Inventory in Context: The Figure
INVENTORY IN CONTEXT aims to creatively contextualize works from our gallery collection, both historical and contemporary. Please look forward to a new installment each month.
One of the most enduring subjects in art history, images of the human form can be found on cave walls and canvases, adorning cathedrals and ceremonial objects, depicting saints, gods, friends, lovers, rulers, and common folk in almost every time and place throughout the world. In short, the figure has permeated art from its very inception. While it may seem logical that figural painting would fall out of fashion with the advent of abstraction, it has instead evolved into a truly modern mode. More often than not, twentieth century figuration prioritizes the role of the artist and his or her aesthetic vision over the physical likeness of the model, resulting in works that delve into the psyche, revealing aesthetic and emotional truths in model, artist, and viewer.
An early pioneer of abstraction in America, Manierre Dawson embarked on a prolific period in the early 1910’s fueled by prolonged stays in Europe and New York. Figure Party-Colored marries the lessons of Parisian Cubism with Dawson’s own unique compositional and tonal sensibilities in a prescient nod in the direction of all-over abstraction. The central mass of geometric forms in this composition is particularly vibrant; the title and the contours of this area suggest a human figure--but so abstracted as to be essentially unrecognizable. The darker shapes at lower left ground the composition, balanced by the greens at upper right. Inspired by the Old Masters he had seen abroad, here Dawson integrates traditional figure painting and avant-garde ideas in a style that parallel’s Marcel Duchamp’s infamous Nude Descending a Staircase of the same year.
The figure enjoyed a resurgence in painting during the classicizing 1920s and socially-minded 1930s, and even survived the advent of Abstract Expressionism in the form of de Kooning’s series of monumental Women. Though abstraction ruled, the figure remained a vital force in modern art throughout the second half of the twentieth century in the work of the Pop artists, as well as on the canvases of painters such as Phillip Guston, Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud, and many others.
Romare Bearden’s figures are as monumental and iconic as those found in ancient Egyptian or Greek art, and yet maintain a very contemporary feel. A combination of monotype print, watercolor, and collage, Empress of the Blues reveals the artist’s mastery of a variety of media and his singular ability to synthesize them in compositions that are both formally and conceptually complex. Among Bearden’s favorite subjects were jazz musicians and blues singers, especially legendary vocalist Billie Holiday, the likely inspiration for Empress of the Blues. Here, Bearden expertly translates her passionate, energetic performances into abstracted figure and form.
The lively hand motions and vibrant facial expressions found in Empress of the Blues bring to mind Holiday’s emotive, soulful songs and onstage dynamism. The artist seems less concerned with creating a portrait than in celebrating Holiday’s performative vibrancy and unique place in jazz history. The sounds and emotions of the musical performance are conveyed through abstract form: white drips populate the top right, as if the figure’s song has been rendered visible.
Where Bearden’s figures visualize music, virtuoso painter Alex Kanevsky captures movement and time’s constant flow in canvases that resist adherence to a single moment, or even a single reading. Like the unreliable nature of memory and the imprecise atmosphere of poetry, Kanevsky’s multilayered works provide more questions than answers. These paintings combine abstraction and figuration in layered, painterly compositions that shimmer with a kind of Futurist velocity, while at the same time capturing a serene feeling of stillness.
The figure is central to Kanevsky’s work. Most often, Kanevsky focuses on the nude, creating soft, tactile bodies in luscious flesh tones. His landscapes pulsate with alchemical energy, shifting between the recognizable world and pure form and color. Though Kanevsky paints both from life and from photographs, he relishes most the kinetic energy of live models. His figures inhabit mysterious landscapes and ambiguous architecture, often composed of wide swaths of color that contain echoes of color field painting. Kanevsky brings portraiture fully into the twenty-first century, the latest innovator in the long tradition of figural art.