Figuration Never Died: New York Painterly Painting, 1950-1970

October 23, 2020 - February 14, 2021

Adventurous painting in New York during the 1950s was generally seen as synonymous with abstraction, especially with highly charged, gestural Abstract Expressionism and the contingent, wet-into-wet approach of Willem de Kooning. The most forward-looking artists of the period, both recognized and aspiring, gathered in Greenwich Village at the Cedar Tavern, the Artist’s Club, and neighborhood cafeterias, to hold forth about their shared conviction that abstractness was a necessity and that the source of art was the unconscious. They were equally certain that an “authentic” painting was infused with every aspect of its author’s personality and that the history of a painting’s evolution was an important part of its meaning. Assertive gestures were not only declarations of individuality, like handwriting, but were also carriers of emotion. Layering was essential to “authenticity” as an indication of the painting’s previous state and possible future, a sign of the artist’s anxiety in the face of the existential instability of the moment. For many, a sense of expansiveness and “all-overness” was also crucial. It announced that the painting was a continuous surface of a particular dimension, inscribed with a record of the artist’s willed and unwilled intentions. All-overness implied that the painting was a fragment of a larger continuum, suggesting boundlessness and endless possibility. If the dragged layering of gestural abstraction evoked the agonized indecisions of the present, all-overness could be read as emblematic of a desire for the infinite, even the eternal. 

These ideas, more or less articles of faith among the first generation of Abstract Expressionists, remained seductive to younger artists, many of whom looked to de Kooning as their model. Gestural, layered, emotionally charged abstraction—“painterly” abstraction, to borrow a term from the Swiss-German art historian Heinrich Wölfflin—was so common among second-generation hopefuls that the art critic Clement Greenberg coined the term the “Tenth Street touch” to describe their approach, complaining that it had “spread through abstract painting like a blight during the 1950s.”1

Some dissenting younger artists were immune to the blight. Their dispassionate, opulent investigations of the eloquence of color were later labeled Color Field. The Pop artists shared the Color Field painters’ desire for detachment, adding irony and adopting the imagery, conventions, and anonymous handling of materials associated with advertising and mass culture. Still other nonconformist young painters of the period carved out territory of their own. Although many had begun as abstract artists, they abandoned abstraction to make the world around them the basis of their work, painting from direct observation and memory, and often looking to the history of art as a starting point. Like the first generation of Abstract Expressionists, and in contrast to the Color Field and Pop painters, these artists remained enthusiastic about the physicality of oil paint, using a fluent, urgent touch to translate their perceptions into a variety of individual languages, almost all informed by the hand. Yet for all their appreciation of the sensuality and responsiveness of oil paint, they resisted the dragged “Tenth Street touch.” Instead, they detached gesture from the overt emotion it signaled for the previous generation, inventing a new kind of “painterly” painting more indebted to Edouard Manet’s early work than to de Kooning.

This exhibition focuses on 10 inventive artists from this generation, whom we could describe as painterly: Robert de Niro, Sr. (1922–2003), Lois Dodd (b. 1927), Jane Freilicher (1924–2014), Paul Georges (1923–2002), Grace Hartigan (1922–2008), Wolf Kahn (1927-2020), Alex Katz (b. 1927), Albert Kresch (b. 1922), Paul Resika (b. 1928), and Anne Tabachnik (1927–1995).2 They are linked not only by their mutual fascination with making reference to the visible, but also by their closeness in age, friendships, and shared experiences in the small New York art world of the 1950s and 1960s.

There seem to have been multiple triggers for their stubborn attraction to figuration. Many—de Niro, Freilicher, Georges, Kahn, Kresch, Resika, and Tabachnick—were students of Hans Hofmann’s and so thoroughly absorbed his ideas about the dynamic construction of pictures that they always remain apparent no matter how referential their imagery. That former Hofmann students were exploring painting from perception is not altogether surprising. Kahn noted that Hofmann “was interested in people who were interested in representation. He used to say that the problem with modern art is, it has no human content.”3 For Georges, Kahn, and Resika, encounters with Old Master art and with the specificity of place during extended sojourns in Europe were also crucial to their evolution. Kahn’s landscapes for decades  reflected his deep familiarity with rural New England where he worked for part of every year. Kahn traced the beginning of his awareness of the effect of place to living in Venice in 1958. “My style changed…. For the first time I discovered a peculiar light. I mean, you might say a local kind of light. Which I tried very hard to capture.”4 

