By the end of the 1950s, Abstract Expressionism had clearly "triumphed" over all other stylistic contenders within American painting, and the United States had established cultural supremacy over its European counterparts. This stunning victory was paralleled by the ascendancy of formalism as the dominant interpretation of this art. With formalism, especially as promulgated by critic Clement Greenberg, all the arts tended to be reduced to the essentials of their particular medium. Therefore, the most advanced art had long ago divested itself of subject matter in its evolution toward purity. Art was seen as essentially self-referential. The presence of content or meaning, beyond a certain integrity to materials, was considered passe. Anything that could be construed as "literary content" was especially guilty.(1)
In this atmosphere, New Images of Man opened at the Museum of Modern Art to an onslaught of negative criticism. The exhibition, curated by Peter Selz, was installed from September to November 1959 and featured figurative painting and sculpture by both Europeans and Americans. Manny Farber, writing for Artnews, dubbed it "the monster show."(2) Seymour Howard described the figures as "brutes, monsters, and hollow men."(3) Robert Coates, writing for the New Yorker, summed up the general critical reaction by dismissing the entire selection of art for the exhibition as "so capricious and so far from representing any broad, true impression of the atmosphere of today that it is hardly worth while going into any critical appraisal of it."(4)
It could be argued that any exhibition that placed Europeans on equal footing with Americans was sure to arouse hostility at this time, as would a show that gave such an important place to sculpture. However, a more fundamental reason for its bad critical reception was that at the time of formalist ascendancy, New Images of Man was a plea for the importance of an existential, or humanist, content in contemporary art.
Selz, who was curating his first exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, and who was speaking in existential language, commented that "the revelations and complexities of mid-twentieth-century life have called forth a profound feeling of solitude and anxiety."(5) While he did not exclude abstract art from evoking this experience, clearly he favored a new figuration. The underlying assumption almost seems to be a dialectical opposition between figuration and abstraction, equating it with content-laden versus contentless forms. In retrospect this is a false dichotomy, failing to recognize the actual importance of content in Abstract Expressionism while at the same time tacitly accepting formalism's reading of abstraction. The show's claim to avant-garde status was based on its rejection of this current critical paradigm.
New Images of Man featured 104 paintings and sculptures by twenty-three artists, nearly half of whom were Europeans. Sculpture figured prominently in the exhibition as can be seen at the entrance to the show (fig. I), where British sculptor Kenneth Armitage's imposing Diarchy stood as a silent sentinel.[Figure 1 omitted] Faceless and mute, the figures have an ominously despotic air, as suggested by the title. Features have been reduced to abstract essentials, not to suggest formal clarity, but to suggest charred remains. An entire gallery was devoted to the postwar sculpture of Alberto Giacometti (fig. 2), summing up the dread, alienation, and heroic humanism that formed the main theme of the show.[Figure 2 omitted]
In another room, Reg Butler's Girl was featured prominently (see p. 65). Selz's interpretation revealed his attitude toward content, stating: "The Girl...has the intense vitality of erotic recognition. This heroic bronze figure, erect, taut, stretching upward from the thin grid on which she stands, reaches yearningly toward the object of her desire."(6) Selz described Butler's Figure in Space (to the left of …