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

October 24, 2020 - February 14, 2021

Take a virtual tour of the exhibit

by Karen Wilkin, curator

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.”

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 Tabachnick (1927–1995). 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.

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December 3, Thursday, 7 p.m. – Curator Talk: Resisting Abstract Expressionism
January 19, Tuesday, 7 p.m. – A Conversation with Lois Dodd
February 4, Thursday, 7 p.m. – Remembering the Artist Robert De Niro, Sr. (Screening and Discussion)


Take a virtual tour of the exhibit
Photo Gallery
Art Loves Company Blog Post – “Overlooked for far too long”
Video – Karen Wilkin: Resisting Abstract Expressionism


Figuration Never Died by Karen Wilkin