The New Figurative & History Painting

In 1936, the curator Alfred Barr declared by way of a famous diagram, that the development of modern art climaxed, with a certain inevitability, in “non-geometrical abstract art” and “geometrical abstract art.” In 1954, the critic Clement Greenberg asserted that “abstraction is the major mode of expression in our time; any other mode is necessarily minor.” In 1968 the critic-painter Andrew Forge said that “it is no longer possible to imagine figurative painting as an alternative tradition.” In the 1970s, painting itself was declared bankrupt and backward, not to say quaint and mindless—not purely “conceptual,” as pseudo-philosopher Joseph Kossuth pompously asserted, in admiring emulation of Duchamp’s preference for an “art in the service of the mind” rather than “retinal art.” “Painting is washed up,” Duchamp said, “Who will do anything better than [a] propeller?,” preparing the way for the techno-art, particularly video and digital works, that have triumphantly replaced painting as the premier media. More nihilistically, Duchamp’s aim was “the disintegration of the concept of art,” as Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia noted in her account of a trip with him, Picabia, and Apollinaire—a “foray of demoralization,” she called it.

Portrait of Donald Kuspit. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui. From a photo by Chris Felver.

All of these remarks—the dismissal of figurative art; more broadly, representational art; and of painting as a mode of significant expression as well as a method of making art—seem arrogant, authoritarian, destructive. They parallel Picasso’s assertion that his art is a “sum of destructions,” suggesting that it is the quintessential, emblematic art of the 20th century: “the hundred years after 1900 were without question the bloodiest century in modern history, far more violent in relative as well as absolute terms than any previous era,” according to the historian Niall Ferguson. More particularly, the historian Eric Hobsbawm notes that “a recent estimate of the century’s ‘megadeaths’ is 187 million…more human beings [that] have been killed or allowed to die by human decision than ever before.” The dismissal of figurative painting as “minor” implies that human beings are “minor” and as such not worth the trouble of being painted. More broadly, it suggests that 20th-century art is complicit in the destructiveness and inhumanity of the 20th century—unwittingly in tune with the violent times, confirmed by the violence it does the human figure.

Just as the Nazis distinguished between Ubermenschen and Untermenschen, so Barr, Greenberg, Forge, Kossuth, Duchamp distinguish between Uberkunst—abstraction, conceptualism—and Unterkunst—figurative painting, that is, an art that respects human beings rather than dismisses them as beside the aesthetic point of pure abstraction and the intellectual point of so-called idea art or conceptualism. No doubt this is an absurd, insane parallel, but I suggest that it makes a certain unconscious sense—all the more so in view of the cultural historian José Ortega y Gasset’s famous essay, “The Dehumanization of Art.” “Modern art,” he wrote, “is inhuman not only because it contains no things human, but also because it is an explicit act of dehumanization. In his escape from the human world, the young artist cares less for the ‘terminus ad quam,’ the startling fauna at which he arrives, than for the ‘terminus a quo,’ the human aspect which he destroys…” For the modern artist, aesthetic pleasure derives from such a triumph over human matter. That is why he has to drive home the victory by presenting in each case the strangled victim.

Art became distinctly “modern” when Kandinsky saw The Haystack of Claude Monet… and didn’t recognize it. Before that unexpected experience, he “had known only realist art,” but now he realized that “objects were discredited as an essential element within the picture.” Thus non-objective art—abstract art—grounded on what he called “internal necessity” rather than “external necessity,” was born. What Paul Valéry called “slow, disinterested, close-up communion with any object…a given thing” was “abolished.” “The only judge, guide, and arbiter should be [the artist’s] feelings,” Kandinsky wrote in 1912, echoing Baudelaire’s assertion in 1846 that “it is by feeling alone that art is to be understood.” It seems clear that Kandinsky—and the non-objective artists who followed in his footsteps—had no feeling for the human body, the object human beings are closest to, the object they are in constant communion with, wittingly or unwittingly. The New Objectivists, as I call the “postmodern” figurative realists that have emerged in the 21st century—appeared in the aftermath of subjectivist modern art, become feelingless in post-painterly abstraction and emotionally empty in minimalism, and suicidal in conceptual art—resurrect the body from the grave in which the Kandinsky-esque non-objectivists and Duchampian anti-artists buried it.

Their ambition is to convey a lived experience of the human body, more broadly, a sense that the body is the first ego, as Freud said, giving it a certain mythical importance, making it the most privileged of all objects, and with that to re-humanize art. Some of them are history painters, some of them address the body in all its empirical complexity, all of them see it as “all too human,” suggesting they are humanists in spirit if not the letter. None of them are ideological spiritualists, as Kandinsky was. For him, the feelings aroused by the colors Monet used to render the haystack were more important than their use to render the haystack in all its corporeal complexity—its objective givenness in a very particular light and atmosphere. Monet lived his experience of the haystack’s bodiliness through his atmospheric, luminous color. For Kandinsky, only the feelings associated with the colors mattered; he devoted a long chapter to their psychological meaning in On the Spiritual in Art. He had nothing to say about the body. Dispensing with the object and elevating the subject—his failure (the failure of non-objective art) is that he couldn’t see their inseparability—his art lost human purpose: the psychosocial purpose of art is to show that object and subject—body and soul, if you wish—can be imaginatively reconciled, aesthetically integrated. The reconciliation is mythical and make believe—and carried out through cunning craft, ingenious execution, aesthetic perspicuity—but myth made believable through art becomes a model for life. One of the things that the new figurative art does is show the dubiousness—not to say severe limitedness—of what Baudelaire called the “cult of the emotions” that began with romanticism (non-objective art is a sort of rarefied romanticism) and dead-ended in Abstract Expressionism, said to have begun with Kandinsky’s delusion of spiritual grandeur, not to say grandiose gesturalism.


Donald Kuspit

DONALD KUSPIT is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Art History and Philosophy at Stony Brook University.