiac, realms. Frontal and hazy, they resemble dream-like memories filtered through the lens of photography. Kami’s is the tip of a proverbial iceberg linking photography and the figure in recent years.
Paradoxically, the impact of photography or photographic exactitude on art led towards abstractness or conceptualism. Witness Chuck Close’s photo- realist portraits. Despite their visual acuity, they highlight not depiction per se but, rather, the abstract strategies of making schemata that translate optical data from three into two dimensions. Also, their scale is anti-realistic. For David Hockney, the formal double portrait – a genre established in the Renaissance – could be updated to an impassivity that mimics the photographic medium. In the same breath, Hockney’s canny treatment of the foreground glass-topped table – akin to the skull in Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors almost five centuries earlier – belies the effect of unalloyed realism. Paradoxically, this also applies to those who have pursued photography. Jeff Wall spearheads this mode. Loaded with detail, Wall orchestrated his homage to the costume historian Ivan Sayers so that it evinces an intricacy and premeditation worthy of any pre-modern history painting. As such, his figures fuse documentation and theater.
From another angle, even the photographic look of Mark Tansey’s monochromes veils complicated metaphysical questions about how we know phenomena and tell substance from shadow. In a twist upon convention, Tansey fashions his images by subtracting, not accumulating, paint layers, which accentuates their mirage-like feel. Alternatively, Roy Lichtenstein’s first pop paintings exploited the mass media, such as comic books. Although stylistically distant from photo-realism, Lichtenstein’s post-pop pictorial collages, such as Interior with Swimming Pool Painting, nevertheless addressed similar matters. What is depiction, how does it intersect with abstraction, and by what means does art convey its messages? In an “interior” featuring a reflective pool constructed from the building blocks of draftsmanship presented as if through a magnifying glass – hatchings, outlines, pale color planes – a Lichtenstein-like sculpture on a table in turn recalls Picasso’s Weeping Women pictures of the 1930s. We are in a perceptual and intellectual hall of mirrors. In a comparable vein underlying a wholly different exterior, the hyper-realist sculptor Ron Mueck added a mirror to his illusionistic crouching boy. Combined with the fact that the child is smaller than he should be, Mueck seems to subtly interrogate life and limb itself. This frisson heralds yet another, final mode of contemporary figuration. It replaces beauty, quietude, and the ideal with their opposites.
A fascination with the old masterly past – as noted in Freud, Brown, Wiley, and their ilk – can result in either a new humanism or its antithesis, which might be termed the post-human grotesque. Glenn Brown mines this fertile area. Metamorphosis is key to Brown’s procedures, which yield works of mind-boggling intertextuality. In They Threw Us All in a Pit and Built a Monument on Top (Part I and 2) the leftward panel derives from a Jean-Honoré Fragonard painting of Venus, while Brown appropriated the second image from a George Baselitz painting of a thumb. The title comes from a rock song, the panels are different in size, and the technique manages to produce a thin painting of what appears to be thick paint. Contradiction and simulation reign, as does process. What The Matrix (1999) did in film, Brown’s shape-shifting achieves for painting. The once- stable human agent dissolves into a myriad baffling guises. A short distance perhaps separates Brown’s mazes from Barry X. Ball’s sculptures. Layering numerous historicist vestiges with the most up-to-date digital technology, Ball’s busts combine spectacular decomposition with the utmost formal sophistication to confound any single reading of their visceral virtuosity. Likewise, although Anish Kapoor appears to eschew the figure for immaculate geometry, his discs dissolve our reflections into an abyss of blood redness. We are, as it were, back to zero.
Speaking of zero, Jonas Burgert’s immense pictorial dramas bring the wheel full circle, half a century on, to the existential crisis posed by Guston’s If This Be Not I. Like that painting, Burgert’s presents the figure as though massed on the theatrum mundi, the Shakespearean theater of the (now modern) world. As Burgert observes, “We want to struggle on the stage of life, there is an ongoing process. But why are we not satisfied with who we are?’ He also describes the extraordinary, morbid panorama of Stück Hirn Blind as a “huge mountain of trash”. Hence, again, memories of the death camps lurk. Yet the colors of this densely populated devastation are carnival-bright and the whole looks as though it were in the lively process of forming itself – note how the painting unravels at its lower margins. Is there hope among the ruins? Ruben Pang’s art may provide an answer. Although Pang’s figures resemble wraiths, they also bring to mind the rainbow stuff of nebulae in outer space. Whether abject or celestial, contemporary artists’ multiform involvement with the figure has mirrored our own protean selves.
© Art Ex Ltd 2015 & Vulcan Inc. 2015
PIVOT ART + CULTURE