Recent Painting USA: The Figure


Here are paintings of the forms of men and women and children--figures: figures in deep perspective, in flat silhouette; painted in patient detail or headlong bravura, with calculation or spontaneity, in monochrome or party-colored; figures candid as day; figures shredded, veiled, swathed, fragmented, emerging reluctantly from interpenetrating planes or tentacles of pigment; figures alone, in pairs, in groups, in crowds; figures naked, clothed, bizarrely accoutered; figures in landscapes, bedscapes, townscapes; figures staring at the painter, bathing in the benign sun, calling upon death in vain, hanged by the neck or heels; voluptuous figures, caressed or mocked; a nervous business man, a complacent woman, disquieting youths; figures frightened, haunted, ecstatic, lost in sleep; figures posed to make a composition; everyday figures, historical figures, legendary figures, Biblical figures; figures rapt in a witches' sabbath, bewildered by survival, photographed in someone else's dream, climbing toward a flowering tree. ■ All these figures have several things in common: first of all they exist in paintings; the paintings were done between 1958 and 1961 and were selected (not infallibly!) from some 9,500 submitted by living American artists. ■ Men have been painting their own image for many thousands of years but it is probable that never before, within one time and one country, has the human figure been painted with the prodigious variety of forms even this small exhibition suggests. ■ What is the meaning of this variety? The question is confounding. Compare figure painting in Egypt in the period between 1961 B. C. and 1958 B. C. with American figure painting now. The contrast approaches a polarity between uniformity and multiformity but it does not answer the question. Perhaps it leads to another: how rugged is the individualism? ■ There is not much reassurance to the unadventurous in the fact that almost all of the paintings in the exhibition are traditional or at least precedented in their overt subject matter, that is, the situations and the states-of-mind explicitly suggested by the painted figures. The latent content is another problem, deeply involving not only personal symbolism but personal form or style. Form or style can disparage the importance of subject matter or confirm it. ■ These human figures were painted in a period (a glorious period in American art) when the painted surface often functioned in virtual and even dogmatic independence of any represented image. Some of these pictures suggest uncertainty as to whether a painting in the 1960s can or cannot, should or should not, live by paint alone. Others seem more confident. Ambiguous or decisive, more strength to them!

Alfred H. Barr, Jr.

Additional information

Publisher: Place of publication:
  • Garden City, NY
Publication year:
  • 1962


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