Art as Likeness

In art a likeness is an arrangement of forms that corresponds to some aspects(s) of its subject. The subject may be known only to the artist, but the spectator must at least know the coordinates of the subject if he can have a meaningful relation to the work of art. The knowledge the spectator needs is (1) specific, such as the recognition of representative human or landscape forms, and (2) conventional, a recognition that the work of art presents only a part of the external subject of which it is a likeness. (That hypothetical Martian in his first contact with earth people could not read such art.) Discussing this article beforehand, the problem of how to write about art as likeness mounted; almost everything is still to be done. Was the problem how to describe the range of figurative styles in the U.S.? Or, was the problem a definition of realist-oriented paintings developing out of Pop art? The naturalistic time of Warhol's movies seems Post-Pop art, while the play of signs in his paintings is more like Pop art. Should figure painting be included along with place painting and object painting, in view of the inadequacy of so-called revivals of the figure? The last problem was the easiest to settle: rather than return to a version of the ranked genres of past art (figures first, still life last), it seemed more exact to set figurative painting as a whole against abstract art, rather than to revive past classificatory systems.

The success or, better, successes of abstract art have put figurative painting under various pressures. It is not that figurative art has ceased to be produced; on the contrary it is a statistical part of the multi style abundance of this century's art. (It is this abundance, this quantity, of artists and styles which is modern about modern art, and not one particular slice of the cake, not one privileged corner. Simple choices of one main line, one way, are nostalgic simplifications of present experience which is nothing if not copious.) In the early twentieth-century polemics of realism versus abstraction, all the vigor, all the subsequent influence, was with abstract artists, but there is no reason that texts, written by artists in defence of their own early work, should continue as limiting cases. To Malevich, realism belonged to the under-developed centuries or to the country; to Mondrian it was an adulteration of pure visual structure (eggs, not heads); and to Kandinsky the specificity of a realist work destroyed art's universality and spiritual élan. Thus, modernity, concentration, and spirituality came to be reserved for abstract art and critics have, on the whole, accepted, either as cultural reflex, or in sophisticated reworkings, these primitive views, which of course are no longer adequate to abstract art.

Much of the art criticism devoted to figurative art has been based on a tacit acceptance of the domination of abstract art. Hence those short-lived and embarrassing slogans about a return to the figure or about a New Figuration or Other Figuration. The first claim delegates realism to be merely the revival of an interrupted tradition and the second term tries to claim the rhetoric of abstraction for figurative art. The so-called Monster School of Chicago was presented some years ago as if it were a return (that word again) to deep feelings and real passion after an interim of merely ornamental abstract art. Such crude efforts to turn the tables came to nothing as group promotion, but individual artists in the group have prospered (and others have not). Bay Area Figurative painting is probably the best-known and longest‐ lived figurative group, parallel in certain respects to the East Hampton painters who have existed as an enclave within Abstract Expressionism for years. The common point of the two groups is a rediscovery of Manet and the substitution of him for Cézanne, the previously mandatory model of art and ethics. The adoption of Manet led to a more sensually unified style than was reachable from other points of departure while retaining legible imagery.

The East Hampton realists expanded Manetesque handling into an assertion of the autonomy of paint; it is as if they were enacting for their friends the abstract painters, the Ortega y Gasset—André Malraux view of Manet as the first modern painter (more paint than people). Alex Katz is the tough and adaptive artist to come out of this Long Island—Downtown New York group. In his figures (both the billboardscale heads and the off-life size, but otherwise illusionistic cutouts), the post-Manet style is persuaded into an art of deceptive blandness which, actually, is rooted in accurate notation and expansive painterliness. His recent series of big flowers, some derived from seed catalogues, some from stuffed vases, have the diffuseness of wallpaper, but with intricacy and modulation, not repetition, discovered within the spread (the reverse, that is to say, of Warhol's flowers). Katz exemplifies the graces and the double-takes of likenesses in art.

