A Paul Georges Exhibit Recalls Figurative 50’s

There are painters who, though they have been showing their work in New York for decades, are still better known to other painters than to the art public. One of the most accomplished of these painters is Paul Georges, whose work is currently the subject of a large exhibition at the Center for Figurative Painting. Don’t fret if you’ve never heard of the Center for Figurative Painting. It’s new, and Mr. Georges’ exhibition, which is a retrospective with pictures dating from the 1950’s to the 1990’s, is the center’s first public exhibition. It is a welcome addition to the New York scene.

Before turning to Mr. Georges’ painting, it may be useful in an amnesiac culture like our own to recall and correct some history. In thinking about painting in New York in the 1950’s, many people-particularly those whose first acquaintance with the New York scene dates from the late 1960’s, 1970’s or 1980’s-still regard the “triumph” of Abstract Expressionism as the only thing that really mattered. Yet many of the key accomplishments of the New York School actually belong to the 1940’s, the first decade of the Abstract Expressionist movement and the one when its aesthetic character was established in the work of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, Robert Motherwell, Ad Reinhardt, Richard Pousette-Dart and Hans Hofmann.

In the 1950’s, while the Abstract Expressionist movement continued to flourish, a reaction-or what might better be called a defection-emerged from within its ranks in favor of one or another mode of figurative painting with sufficient force to alter and complicate the entire outlook of the New York art scene.

It was de Kooning who won the lion’s share of attention with his Woman paintings, but Pollock, too, reverted to a kind of figurative painting after 1950. The principal momentum of this defection or countermovement was to be found, however, in the work of the so-called “second generation” painters of the New York School-Fairfield Porter, Nell Blaine, Leland Bell, Jane Freilicher, Larry Rivers, Philip Pearlstein, Grace Hartigan, Alex Katz and Paul Georges, among others. So emphatic was the impact of this countermovement that, in 1954, the Artists’ Club, which had been founded in the 1940’s to discuss the problems and promote the interests of the Abstract Expressionists, convened a panel on the then-controversial issue of the “New Realism,” as the figurative painting of the 50’s was called. John Bernard Myers, who was exhibiting some of these figurative painters along with some of the younger Abstract Expressionists at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, was the moderator of the panel. The speakers were Alfred H. Barr Jr., Clement Greenberg, Frank O’Hara and myself.

It was, as I recall, a fairly stormy discussion. But that was to be expected. The Artists’ Club wasn’t much given to formal rules of debate. Alfred Barr caused some commotion when he suggested that abstraction itself might be coming to an end, and that a return to history painting might be in the offing. (He had in mind Larry Rivers’ Washington Crossing the Delaware .) A few years later, Barr found in Jasper Johns’ flags, targets and maps what he was looking for: an alternative to abstraction. But abstract painting didn’t come to an end, though some people felt it might just as well have when, in 1959, they saw Frank Stella’s black-stripe pictures hanging in the Museum of Modern Art for the first time.

Meanwhile, the countermovement-which favored various styles of figurative painting but essentially rejected the antics of Mr. Johns’ neo-Dadaism and the Pop Art painting that derived from it-went its own way, mindful of tradition, including the tradition of Abstract Expressionism in some cases, and often producing some of the most ambitious painting to be seen in the latter decades of the 20th century.

Mr. Georges (born in 1923) is one of the big talents to come out of this countermovement in figurative painting in the 1950’s. The ambition, in his case, was the attempt to reconcile the scale and freedom of Abstract Expressionist painting with the figurative content of the Old Masters. Thus, in the big, early Self-Portrait in Studio (1959), which is over 8 feet wide, there is as much Franz Kline in the painting of the tall easel on the right as there is of Rembrandt in the painting of the self-portrait on the left. If the picture falters in places, as it does in the unfinished painting of the artist’s feet-which has the curious effect of making the entire figure seem to levitate before his canvas-it is owing as much to exuberance as to impatience. Yet whatever its incidental faults, the impact of the painting is tremendous.

There are, in fact, a lot of self-portraits in this retrospective, as well as narrative paintings in which the artist is also a character. There are paintings of nude models, still lifes and even, alas, a very strange painting of classical ruins, Frieze and the Temple (1990). The show is called The Big Idea , and bigness-in the size of the canvas, in the sweep of the painterly gesture, in the conception of the painting’s subject and in the exorbitant energy the painter brings to it-is the keynote.

My own favorite among the paintings in this exhibition is the group portrait called The Cedar Tavern (1973-74), another big picture measuring nearly 8 feet wide that is surely Mr. Georges’ masterpiece. The scene is what might be called the post-Jackson Pollock Cedar Tavern, in which Mr. Georges himself (seen in the lower left corner) is in the company of some painter friends-among them, Aristodimos Kaldis (in the lower right, wearing his signature red scarf) and Paul Resika (partially seen just behind Kaldis). This is at once the most moving, the most disciplined and the most beautifully constructed painting by Mr. Georges I have seen. In a more perfect art world than ours, it would be hanging in one of our major museums, for it is itself part of the history of the New York art world in the later 20th century.

Paul Georges, The Big Idea: A Retrospective remains on view at the Center for Figurative Painting, 115 West 30th Street, through June 10. The center is open to the public Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 6 p.m.