"Out of the Fifties-Into the Sixties: 6 Figurative Expressionists"

By Kunitz, Daniel | New Criterion, May 2001 | Go to article overview

"Out of the Fifties-Into the Sixties: 6 Figurative Expressionists"


Kunitz, Daniel, New Criterion


"Out of the Fifties--Into the Sixties: 6 Figurative Expressionists," at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York. March 15-May 5, 2001

In this captivating and instructive show, "figurative expressionist" refers to those artists who, in Michael Rosenfeld's words, "rejected the tenets of abstract expressionism and embraced the human figure." Unlike the so-called second generation of Abstract Expressionists, followers of Willem de Kooning who also embraced representation in the Fifties, Rosenfeld's artists did not rail neatly into any one school or style. What primarily distinguishes them as a group is their use of the figure at a time when abstraction held sway over most artistic imaginations and by the fact that they did not presage the rise of pop art in the early Sixties. The group included the African-American artists Beauford Delaney (1901-1979) and Bob Thompson (1937-1966), Leon Golub, Red Grooms, Lester Johnson, and the German-born American Jan Muller (1922-1958).

Golub, perhaps the most famous among them, is represented by three works, all in his characteristic primitive style--derived in part from art brut. Head I (1966), for example, employs bare, stabbing strokes of black, mauve, and white acrylic on linen to describe the unclothed torso and head of a man. His pained visage and tense, muscled body harmonize ideally--and typically for Golub--with the stark means and materials with which they are painted. Like Golub, Johnson approaches the figure with similarly stripped-down methods. Using broad strokes of thick oil paint and few colors, he records only the outlines of his haunting figures, allowing the paint itself--its drips, globs, pools, and fluid passages--to imbue them with emotion and individual traits. On a gray ground, a few heavy strokes of black paint form the facial oval, eyes, nose, and mouth in the unstrainingly simple Untitled (Head) (1962).

With his childlike renderings of figures in a forest, Muller's comparatively more lush primitivism reminds one of a muted Douanier Rousseau. In both his canvases, The Trysting Place (c. 1957) and The Search for the Unicorn (1957), simple lines stand in for facial features: a red line for the mouths of the nude peachy-fleshed women lying on the ground with black lines for the eyes and nose; and slightly thicker lines for the white-faced figures on horseback staring at the women. …

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