Dodd’s and Katz’s formations were different, although she also spent a considerable amount of time in Italy as a young painter studying Old Master art as a firm underpinning to her plainspoken Yankee sensibility. She and Katz had been at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Madison, Maine, at the same time; it was a summer session of plein air painting, with long-lasting repercussions for their work that soon led them both to spend part of every year in the state. That ambitious young New York painters such as Katz and Dodd were painting figures, farm animals, and pastoral landscapes in rural Maine in the 1950s might seem unexpected, yet the explanation is simple. Georges summed up the general attitude of his colleagues at the time when he told an interviewer, “I was bored to death with Abstract Expressionism, even though I liked some of it.”5

Despite their rejection of what was seen in progressive circles as the dominant mode of painting, many of the younger generation were part of the downtown vanguard scene, frequenting the Club, the Cedar Tavern, and the Waldorf Cafeteria. Katz called the Club “a fantastic education for me.” He maintained that “it hardened the thinking a great deal hanging around all those guys. There were an awful lot of bright guys. Someone would say something and some would look at him and they’d jump on it. You know, it was like you were sloppy. And you weren’t sloppy again that way.”6 Kahn remembered a cross-generational “sense of camaraderie.”7 Fairfield Porter, a contemporary and friend of the first generation of Abstract Expressionists, was particularly friendly with younger artists who shared his interest in figuration. He occasionally painted with Georges on Long Island, sometimes joined by Resika. Hartigan was also in close contact with Porter. Katz, recalling his contemporaries’ generally negative reaction to his 1959 show at Tanager Gallery—paintings of “solitary figures on the ground” that he described as his “first really adult show”—said that “the older guys were terrific. You know, de Kooning came in and he was terribly sweet. He said ‘They’re like photographs but they’re paintings. Don’t let them knock you out of it.’”8 Hartigan remembered that when she first started to move away from abstraction and spent a year working from Velázquez, Goya, and Rubens with a “fairly free, open brush,”9 her friends thought she was reactionary. “Bill de Kooning was nice about it because Bill had tremendous training in Europe, of course, and he knows that young artists go through times like that.” Others, she recalled, “felt that I had lost my nerve.”10 They didn’t change their minds when she began basing her compositions on displays in shops and shop windows in her downtown neighborhood, anchoring her free-wheeling paintings in quotidian experience.

In the decades following their rebellious beginnings, each artist’s work evolved differently. Some dug more deeply into their initial pursuits; others sought more clarity, intensified color, and sometimes heightened fidelity to perception. None abandoned the contrarian impulse that led them to do exactly what was supposed to be impossible for ambitious young artists in the early 1950s—an attitude that could be said to anticipate and even lay the groundwork for the current art world’s multiplicity of conceptions and ways of working. It seems an appropriate moment to reconsider the work of these daring pioneers, not only for its own merits, but also for its prescience and its opposition to the norms of the time. Of course, they simply may not have been able to do otherwise. As Dodd disarmingly observed, recalling the early 1950s, “We all settled down to start a life of art…I guess none of us was fit for anything else.”11

—Karen Wilkin, Curator

Clement Greenberg, introduction to Post-Painterly Abstraction, an exhibition catalogue (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1964).

Obviously, these 10 were not the only ambitious, gifted painters interested in figuration during the period under review. Leland Bell, Nell Blaine, Elaine de Kooning, Philip Pearlstein, and Larry Rivers, to name only a few, could all be considered in this context. But their work seems to spring from a different set of assumptions and attitudes toward materials, even though they traveled in circles that closely overlapped with those of the 10 artists in this exhibition.

3 Wolf Kahn, “Interview with Wolf Kahn, 1977 November 28-1978 January 6,” interviewed by Paul Cummings (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Art, Oral History Program, 1978), 40. 

4 Ibid, 69–70.

5 Paul Georges, “Interview with Paul Georges, 1965 December 28,” interviewed by Bruce Hooton (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Art, Oral History Program, 1965), 29.

6 Alex Katz, “Interview with Alex Katz, 1969 October 20,” interviewed by Paul Cummings (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Art, Oral History Program, 1969), 17. 

Kahn, interviewed by Cummings, 53.

8 Katz, interviewed by Cummings, 15.

Hartigan, interviewed by Haifley, 11.

10 Ibid. 15.

11 Lois Dodd, interviewed by Ada Katz in “Eight Begin: Artists’ Memories of Starting Out,” ed. Ada Katz. (New York and Waterville, ME: Libellum Books and Colby College Museum of Art, 2014), 31.