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The Future of Figurative Art

July, 1999

THROUGHOUT HISTORY, civilizations have left us with imagery, symbols and architectural sights documenting their existence and beliefs. In time, humanity's individual and collective cultural accomplishments have been either revered or rebuked by generations that followed. The 20th century has faithfully carried on this tradition in the most innovative ways. In keeping with tradition, let us focus on the eternal creative mind and spirit of humankind that has invented the present world rather than on the latest inventions in technology.

T his creative genius which can harness the forces of nature to enrich the advancements in the arts and sciences was truly exemplified in the manifestations of Samuel Finley Breese Morse. Morse is known to many as the inventor of the electric telegraph and the Morse Code. His chosen profession was in the arts. He was not only a distinguished portrait painter, but also the first President and one of the most prominent founding members of the National Academy of Design. His discerning genius to foresee the location of New York as a superior city for trade and commerce, instead of Baltimore, influenced and in turn pioneered the making of the financial and artistic world. The National Academy, which also has a museum, is presently located on the upper east side and is the oldest art school in New York. In contrast to the National Academy's age and location, one can find The New York Academy of Art. New York's newest art school is located on the lower west side. The school is chiefly concerned with imparting traditional techniques and is noted for teaching academic approaches to the human figure. Although each institution is distinct in character and longevity, the humanistic quality of the arts and the representation of the figure in art is equally purported.

Since we are nearing the Twin Birth of a new century, as well as a new millennium, I thought it might be intriguing and timely to compose a compendium regarding the "Future of Figurative Art" from various sources within the contemporary art world. To do this, I have turned to the time-honored historical disciplines of writing, philosophy, and art itself. I contacted critics, writers, schools, artists, curators, and dealers, people who are thinking about art today. I asked them to give their views about the future of figurative art, and they responded generously. Printed below are the thoughts and opinions they offer for us to ponder.

Before we forge ahead into the compendium of ideas on the future of figurative art, however, let us glance at how historical people and periods influence one another in the arts. First, I wish to draw attention exclusively to the periods that every Academy which has plaster casts can relate to. The periods hearkening back to the schools of thought which embrace the classical traditions of the human figure in sculpture and painting are Greek, Italian and French. Let us go back 2,500 years and revisit the past, to the 5th century B.C., a high point in Athenian Greece. Protagoras gave birth to his famous dictum that "Man is the measure of all things." Protagoras was a leading member of the Sophists (those who are "wise"), and he was also a mature contemporary of Socrates. The Sophists emerged at a time of political and social corruption and were mainly concerned with the problems relating to the individual. The Sophists were not creators of a philosophy; they were more critics or critical against the outdated ways of thought at that time. Their achievements include affording some of the earliest models for Greek prose and extending philosophy to include physics, metaphysics, ethics, and politics. They were against slavery and racial exclusion and perceived war as folly. Marcus Cicero, the famous writer, orator and statesman, known as the "Father of Latin Prose," stated that "the Sophists brought philosophy down from heaven to the dwellings of men." (Cicero studied in Athens years later in 78 B.C.) The Sophists set forth an evolution leading to the succession of the world's most well-known philosophers in history: Socrates (whose father was a sculptor) Plato, and Aristotle. This period and these individuals became the "Future of Figurative Art" in the high points of Italian and French cultural history.

About 2,000 years later, the teachings and writings of these immortal philosophers through the vehicle of paint were visually reborn into another generation. Raphael Sanzio's "School of Athens" (painted in 1511) not only encapsulates his period of history, but at the same time unified history, crystallizing an image for the future—transcending time and space. In opposition to the Renaissance Period (literally, "rebirth'), we find the painting "The Death of Socrates" painted in 1787 by Jacques-Louis David in the neo-classical style. This is another relevant reflection of the continuation of these Greek Masters of thought. These two themes of death and birth are as much a part of each individual in humanity as they are in the humanities of the arts. It is worth noting that the high point of Marcus Cicero's influence was in the 18th century, a period much like Cicero's own—a period of revolution and change. His writings were acknowledged by the philosopher David Hume and by the famed American, Thomas Jefferson, hence the enduring influence which extended to the birth of the New World. It may also be worth noting that the map that inspired Columbus to set sail was produced during the time of the Renaissance.