Apropos the position of the East Hampton painters, except for Katz, Fairfield Porter is absolutely their emblem: what is needed are less gestures of special tolerance towards "realists we like," than a recognition of present stylistic diversity. Only a pluralistic aesthetic is adequate for the first move towards seeing figurative painters straight and not as marginal courtiers or saboteurs around the thrones of abstract artists.

We have a fair vocabulary for defining our theories and experiences of art as an object, as an autonomous thing different from other classes of things in the world. We do not have, however, a comparable vocabulary to describe an aesthetics of figurative art. (Oddly, only the fantastic aspects of figuration have received particular attention, as in André Breton's writings.) Although art critics have been undiligent, art historians have addressed themselves to the problems of legibility and likeness. It is because of their work that there may be some possibility of improving simultaneously our power to see and to describe figurative art. Erwin Panofsky's iconographical studies and E. H. Gombrich's A rt and Illusion are well enough known by now, but there are other relevant studies: Richard Bernheimer's The Nature of Representation (New York University Press, 1961) is a systematic study of designation, and Sven Sandstrom's Levels of Unreality (University of Uppsala, 1963) is a survey of real and illusory space in murals of the Italian Renaissance. The methodology of the former book and the scrupulous analyses of the latter are relevant to the present problem, more so than any art criticism devoted to individual figurative artists.

One of the hangovers from abstract art theory of the first quarter of the twentieth century still present in this, the third quarter, is the separation of art into visual display, on the one hand, and literary content or description on the other. This view reduces the referential elements of a work to dead weight that slows down the real thing, formal structure. In fact, iconography is as visual and as active as color. For example, Thiebaud's Riverboat is a centered, near-symmetrical image; the placidity of the water permits the reflection to be, apart from color modifications, almost an inverted facsimile. Other recent Thiebauds have pursued reflections also, as well as repeated tree forms in groves, and lines of trees with individually distinct matching shadows. Apparently he is extending into the natural landscape the repetitiveness that he got before from identical or similar mass-produced objects. This doubling up and repeating of forms is not only a visual device, it is also an expressive one; the group of paintings and pastels referred to, then, marks a change in both Thiebaud's composition and in his iconography.

When I look at a painting that is like a scene or object known or presumed to exist apart from the image in the work, I experience a complex recognition. It is true that the figurative painting "stands in a relation of dependence upon another entity," to quote Bernheimer. In one sense, the absent entity is the real, the original, item; in another sense, the form of its representation is what is real, embodied in the painting, fixed on the canvas, spread on the paper. All figurative artists are engaged in translation; the work of art is of something, but the representation occurs in another medium. The object is recognized, but absent; it is present, but in translation. Thus what appear to be levels of reality in figurative art are, at the same time, to use Sandstrom's phrase, levels of unreality. Sylvia Sleigh's Bob's Greenhouse is a slice of deep space, but it only opens partially; the verdant interior returns us to the surface. Rosalyn Drexler's paintings of men and machines have a dual function, evoking and blocking a psychological drama. The still point of a painting at which figurative imagery becomes mute, where action is suspended, is not a result of the triumph of form over content, but of our awareness of the interaction of representation with medium, the coalescence of presence and absence.

In figurative painting all events occur in a perpetual present; even the past is only another present, like a flashback in the movies. The threshold between a painting and real space is a spatial, not a temporal experience (although symbols for time can be presented spatially). Costume does not separate us from historical paintings; the position of the frame, as a cut-off point, determines the intimacy or the distance of the scene in relation to the spectator. Marti Edelheit's anthologies of nudes appear to the spectator as one all-englobing tumult, with bodies pouring to the framing edge, echoing the scale of our own bodies. There is a kind of double focus, of present representation and absent model, of a translated world dominated by painting, in figurative art. Mirror-held-up-to-nature and loving-transcription-of-incredible event theories are static constructs, quite inadequate to present experience. An art that deals in likeness deals with problems, double-takes, illusions. Roy Schnackenberg's Lincoln Park, in which painted areas and modeled forms penetrate and enwrap one another, is a clear statement of the ambiguous threshold of figurative art, as the grass-colored platform thrusts forward carrying figures and litter, out in front of the painted landscape.

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