A Realism to Realism

Article excerpt

Representational art may be the hot new movement of the 21st century

A century and a half ago, an artistic movement widely known as Realism developed in France under the brushes of such artists as Gustave Courbet, Jean Francois Millet, and Honore Daumier. They reacted to the prevailing Romanticism of their day by portraying what they saw as real life, from the toil of country folk to the plight of urban dwellers. Realism, in turn, paved the way for the turn-of-the-century Impressionist movement, which used everyday life as subject matter for artworks that presented reality in a ravishing new light.

Then, as surely as World War I ravaged Europe, that era's advent of modernism abruptly overshadowed some seven decades of realistic art. Cubism, Fauvism, expressionism, minimalism, surrealism, abstraction, and a host of other movements marching under the modernist banner captivated the imaginations of collectors, teachers, and critics alike. These anti-realists came to dominate the world of 20th-century art.

But Realism never died. You might say, instead, that it went underground: taught in a few diehard schools and ateliers; practiced by a small cadre of dedicated artists; sold by galleries, bought by collectors, and shown by a handful of museums that still saw true value in representational art.

And today, at the dawn of a new century, Realism has emerged anew. As representational art enjoys tremendous restored popularity nationwide, we examine its resurgence through the keen perceptions of the people most closely involved in its revival: the gallery owners, artists and teachers, auction experts, and museum curators who have kept the movement alive and nurtured it back to thriving new prominence.

The Gallery Perspective

"When I moved to San Francisco 25 years ago, there were no galleries dealing in Realist art, except by dead artists," says John Pence, owner of John Pence Gallery, one of the nation's leading outposts of Realism. "It really was lonely when I opened because our shows never received any press locally. Realism has been nearly a taboo subject, and the press's most powerful weapon is to ignore you. If they denounced you, it would be fun."

That said, Pence's devotion to such representational artists as Randall Lake, Dean Larson, Dorothy Morgan, and Jacob Collins has paid off, particularly with collectors' rising interest in recent years. "The market is definitely continuing to grow, with our business now increasing about 15 to 20 percent each year," Pence says.

The growth has been even more dramatic at van de Griff Gallery in Santa Fe, NM, according to Klaudia Marr, its director for the past four years. "The market for Realism is unbelievably thriving. Our sales of Realist work have increased about 40 percent in the last year," she says, pointing out that the gallery actually has waiting lists for works by artists like William Barnes, David Hines, Robert Brawley, and John Nava.

Such demand may be attributed, in part, to the many new collectors who have prospered in the recent economic good times. "A lot of young, first-time buyers are comfortable with Realism," observes Tom Carson, who opened Carson Gallery in Denver, CO, 28 years ago. Adds David Katz, owner of Coda Gallery-which has branches in Palm Desert, CA, Park City, UT, and New York City"-People want something they can relate to. They're finally getting away from buying with their ears just because some critics-who don't know what they're talking about half the time-say that a particular kind of art is being bought by museums."

The Artist's Perspective

Whether through neglect or out-and-out dismissal by most modernist-minded critics, Realist artists often suffered through the middle to late decades of the 20th century.

"At parties in New York in the late 1970s, if I told people I was doing representational art they would walk to the other side of the room," recalls Gary Faigin, a magical realist painter and founder of the Seattle Academy of Fine Art. …