Lying in bed in my parent's house in Brooklyn, I was facing this very old painting of mine, done during my first year of graduate school. Suddenly, I had the realization that forty years later I've come back around to grappling with the same issue of reconciling realism and abstraction. After many intervening years when architectural and landscape space tipped the scales more toward realism, my paintings are moving back closer to where they were when I first began, though I hope less awkwardly. A couple of months ago I wrote a blog post called "Do We Have an Innate Style?" which focused more on sensibility; at the time I didn't think to explore this particular avenue.
It's not surprising that the realism/abstraction issue was so compelling for me: I studied with Philip Pearlstein, for a short while an abstract painter, who later did figure paintings, insistently using the models as abstract forms in space. At the time, I thought of the limbs of his figures as very much like the rigorous forms of the black and white paintings of Franz Kline.
Jack Beal, Nude with Patterned Panel, 1965; oil on canvas, 70 x 76 inches.
During the 60s and early 70s, when I was in school, there was renewed interest in realist painting, which included Photorealism, a movement I've never warmed to. The Whitney Museum mounted a show called "22 Realists", which included photo-based work and that of others, such as Jack Beal, who worked perceptually. At this period in his work, Beal dramatized and abstracted space by piling objects one on another, plus he heightened color beyond naturalism. The result was a brilliant cubist cacophony of color and shape.
James Rosenquist, A Lot to Like, 1962; oil on canvas (the museum website says this painting is 93 x 104 inches, but obviously it has a lot longer proportion than that and I don't know which dimension is correct.
Rosenquist painted monumental canvases composed with disjunctive bits and pieces of imagery, all taken from advertising or other popular sources. His crisp realistic, yet simplified, style owed a lot to his training as a sign painter.
Close's early paintings were incredibly powerful realistic portraits. They played with abstraction in that they were painted with the use of a grid, transferred from a polaroid photo. He painted square by square; each part which made up the whole was a tiny abstraction.
In his later work, Close moved away from the realism of his earlier portraits and used different shapes and colors in each square of the grid, making the work look quite fanciful up close but resolving into an image once you stepped away.
Murphy is a contemporary of mine who for many years has wittily composed paintings that nod to the giants of abstraction while maintaining her exacting perceptual realist style. How could I not see Barnett Newman's "zips" in this painting? Instead of a flat plane, Murphy gives us a glimpse back into deep space with two figures on another, yellow, blanket. There are some of us in love with images of the world who have yet a deep and abiding passion for non-objective and abstract painting; we go about bringing these loves together each in our own way.