New figurative art

By new figurative art I mean art since about the 1980s which depicts people in a realistic/fantastic way. Another term for this kind of painting might be “new pictorality” (see below), examples of which are John Currin, Lisa Yuskavage and Odd Nerdrum. The term figurative art was coined after the acceptance of abstract art in the early to mid twentieth century. Before that, all painting was figurative (notable exceptions by Whistler and near-abstract work by Turner notwithstanding). I think I first became aware of the power of allegory by seeing — at Art Brussels — a painting of a man in a trench coat weeping: out of his handkerchief came tears, these tears formed a puddle at his feet, which subsequently became a brook, a river and finally to the right of him: a waterfall. A terribly funny picture. Humor is one of the things I appreciate most in contemporary art. It’s wonderful when a painting has the power to make you laugh out loud.

What follows is a review by Matthew Rose of a travelling exhibition (Paris, Vienna, Frankfurt) entitled “Dear Painter, Paint Me…”. The superscripted links are image links.

The age-old profession of applying paint on canvas may have simply been overshadowed by the plethora of art strategies begun as early as 1917, with Duchamp’s “Fountain,” the overturned urinal signed “R. Mutt.” Interestingly enough, Duchamp’s very good friend, Francis Picabia, was a tried and true painter, although his approach to the canvas was anything but conventional. The flamboyant French artist (1879-1959), immensely talented and outrageously brazen, mapped out a world of tongue-in-cheek kitsch works in a prolific explosion that spanned the middle parts of the 20th century.

Picabia’s late work from the 1940s [1] [2], the fulcrum of this exhibit, borrowed generously from soft-core pornography and other photographic sources, and does more than inform the direction these artists have taken. Combining the comic, kitsch, popular culture and adding a jigger or two of surrealism, Picabia undoubtedly had a great deal more influence on pictorial subject and style than he’d ever dreamed.

“Dear Painter, Paint Me…”, (the title taken from Martin Kippenberger’s 1980s series) is a travelling exhibition (Paris, Vienna, Frankfurt) turns the spotlight on contemporary figurative painting since the Frenchman’s heyday painting pin ups in the 1940s.

Among the 18 artists in this expansive show, modern figurative masters such as Alex Katz, Luc Tuymans and even the droll French outcast Bernard Buffet, are complemented by the sexy and often grotesque contemporary worlds of John Currin, the surreal pop worlds of , and the dreamy romantic ones of Elizabeth Peyton. Kippenberger [1, nsfw], a strong influence on the group, is well represented, as are a handful of single-minded, dyed-in-the-wool painters of a younger set: Kai Althoff, Glenn Brown, Brian Calvin and Peter Doig. Sigmar Polke, perhaps the most Picabian of the group, appears with several mid-1960s masterpieces, works that are funny, skilful and acid, laying bare the bones of 20th century man (and woman). –Matthew Rose via [Dec 2006]

American art critic Craig Owens (1950 – 1990) and new pictorality:

One of the key texts about this new pictorality of pictures was Craig Owens‘ ‘The Allegorical Impulse’ published in 1980, then propagated in the central organ of postmodern esthetics, the ‘October’, founded in 1976. Owens is offering six notions, to catch on to the new complexity of pictures, which, following the then rather trendy Walter Benjamin, he summarizes in the title ‘allegorical’, (the only one outdated notion in Owens’ conceptuality is, accordingly, this collective term). –THE PICTORIAL IMPULSE Rainer Metzger, 2004 via [Dec 2006]

Quotes from The Allegorical Impulse:

“This deconstructive impulse is characteristic of postmodernist art in general and must be distinguished from the self-critical tendency of modernism. Modernist theory presupposes that mimesis, the adequation of an image to a referent, can be bracketed or suspended … When the postmodernist work speaks of itself, it is no longer to proclaim its autonomy, its self-sufficiency, its transcendence; rather, it is to narrate its own contingency, insufficiency, lack of transcendence.”

12 thoughts on “New figurative art

  1. davidbdale

    Fascinating as always, jahsonic. And the illustration by Odd Nerdrum somehow manages, after all the images that assault us, to startle, at the very least, if not shock, because of its careful appropriation of classic allegorical techniques. Well worth a click.

  2. jahsonic

    Thanks David

    I appreciate it.

    Odd Nerdrum’s extended essay On Kitsch (2001) was an eye-opener for me with regards to this approach to art. I still enjoy conceptual and idea art — in fact — your ‘very short novels’ may fall into this category.

    But with regards to the visual arts I’ve very much been taken by this revaluation of craftmanship.


  3. Richard T Scott

    I’m currently a graduate student at the New York Academy of Art. I found it refreshing that more people are open-minded these days to figurative art. Great article.
    Also, I thought I might add a few names to the list of artists working with abstraction before the 20th century. If you look at the paintings of Daumier (especially Man on a Rope) you’ll find a stunning exploration of figurative abstraction. Also, check out the ink drawings of Victor Hugo (yes the very same Titan of french literature). I have been enthralled by these haunting, sometimes non-objective, drawings for quite a while now and jump at any chance to share the discovery. There’s a great book compiling them entitled: Shadows of a Hand.

    If you’d like we could discuss other contemporary figurative artists I know in NY, but I don’t want to take up too much room here.

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  5. jahsonic

    Hi Richard,

    Thanks for your inspiring comments and please see my post on the subject. As for the space, please take what you need; I am looking forward to any of your comments.

    I am a very big fan of Daumier’s paintings, but was unfamiliar with Man on Rope.

    Thanks again

  6. Richard T Scott

    Quite tardy I realize, but I didn’t know that you had responded to my comment. I’ve been busy co-founding a collective artists forum/blog called Art Babel (
    I studied with a great number of contemporary figurative artists. Everyone on the list below, except Jenny Saville.

    You might like to check out Eric Fischl, Julie Heffernan (one of my favorites), Jenny Saville, Vincent Desiderio (brilliant critical theorist), Stephen Assael (amazing technique, but sometimes lacking in content), Peter Drake, Will Cotton.

    I also received critiques from many visiting critics, most notably Donald Kuspit – author of “The End of Art”, good book, I don’t know if you’re familiar with it. Kuspit coined the term “New Old Masters” in describing many of these artists and is associated with new figurative art.

    I hope that gives you something useful. I’m interested to hear what you think of them.

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