Figurative Rebels Joined in N.Y. School Reunion

For many people in the art world, especially those who come

to the scene straight from their college survey courses, the history of

American painting in the last half of the 20th century goes more or less like

this: In the beginning, there was Abstract Expressionism, otherwise known as

the New York School, followed by Neo-Dada and Pop Art (along with Minimalism

and Conceptual Art), which were succeeded by Neo-Expressionism, Neo-Geo,

Post-Minimalism and a variety of Post-this and Neo-that diversions generally

categorized as Postmodernism, followed by … what? Neo-Postmodernism, I suppose.

Or-God forbid!-Post-Neomodernism. Or maybe just a lot more of Post-Duchamp and

Neo-Warhol.

There was a lot of figurative painting contemporaneous with

all these movements and anti-movements that could not easily be fitted into any

of the reigning categories. Some of it used to be called Realism, but this

often meant nothing more specific than the likelihood that the paintings could

be seen to have subjects derived from nature, the human figure, the studio or

some other easily recognized object of common experience.

Painting of this persuasion tends-in our time, anyway-not to

belong to any “school” or movement. It is the art of highly individual talents

consciously working to align their experience of the world with what they

especially admire in the paintings of older or earlier masters. The principal

aesthetic denominator of such painting is likely to be its resistance to the

temptations of facile vanguardism and its reverence for painting itself as a

medium of high art. It is mainly owing to this combination of resistance and

reverence that painting of this persuasion receives so little consistent or

sustained attention from museum curators of contemporary art, who remain, for

the most part, fixated upon a remorseless search for an avant-garde that hasn’t

actually existed anywhere but in their own wishful thinking for decades.

In an effort to deal with this lopsided situation, and to

restore some historical balance to the public’s understanding of the history of

American painting in the last half of the 20th century, a number of figurative

painters-none of them in their first youth-have joined in establishing an

alternative exhibition space of their own in midtown Manhattan. The Center for

Figurative Painting, as this new gallery and discussion center is called,

opened in May, promising to bring us a “compelling account of New York postwar

[post–World War II, that is] representational painting.”

The Center certainly makes good on this promise with its

current exhibition, called Reconfiguring

the New York School . Some of the painters in this show-Fairfield Porter and

Alex Katz, for example-are well-known and have made it into the museums with

important exhibitions. Here, they are represented by early works that few of us

have seen before: Porter’s View Through

the Laundry Room Window (1951) and Katz’s Kathy (1960). Some of the other painters may be less familiar-Albert

Kresch, for example, whose small, dazzling landscape called Large Tree (1997) will make you eager to

see more of this work.

In my view, the single most spectacular painting in the show

is a very large-eight feet wide-figures-in-a-landscape composition by Lennart

Anderson called Idyll III (1979-99),

which, as its dates indicate, occupied the artist for some 20 years. With its

ultra-traditional theme of an earthly paradise and its subtle pictorial

allusions to, among other masters, Titian and Ingres, this is a painting that

openly declares its allegiance to the classics of great painting, and to the

kind of craft and vision that such an allegiance entails. In a saner art world

than ours, museums would be vying for the honor of mounting a major retrospective

of Mr. Anderson’s work, but that is not something likely to happen anytime

soon. Which is all the more reason to have a look at this amazing painting in

the current exhibition.

Given his aesthetic loyalties, it is no surprise to learn

that Mr. Anderson studied with the late Edwin Dickinson-an earlier American

master of similar loyalties-at the Art Students League back in the 1950’s. Some

of the painters in this show-Nell Blaine, Paul Georges, Jane Freilicher, Louisa

Matthiasdottir and Paul Resika-studied with Hans Hofmann, while others-Peter

Heinemann and Robert De Niro Sr.-had classes with Josef Albers. Some studied

with both of these masters of abstraction, and some began their own careers as

abstract painters before returning to one or another figurative tradition. All

were firmly grounded in the aesthetics of modern painting, and some were

directly influenced in their figurative paintings by the scale and ambition of

the Abstract Expressionists.

I am not sure myself that the best way to present these and

some of the other painters in this exhibition-Leland Bell, Lester Johnson, Jan

Müller and Albert York-is as members of the New York School, a rubric so firmly

established as a reference to Abstract Expressionism. I am certain that the

late Leland Bell, for example, would have been unequivocal in rejecting such a

classification, if only because Bell’s ideas about painting were so much closer

to those of the School of Paris than to the practices of the New York School.

It’s too late, in any case, to revise a term like “New York School” to include

the kind of painting that did, after all, reject abstraction as an aesthetic

option.

Still, while a better title than Reconfiguring the New York School might have been chosen, the

exhibition itself is a salutary reminder of the kind of pictorial achievements

we do not often get to see in the museums. It remains on view at the Center for

Figurative Painting, 115 West 30th Street, Suite 202, through Jan. 27. The

Center’s hours are Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 6 p.m.