August 2, 2010


Gustave Courbet, The Peasants of Flagey Returning from the Fair, 1850-55, oil on canvas, 81 1/2 x 109 1/2 inches

I just finished reading an intensely thought provoking book by David Shields called Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. It consists of hundreds of numbered paragraphs, most of them unsourced quotes, which build an argument against traditional narrative fiction––the novel––as the right genre for getting at reality today. One of the many ideas the book got stirring in my brain was the issue of "Realism" in visual art. Currently, the label of Realism is attached to paintings that are precisely rendered images of the 'objective' visual world. I find this very annoying, as I'm sure other artists do, because of the wholesale dumping of artwork into neat pigeonholes based solely on surface, on style. Realism as a movement began in mid-nineteenth century France (see an excellent book on the subject by Linda Nochlin, Realism) as a reaction against romanticism and the rigidity of the academy. Courbet painted ordinary peasants and townspeople in a manner usually reserved for history painting; see also his Burial at Ornans, a huge painting of a country funeral, depicted with monumental solemnity.

Wilhelm Heise, Self Portrait, 1926, oil on wood, 33 x 35 1/2 inches

In 1980, the Pompidou in Paris mounted a show called Les Realismes: 1919-1939; I am lucky enough to have the catalog, which covers representational painting, plus architecture, photography and design from Europe and the United States. The styles are wide ranging; tying everything together is the attempt to get at "reality" between the world wars. I am very interested in the self portrait by Heise, which, while obsessively describing the jumbled mass of objects on his work table, seems to imply a similar confusion in the artist, a questioning of self, so on a boundary of "expressionism" and "realism".

Jacques Mahede de Villeglé, Les Jazzmen, 1961, torn posters mounted on canvas,
85 x 70 inches

As I was thinking about this post over the past few days, I came to realize that the 1960s was a time of artists trying to figure out how to get at the new fast pace of the modern world, how to portray in images a world full of them. In France, the "Nouveau Realistes" sought to bring art back to reality by using actual objects, as in the posters above, assemblages by artists such as Arman, or actual bodies as in the paintings of Yves Klein.

James Rosenquist, Nomad, 1963, oil on canvas, plastic and wood, 90 x 141 inches

In the United States, the movement similar to the Nouveau Realistes was Pop Art, (another poorly named movement, in my eyes) which used images from the everyday commercial world around us and re-presented it. Rosenquist's enormous paintings use a collage technique to bombard us with disconnected pictures, as we are assaulted by information in daily life. This method of odd juxtapositions continues to be a much used artistic device.

Chuck Close, Self Portrait, 1967-68, acrylic on canvas, 107 1/2 x 83 1/2 inches

Looking at Chuck Close's self portrait, we might think that it fits into the commonly used term of Realism, with its tight edges and detailed verisimilitude. But its enormous scale and painting method set it apart from traditional portraiture. Close takes a large polaroid photo and puts a small-squared grid over it, which he uses to transfer the image to the canvas, applying paint with an airbrush square by square. His very real portraits come about through process and concept, not through perception.

Donald Judd, Untitled, 1978, cadmium red oil on American Douglas Fir plywood,
19.8 x 39 x 19.8 inches

Minimalist sculpture aims to be a fact, a thing in the world denoting nothing but itself; it is reality. However, humans are metaphor machines; we can't help but read into things, even something as seemingly blank as Donald Judd's boxes.

I believe that the notion of realism in art is a complicated one; I would prefer thinking of it as a philosophical stance rather than a stylistic one. The word "Precisionism", that was used for some American paintings of the mid 20th century, such as those of Charles Sheeler, seems a better choice for paintings now called realist; it describes a way of working more accurately because more narrowly. My "reality hunger" is to be moved––emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically––by the work of art, no matter the form or genre.


  1. Superb commentary and art history lesson rolled into one. I like the term "precisionism" for contemporary "realist" paintings. They are so photographic that it always seems as though the subject is not really important; it is all about technique and surface.

    I am unfamiliar with Heise; great self-portrait. I will have to search out his work.

  2. Linda, I'm pleased that you like this post. Categorizing art is always a difficult business, but the "realism" label has long rankled.

    I couldn't find much on Heise, which I why I didn't link to anything, but he did do some interesting engravings of plants.

  3. Donald Judd's box is not "realism".It is minimalist abstraction.While it is true that these taxonomies can be difficult,this one is elementary.For a piece of art to be realistic it has to successful degree make an illusion of reality. Judd's stupid box makes no such attempt.

  4. H. C. Westermann once titled one of his sculptures "I'd Like to Live Here." I wouldn't be surprised if Judd felt the same way about that box when he let his theory down.