In this century, the ethereal essence of the human figure was once again re-examined. The next phase said to occur after death has been debated by many cultures throughout history or maintained as a primary focus as in the Egyptian culture. The works by artists such as Rothko, Mondrian, and Kandinsky are a visual testimony to the mythological, meditative, or symbolic representation of the "spirit." If man is the measure of all things, clearly the mind is the instrumental ruler, manifesting itself through the timeless triad of mediums: philosophy, art, and writing, of which all of the above artists were equally a part.

Perhaps it might be interesting to bring the past into the present and ask ourselves if Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were alive today, would they find the world revolutionary. Historically speaking, the American, French and the Industrial Revolutions all contributed greatly to creating a revolutionary world. Would Sanzio or David embrace the "isms," abstractions, and dismemberments of the figure in art? Perhaps, if it were possible for Sanzio, Seurat, Stieglitz, David, Duchamp, DeKooning, Kandinsky, Kollwitz, Kahlo, and O'Keeffe to have a discussion in contemporary New York (a United Nations of the Arts), they would probably have an admirable understanding about creativity in the context of time and place within a cultural myriad that is our world. Would the Sophists have fought for religious or racial equality, as was the case this century, or would they have considered this to be a century of folly? Would they know what www means? My answer and interpretation is: World War Wake—Death; World War Wakening—Birth of United Nations; Wakening Women in the World—Birth of United Genders. Hopefully, a Wise World Web!

Would the famous dictum by Protagoras be, men and women are the measure of all things? I don't know—I can only share my belief by updating Protagoras by stating that "Humanity is the measure of all things." At the same time, I wish to create my own dictum for the new millennium: "The Human Being/Being HUMANEvolves Through the Balancing of the Opposites."

ONE can only speculate the future of figurative art and/or TWO create the future of figurative art by using the same mediums used since antiquity—philosophy, art, and writing.

It is fascinating to note the following masters had figurative academic training, each creating a new, yet personal vision, which the world now embraces. Can you guess who wrote this quote—Monet, Matisse, Mondrian, Picasso, Kline, or DeKooning?

"Thus, in our day two main tendencies appear: the one maintains the figuration, the other eliminates it. While the former employs more or less complicated and particular forms, the latter uses simple and neutral forms, or, ultimately, the free line and the pure color. It is evident that the latter (non-figurative art) can more easily and thoroughly free itself from the domination of the subjective than can the figurative tendencies."

Once again, I wish to thank all who contributed by extending their time and their words to make this article possible.

(Annamarie Trombetta is a New York City-based artist.)

Aldon James, President, The National Arts Club, NYC: "The National Arts Club is most confident of the strong future for figurative art as talented artists over the centuries have always been challenged by the human landscape."

Pastel Society of America, NYC: "Art speaks for itself. Color, lines, strokes need no explanation—skill is everything."

Annette Blaugrund, Ph.D., Director, The National Academy of Design/Museum and School of Fine Arts, NYC: "The National Academy of Design comprises a premier organization of contemporary artists, an important museum of American art, and a dynamic art school dedicated to perpetuating traditional techniques and subjects. We share many of the goals of the New York Academy of Art. Drawing from the figure is taught extensively at our school and figurative art is frequently, but not exclusively, found in our exhibition."

Graham Nickson, Dean, New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture, NYC: "When one can pass by a mirror and not gaze into it, then we will no longer have "Figurative" art. Images of ourselves are always compelling. Conversely, when you pass the mirror and dare not look into it, it is the same thing. Images of ourselves are always dangerous and unsettling. It is the reflection of our self we wish to remake."

Bruce W. Ferguson, Executive Director, New York Academy of Art, NYC: "Figurative art always existed since the conception of the idea of art, which is a fairly modern conception. It will continue to exist as long as artists make the aesthetic use of it urgent to their contemporary audience."

Walter Liedtke, Author, Curator of European Paintings, Exhibition Curator for "Vermeer and the Delft School," The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC: "The flourishing of abstract forms in the 20th century greatly enriched the expressive vocabulary of the pictorial arts in the Western world. One could say very broadly that European and then American artists came to an understanding that had long been traditional in other cultures: Oriental, Islamic, African, etc. The old ideas that Figurative art might be largely replaced by abstract forms is now seen as either polemical or naive, and in either case based upon the simplistic notion that art forms evolve in some sort of linear and progressive fashion. Art reflects complex and ever-changing cultural values, which may be expressed in any number of effective forms. Figurative art remains an important and often dominant mode of expression, especially in connection with the most human thoughts and feelings. In judging works of art the essential consideration is whether the form suits the content, not what the form is in the first place."

