Abstraction and the Figure in the Second Half of the 20th Century

Part 1. Abstraction

The artists of the 1950s suffer the fate of coming in between two stand-out movements: abstract expressionism and pop art.  Sometimes called the “second” generation of abstract expressionism, this term refers to the relationship of these artists to abstract expressionism.  The idea of a second generation has some value when talking about NY artists, but unlike abstract expressionism, the "next" generation of key artists is more diverse in terms of geography, race, and gender.  HIstorians today tend to prefer the phrase "post-abstract expressionism" because it suggests some interaction with abstract expressionism without ruling out other important influences or parallel developments.

We might think of the 1950s and early 60s as a melting pot of the "West Side stories" of the period and California life style of the Mrs. Robinsons (look it up if you don't know what the reference is). Culturally, this is a period of jazz, the early Beatles, Elvis Presley, Simon and Garfunkle, Ken Kesey and Holden Caulfield.  It's also Father Knows Best and Leave it Beaver. In short, this is a period which is characterized by:
• a changed socio-cultural environment: affluence, the growth of mass media, conformity and estrangement
• a culture of “cool”: this is not an existential culture but a culture in which the emphasis shifts from the interior, subjective world to the objective exterior, from the interest in communicating without describing the world to an interest in the question of how things have meaning.

Artistic responses of the post-abstract expressionists:

I.  the pursuit of abstraction and the rejection of the figure: one group (op art) seems to centralize a “scientific” interest in the physiology of color and shape; another group, referred to as “formalists” by some writers, and as chromatic abstractionists, by others, seems to evolve in the direction of further purification of the medium.  Some of these latter artists pursue a more hard-edged approach to the composition while others seem to follow a more subjective, personal orientation with a minimal suggestion of the human presence in their work.
Some of these artists are Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, Joan Mitchell, Bridget Riley, and others.
Ellsworth Kelly: Green, Blue, Red, 1964 Frank Stella: Jasper's Dilemma, 1962-3
Morris Louis: Sarabande, 1959   Helen Frankenthaler: Mountains and Sea, 1952

Frankenthaler's development draws on her response to Pollock's liberation of the artist from the canvas and the brush, to the lyrical use of color and forms in Kandinsky's pre-world war I paintings, and Gorky's own response to Kandinsky which further freed colors from form and line.  In addition to these painterly influences, it seems quite likely that Frankenthaler was also responding to the sculptor David Smith's style of "painting in space."  Without creating spatial illusionism in her paintings, she suggests a 2-dimensional version of this idea of painting in space. Louis did not develop his style of staining the canvas until after seeing Frankenthaler's paintings, creating a "matriarchal" line of influence in this case. Yet, his style is really quite different. Because he saturates the canvas even more than Frankenthaler, he creates a more complete fusion of color and canvas than even she does.

Bridget Riley: Shift, 1963 Victor Vasarely: Alom, 1966

Op Art: Central to op art is the belief that certain patterns and combinations of black, white and color can produce automatic, sensory responses in the viewer.  If the response is automatic, it should be almost identical for everyone; therefore, all viewers are equal and the artist is little more than someone who produces a physiological response by understanding the laws of optics.  The op artists also believe that some of these patterns produce a type of visual instability in which the viewer sees forms and colors that are not in the painting.  This instability becomes a metaphor for movement.  Op art, although very familiar to an American audience, was primarily a non-American movement.

Riley: Blaze 4, 1964 Riley: Cataract, 1963

Although she does not accept the label of op artist for her later work, Bridget Riley's early black-and-white work is a good example of op art.  Her later work reflects her interests in visual problems, in the implications of setting limits on what the artist can manipulate in a given work, and in her goal of wanting to produce a profound viewing experience without using recognizable subject matter.  In 1995, Riley quoted a passage from Igor Stravinsky (The Poetics of Music) to describe her personal beliefs about the value of setting limits on the composition of the art work:

“My freedom thus consists in my moving about within the narrow frame that I have assigned myself for each one of my undertakings.  I shall go even further: my freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful, the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles.  Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength.  The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself of the chains that shackle the spirit.”
By the 1990s, when she referred to the above quote, she was no longer making black-and-white paintings but had begun to produce effusively colored paintings.
Riley: Sapphire, 1995 Riley: Andante, 1980/1

