October 6, 2011

Realism and Abstraction

Untitled, 1969 or 1970; oil on canvas; 20 x 24 inches.

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.

Philip Pearlstein, Female Model on Ladder, 1976; oil on canvas, 72 x 96 inches.

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.

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

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.

Chuck Close, Lucas, 1986-87; oil and graphite on canvas, 100 x 84 inches (with detail).

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.

Catherine Murphy, Blankets, 2006; oil on canvas, 58 x 84 inches.

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.


  1. Great post! It is clear in your paintings that you are very thoughtful about what is there and your writing takes us even further.

  2. It's so interesting to see this early work of yours and how it connects to your current work. I like it.

    What an interesting discussion of "22 Realists" show; thanks for reviewing it. It has bothered me that the term 'photorealism' has been generalized or at times freely interchanged with the term realism - two different emphases, and yet it's true that photo-realists and realists alike do play with abstraction...just in different ways. A contemporary painter who does it in a similar yet different way than Close is Alyssa Monks.

    What a hoot and stroke of genius this Catherine Murphy painting is! I just love it! :-)

  3. I am also very inspired by the interplay of realism and abstraction, and I have to confess that as I worked my way through this post, enjoying the selection of images you included, I felt my heart sink when I got to Catherine Murphy's painting - which is quite beautiful! - because just last week I was working on some drawings with almost the exact same composition. Curtains, though, with a narrow vertical opening, playing with the simple abstraction of shapes and lines. I wonder what your thoughts might be on this sort of thing, which I imagine must happen for a lot of artists, of working with a certain idea and then finding it "out there" already?

  4. thanks, David.

    Mona, I do remember seeing the "22 Realists" show and how interesting it was that they mixed painters who worked perceptually, such as Pearlstein, with narrative, like Sidney Tillim, and those who worked from photos in different ways. Photorealism was very hot then, and wasn't very involved with abstraction; I don't count Close as a photorealist, as his work was so very different from the rest of them.

    Amy, there are no really new ideas under the sun. Your approach would be your own. It's hard to be completely original.

  5. It was recently brought to my attention, this famous letter from Mark Twain to Helen Keller regarding claims of her plagiarizing. Twain says this: "Oh, dear me, how unspeakably funny and owlishly idiotic and grotesque was that "plagiarism" farce! As if there was much of anything in any human utterance, oral or written, except plagiarism! The kernel, the soul--let us go farther and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances in plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are second hand, consciously or unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources and daily use by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them any where except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral calibre and his temperament, which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing.

  6. thanks for that great quote, David. I'll be sure to bring it to Amy's attention.

  7. So, how do you feel about coming "full circle" so to speak? That grad school piece you did I like as much as your current work.

    As you know, I've just gone back to abstraction, which is a full circle for me. And I sometimes wonder if I've made any progress. Just curious how you regard the theme you've found in your work.

  8. well, Rob, I always like what I'm doing while I'm doing it, and what I want to do keeps changing. So, I am of course very interested in what I'm doing now; I like the images and the challenge of getting the balance of the real and the abstract to work, and also getting feeling into what could be a cool subject matter. I don't like that early painting very much because for me the idea is too obvious, but I'm glad you like it.

  9. Abstract vs. real. Isn't it all abstract? There's no question that viewers are affected by the presence or lack of "imagery", but for the artist or creator I would argue that most of the issue's of color, balance, composition, feeling, etc, etc are the same. On some level you can't keep yourself out of the painting no matter how hard you might try (like Richter does) so in my opinion you are there, original or not, in all of your glory, abstract or real.

  10. What a wonderful thoughtful post. And the comments are the icing on the cake — like an especially articulate group of grad students!

  11. Mitchell, of course it's all abstract in the sense that we are working with paint on a flat surface. I don't think I'm actually making nuts and bolts and bending sheet metal. And of course we are in our paintings. But, at the same time, there is a big difference between making an illusionistic painting and one that is non-objective. I think both Barnett Newman and Catherine Murphy would object if we saw their work as the same; we would be leaving out much of its meaning that way.

    thanks so much, Ms. Wis. These are much better than grad students; they're all working artists, and thoughtful ones.

  12. Yes all about "voice," isn't it? Fascinating to see your earlier work. Similar focus, perhaps, but more grounded now. Ironically less self-conscious presumably in part due to more self consciousness.

  13. Yeah, I get what you mean about it being obvious, but I really like those colors, especially how that purple runs into the grey at the top while they're almost the same tone.

  14. Julie, what an interesting point about self consciousness. Of course some if it is the many years of skill-building, which enables one to have more freedom, as do the many years of thought.

    Rob, I certainly must have been playing with those hue/value shifts, and of course the complementary colors yellow/violet.

  15. So the abstract/realistic painting pictured is before your Victoriaan porches. It certainly is a precurser of your current work.
    Another example of returning is shown in the De Kooning show - he does figure then abstract then returns to the figure then abstract maybe five times. With myself my 14th Street painting looks very like my Canal Street painting done 40 years earlier.

  16. Yes, Sam, that painting is way before my house paintings. And you too see your work returning to a beginning! I agree about the deKooning show; it was fascinating to see him come round and round again.