David Cohen, Freelance Critic and Contributor to such publications as Art in America, ArtNet, Sculpture Magazine, Modern Painters, Burlington Magazine, Independent (London), and the Sunday New York Times, NYC and London: "There is no getting away from a basic problem with figurative art: while the impulse to represent the body is tied, historically, with humankind's need to see itself represented, that desire, seemingly as strong as ever, is now satisfied instantaneously in the photographic mass-media. And yet, in the more mediated artforms of sculpture and painting a timeless impulse to do the body remains, obstinately indifferent to supposed obsoleteness of means. Figurative painting and sculpture have survived abstraction and photography alike, only to be enriched, even liberated, by both. No one need look at figurative art just to see figures, faces or imagined scenes anymore. But equally redundant is the sense that such subjects were only ever merely arbitrary vehicles for the pursuit of painterly or sculptural concerns. If figurative art has survived this far it may as well go on for ever."

Bill Creevy, Author and Contributing Writer to American Artist: "The advantage to being a figurative artist is that you don't have to really worry about being in or out of fashion. All you have to worry about is whether you can pull it off."

Nancy Grimes, Author, Artist, Freelance Writer for Art in America and ARTnews: "The future of some sort of representational art—art works that use or incorporate images—is probably secure. The future of serious representational painting, on the other hand, is in peril. The development of good figurative painting takes time. It can take years or even decades to understand and master the complex formal language of painting—drawing, color, composition and, most important, pictorial structure, as well as how these elements work together to articulate the meaning of an art work. The current art machine, with its emphasis on youth and sexy trends, discourages young artists from accepting the challenge that figurative art presents. To compound the problem, most figurative painting is conservative, pedantic, unimaginative, and irrelevant. For serious representational painting to continue, it must recruit young artists who are not only willing to trade the hope of quick success for the promise of a deeper, more rewarding art, but who can also make figurative painting speak with a contemporary voice."

Barbara A. MacAdams, Senior Editor, ARTnews: "Representational art is likely to stay with us, but its manifestations will not all be ones with which we're familiar. It's a different figure we're already seeing, one that has taken off and borrowed from abstraction, conceptualism, and new technology. Its parallels are Cubism and Futurism, which sought to show what wasn't readily apparent—the insides and other sides. The current interest in the figure has not just resulted from a marketing effort, as with fashion—now we've done everything else, let's go back to the figure. Rather, artists have found new ways of using familiar forms, often as elements in art that have little to do with those specific figures and more to do with larger ideas. Technology allows for composite images whereby artists can make statements by mixing genders, species, and everything else. Conceptualism is more concerned with the meaning of figures and things in a broader context. And abstraction, so attractive for its freedom of expression, ambiguity, and its ability to prove the subconscious (or empty it out) has been adapted by figurative artists.

So in my view, representational artists will continue adapting their form and content to the artistic and social movements of their historic moment, creating an art that is always modern even as it draws on tradition. What is unlikely to resonate in the future is the academic studio art that may reveal technical virtuosity but tells us little more about a subject than what we see."

Robert C. Morgan, Artist, Poet, Author and Critic for Review Magazine and Art Press (Paris): "Figurative art is essentially about two things: the figure and the form by which the figure takes on aesthetics value. This can either occur in two-dimensional or three-dimensional space. The figure becomes art only when the eye, mind and hand are cooperating in relation to one another. This suggests that figurative art is about a certain profound tactility. As we move further into the age of computers and new technologies it is important to sustain this kind of tactile response to the human body in aesthetic terms."

Jed Perl, Author, Critic for The New Republic: "What the future of the figure will be in the galleries and museums in the next ten or fifty years, I have no idea. That is a matter of fads and fashions, and in the final analysis not really worth thinking about. The return of the figure—like the end of figure painting and the death of painting and the return of painting—has been announced so many times that there is every reason to be skeptical about what the announcers really know. The truth is that the figure never left. And, of course, the figure can mean many things. Balthus, in some of the paintings in the last quarter century, to my mind rivals Titian and Correggio in the delicacy of his tones and the plangency of his emotions. These paintings ought to silence anybody who doubts that it is still possible to paint the figure in a fully illusionistic space. But the figure need not be a naturalistic figure. The pictographic, emblematic men, women and children that Paul Klee painted in the 1930s are among the great visions of this century, and they have their progeny, just as Balthus's women have theirs. Faces, torsos, arms, legs, hands will be a part of painting and sculpture as long as there is painting and sculpture. After all, to paint the figure is to paint ourselves. I would expect that in the future artists will continue to order and reorder the elements of the figure in as many different ways as they have in the past—naturalistically, symbolically, and so forth. What is to be avoided is the idea of the figure as an academic standard that we receive passively. We must struggle with—and for—the figure, just as the Romanesque sculptors did, just as Ingres did. We give the figure its particular character, and that character will both change radically and remain always the same, just as everything else in the world does."