Joan Mitchell, some of whose work evokes comparisons with the work of Philip Guston in the 1950s, described her paintings as "remembered landscapes which involve my feelings" and said that the beginning of a painting lay in the memory of a feeling.  Artists such as Mitchell, Milton Resnick and Guston were interested in color and opticality, but unlike Kelly or Stella (and more like the abstract expressionists), they include a more subjective or personalized tone in their paintings. Or is it just that we're inclined to see thick and dynamic brushwork as being emotional and subjective whereas the flat application of paint seems emotionless? Nonetheless, the subjectivity of artists such as Mitchell is associated to the color and the paint, not to some narrative or mythology about the reconstruction of the world (as might be the case with the abstract expressionists) or the autobiographical (as we often assume for the female artist).

Joan Mitchell: Gently, 1982  Mitchell: Evenings on 73rd Street, 1956-7

Part 2. Figuration

The pursuit of figuration after abstract expressionism: One of the developments in the 1950s is the "return of the figure." Some of these artists take a more “objective” approach which shares some of the formalist concerns of the abstract painters, although unlike the "formalists," these are artists who seem to be interested in the story or narrative. Others choose a more gestural and subjective approach which in some cases seems to be the closest descendent of the abstract expressionists while a third strategy is a gestural approach which uses the figure as a non-human object for the exploration of technique. Here, we may be inclined to assert the presence of a psychological statement, especially when we see a figure whose body parts are cut off by the edge of the canvas, but in most cases, the artist  him- or herself will deny this.

1. The artist as story-teller or "historian": in some cases this is a strong rejection of abstract expressionism AND a rejection of purification in art. But choosing to emphasize narrative does not have to be an explicit rejection of abstract expressionism, just a rejection of the negating and self-cancelling qualities of the abstract expressionist approach to narrative. In some cases, the artists in this category overlap with objective, formalist abstraction in that they seek a non-illusionary, non-gestural approach to the figure--we could call it a factual and "cool" approach to the painting.  But the perception of these paintings as "cool" may be misleading.

2. The gestural-figural painter may be a painter who seems to engage in a dialogue between abstraction and figuration, often with the figure emerging from the abstraction. Some of these artists seem to follow most closely in the tradition of De Kooning. Diebenkorn is the best, although not the only example, and in some significant ways, he is quite different from de Kooning.  Nonetheless, both he and de Kooning seem to resolve the "dialogue" in favor of abstraction.

Some of the figural artists who begin to emerge by the 1950s (or a little before, in some cases) include Alice Neel, Alex Katz, Jacob Lawrence, Grace Hartigan, Philip Pearlstein, Nelle Blaine, Larry Rivers, Joan Brown, Fairfield Porter, and others.

Alice Neel: The Last Sickness, 1953 Philip Pearlstein: Seated Nude on Green Drape, 1969
Alex Katz: The Black Jacket, 1972 (left side of two-panel painting) Richard Diebenkorn: Girl Looking at Landscape, 1957

Katz's paintings speak to the social life and customs of his time, the society of cool conformity, and they speak to this through color, form, and figure.  Katz, in interviews, described himself as being uninterested in interior, psychological states, but captured by the optical experience of what he saw.  When something particular moves him, he said, he would begin to generalize it and make a symbol out of it.  This optical experience which seized him, an experience of color and form, was always found in the ordinary activities and people of daily life events: people playing cards, gathering at a cocktail party, driving a car, standing and talking.  The paintings, taken as individual pieces of a larger group, reveal repeated figures, repeated locales, repeated activities.

Diebenkorn said of his painting: "I want the action to be in the painting.  My investment is in the moods, colors, and shapes rather than in the situation depicted."  In his early work, Diebenkorn reveals an interactive style of painting which moves back and forth between figure and landscape and then between figure/landscape and abstraction.  Eventually, abstraction dominates his output although he maintains that throughout his career, it was never the figure or subject which interested him but chromatic and spatial effects in the painting.

For the California artists and other post-abstract expressionists (Pearlstein, Rivers, and Hartigan, for example), style or technique became a subject. The characteristics of abstract expressionism (the large-scale painting which becomes an "environment," the all-over composition, suggestions of automatism, the gestural expressiveness) were basically broken down and isolated. These elements then became new "signatures" which impart additional meaning to the subject matter.