Suzanne Ramljak, Independent Curator, Critic: "The future of figurative art is as sound as its past, since the human body will never go out of fashion."

Jerry Saltz, Critic for the Village Voice: "The very idea that there is such a sub-sub category as figurative art—when all art, no matter how abstract, has at least some kind of figurative analog is bogus. That some people persist in demarcating art in such a simplistic, antiquated manner, evidences the aggressive rigidity of the truly threatened."

Raymond J. Steiner, Author, Critic for ART TIMES: "Some years ago I was asked to address the American Sculpture Society at their 100th Anniversary dinner and say a few words about the future of art education. Specifically, the discussion of the evening concerned the waning membership of the Society and whether they ought to relax entrance requirements since a great many new art students could not sculpt a head. Ought they relinquish their insistence on traditional standards of figurative art and yield to the current trend towards total non-representational art in an effort to keep the organizations strong in membership? It was my belief then—and remains so now—that a total abnegation on the part of art-educational institutions to teach the academic standards of figurative art is not only short-sighted but constitutes a serious error. One of the first things any art critic or historian learns is that whatever paths the evolution of art has taken and in whatever culture they have been taken, that development has never strayed far from a fascination for depicting the human figure. This will be true as long as it is humans who create art. For centuries the delineation of the human form has been the ultimate test of the practitioner's skill, drawing from the live model a coveted honor and a decisive touchstone in the training of any artist. This was due not merely to a lingering trace of the Renaissance belief that man is the measure of all things, but a deep-seated compulsion on the part of all people to objectify humanity and thereby to better understand what it means to be human. As long as there are humanists in art, this need will never be extinguished and focusing and leveling the eye on the human figure by artists will remain a constant and persistent urge. Whatever the current trend, art schools ought to recognize that impulse and continue to include classes of drawing, painting, or sculpting from the live model. Not to fulfill that function would be a disservice to any and all future artists. It is my conviction, then, that designers of art-school curricula ought not allow themselves to be swayed by transitory pressures, but rather strive to remain steadfast in their focus on the long history of the discipline they purport to impart.

Karen Wilkin, Independent Curator, Critic and Contributor to The New Criterion, Partisan Review and Hudson Review: "Critics shouldn't speculate about the future of art. Their role is to respond, not to predict. And the interesting question is not whether art is figurative or abstract or anything else, or made of a particular medium, but whether it is visually and intellectually compelling and resonant. When I was a graduate student, figuration was supposed to be dead; more recently, so were abstraction, painting itself, and the notion of making critical distinctions. These simple-minded ideas may have seemed briefly true in terms of fashion and the market-place but serious, thoughtful artists simply go along as they always have, stubbornly exploring the expressive possibilities of all kinds of approaches, figurative as well as abstract, in all kinds of media—and inventing new ones, too. (Just who pays attention to what they are doing at any given time is, of course, another matter.)"

Jeffrey Deitch, Owner-Director, Deitch Projects, NYC: "Figurative art is the most exciting thing going on right now. It has a newer dimension than before. People need art to help them in their search for self identity. With science, technology, and popular culture, constructing the self in art is absolutely central."

Cheryl Fishko, Owner-Director, Forum Gallery, NYC: "The future of Figurative art is as the past has been—Consistent."

Maxwell Davidson, Owner-Director, Maxwell Davidson Gallery, NYC: "Figurative art has been around since cave paintings. It has a life of its own. Figurative art is subject to change; it's like a pendulum that goes back and forth through time."

Edward De Luca, Director, D C Moore Gallery, NYC: "The human figure has captured the imagination of artists all over the world since the dawn of civilization. The subject will always be a source of fascination for artists and viewers. As time evolves, the figure in art has undergone a metamorphosis. In the 20th century, the figure coexists with, and even inspired, many forms of abstract, minimal and conceptual art. As the new millennium begins, the figure continues to be an invigorating and essential subject."

Michael Gitlitz, Associate Director Department of European Art, Hirschl & Adler Galleries, NYC: "I believe that we are still in the 'Early Renaissance' in terms of Figurative and Representational art in this country, with a lot of artists, and a few notable schools, galleries, and collectors leading the charge. Of course, it's easy to overlook the fact that Figurative art never really did die out, but still, the next few decades will witness a broad re-examination of technique and of the human form in art. For those still in the grips of modernism, it might appear to be another ill-fated resurrection of classicist dogma, but the truth is that there is a tremendous breadth of styles and approaches that are emerging. In May I showed a group of representational painters at Hirschl & Adler Galleries, several of whom are New York Academy graduates, and the range within their work is truly exciting. There is a way to go in developing artists' skills and public perception about Figurative art, but the learning curve is sharp and it is fascinating to watch it happen."

Allan Stone, Owner-President Allan Stone Gallery, NYC: "All configurations grow off the same tree. Figurative art and Abstract art are derivative of one another. Figurative art will always be. It is a fountain from which things can spring forth."

Tom Wolfe, Author, NYC: "Every outward sign would indicate that Modernism herniated a still-born child, Post-modernism, that has reached the end of the line. For 110 years now, every with-it artist's aim has been to separate himself from the mob, the rabble, which (in Jean-François Revel's phrase) is now known as the middle class. The familiar formula, epater la bourgeoisie has grown tired and, or still, tiresome to la bourgeoisie themselves, who have long since become habituated to bafflement, vulgarity, and lack of skill as marks of genius. The burghers who flocked to the Gertrude Stein gallery in 1965 for the Shit Show which consisted of extruded human turds deposited on the gallery floor, merely stroked their chins and said, 'Hmmmmmm.'

So why would they even twitch, much less bridle, at the pool of vomit on the floor exhibited at the Whitney Biennial in 1995 or the more recent plaster casting of human body parts discarded during medical or ritual surgery (appendectomies, hysterectomies, clitorectomies), or the dead shark floating in a tank of formaldehyde that is supposed to rock the flock at the Sensation Show at the Brooklyn Museum next fall?

Yet there are precious few signs that representational artists, who presumably have been waiting for a moment like this, are prepared to take advantage of it. I have yet to see a group of representational artists with an exciting enough vision of representationalism in the 21st century to issue a challenging manifesto or organize a challenging exhibition.

That being the case, I would like to step in and suggest an example and a direction. The example is Winslow Homer, whom collectors, if not artists, are beginning to recognize as the most important American artist ever and the direction? Let me repeat a battle cry from a century ago—Plein Air—which meant not merely "paint outdoors" but also, and more importantly, "get out of the studio and engage real life." This in turn, implies an emphasis on content and exuberance that is as foreign to most representational painters today as it is to the most doctrinaire conceptualists or Neo-Geos. Homer, who had been a battlefield illustrator during the Civil War, shied away from nothing as a mature painter. Scenes of action? He loved them. Gunfire, blood letting pictures that told a story or an entire melodrama? He couldn't get enough of it.

The time is right—in fact perfect—for representational artists to leave their studios and embrace real life, in job lots, in this bizarre billion-footed country of ours at the turn of the millennium and become great, full-bodied, hot blooded sons and daughters of Dionysius with the courage to beam upon and light up, not sneer at, everyone—yes! even the rabble—them, too—and cry out "Ecce vita!"

Alexi Worth, Painter, Critic for The New Yorker and ARTnews: "Back in 1950, as abstraction was celebrating its ascent to power, a deranged baglady—deKooning's Woman I—crashed the party. Her toothy, cocky grin signaled that figuration was livelier than anyone knew. Since then, figurative art has continually renewed itself, proving that the most traditional art form can also be the most vital. Today's mavericks, from Gregory Gillespie and Mark Greenwold to young turks like John Currin and Kara Walker, make figuration's future easy to guess. It will remain brash, disreputable, and unwilling to settle down: in a word—bagladylike."

Martha J. Fleischman, Kennedy Gallery, NYC: "Despite technology and the various changes in the styles and movements in the world of art, the figure remains a vital force. Tantamount to art, is the human experience. This human experience and the depiction of the figure in art will always be critical in the future of art."

Steven O'Hara, O'Hara Gallery, NYC: "The more things change—the more they stay the same. Figurative art has been with us since the first cave paintings and will always be a fixture in art.

In this 20th century we have witnessed an age of abstraction. Yet the seeming conflict between abstract and figurative image is only on the surface, as the abstract subject can often comprise the human figure. Thus extrapolating from this superficial conflict to some as yet unknown or perceived unknown contrasting movement in art, my guess would be that the figure will somehow always be incorporated as the subject of relevance and/or beauty and emotional significance."