(The works in this slideshow are intended to illustrate the broad variety of artists working in primarily one vein of Realism. The artists represented are scattered across the globe, from Argentina to India. Some of the works do not have complete information, not because I didn’t seek it, but because it was simply not available. If any artists recognize their own work in this presentation, and want to correct the information w/ regards to date, media, title or size, please contact me via this blogsite or via my website at http://www.elston.net . You may use the class inquiry form to reach me.)
Time is an elastic thing. When the Impressionists had their first shows, a few of the artists involved had already achieved some moderate success in the Salon. For all of the controversy that their exhibitions engendered, they had pretty much entered the mainstream by the end of the ensuing decade. No matter which side of the aesthetic divide one stood on, the Impressionists were at least considered a legitimate part of the conversation. Contemporary Realism and Figuration have not fared as well.
In the United States, the art of the 1930s and 40s was dominated by figuration. Social Realism, American Scene, California Style and various Regionalist camps presented a rich tapestry of figurative approaches, joined together by a typically American pragmatism. Many of the artists of this period had been politicized by the Great War and the Great Depression, and many of them were avowed socialists or Marxists. By the late 1940s, and in the wake of the “Advancing American Art” controversy, the establishment had begun to see this as a liability. The country was veering to the right.
During the post-WWII occupation of Europe, the CIA and the U.S. State Department secretly funded European exhibitions of American artists’ works, primarily the Abstract Expressionists. Such efforts were intended to promote American interests abroad, create a diplomatic wedge and recruit European intellectual “assets” for intelligence purposes. It had secondary effects, such as foregrounding this group of artists at home, where European “approval” still carried a great deal of cultural cache. It also had the ancillary effect of accelerating the transition of New York into the gravitational center of the world art market. At the same time, conservative and anti-communist partisans at the Museum of Modern Art, under Alfred Barr Jr., actively tried to purge and marginalize artists with leftist leanings. The reason that the Abstract Expressionists were well suited for these purposes was their avowed apoliticism, and the absence of any possibility of a social narrative in their work.
As for the philosophical and art critical writing of the period, it is often difficult to tease out these nefarious intentions from those with any real sincerity. Clement Greenberg was, since 1950, a member of the CIA-fronted American Committee for Cultural Freedom. His writings are a veritable crusade against the idea of representation in painting or sculpture, as well as promoting the concept that art should instantiate theory above all else. Still, Greenberg was a sophisticated writer. The arguments and historical narratives that evolved in the popular sphere were more starkly black and white. Figuration and Realism represented the forces of conservatism and reaction. Abstraction and conceptualism represented cutting edge radicalism, freedom and cultural evolution. Such formulations constituted an effective sales pitch to elites with money and social aspirations, even as they turned the truth on its head.
As more money entered the art market, these attitudes and their successors became more entrenched. Cultural investment created its own inertia. By the 1970s any gallery that exhibited realist work forfeited credibility, although certain forms of realist figuration had re-entered the cultural vocabulary by virtue of their “ironic” relationship to popular iconography or the mechanization of perception and representation. Yet at the same time nascent revisionist histories of the previous decades and the previous century were causing younger artists to question the assumptions upon which they had been schooled. Writers like Albert Boime, Gerald Ackerman, the father of American Regionalist studies William H. Gerdts and others were turning over stones. In many respects we are still trying to ascertain what crawled out from underneath.
This writer can still remember a time when the predominate surveys used in art history courses at universities and colleges did not mention the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and the Academies of Europe were reduced to a few disparaging paragraphs. A curator of art at a regional museum in the Northwest referred to pre-WWII art as “moldy oldies”, and the dean of the San Francisco Art Institute called paintings “wall obstructions”. The only South American art that one might see were breakout Pop Art personalities like Marisol and Botero, and Asian art of any kind was virtually unknown. At the dawn of the 1980s the prevailing paradigm for the art world was much the same as the winner-take-all model used in sports, fashion and entertainment. The publishing industry fed an enormous appetite for coffee table books on Andy Warhol and Keith Haring. At the same time a robust economy in academic funding fueled research into some of the more neglected artists and movements from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Books were published on the Realists, the Naturalists, American Impressionists, the Euston Road School, the Russian Itinerants, the Macchiaioli, California Plein Airists, Russian Socialist Realism, etc.
Much of the history of this period and its players still remains to be written; the artists that gravitated around the Soho artist co-op galleries like the Bowery Gallery, Green Street Gallery, First Street Gallery and the Figurative Artists Alliance in Tribecca; The Project for the Living Artist; the residual Boston School, with its legacy of Classicism and American Impressionism; the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art; the PRB revival at California College of Arts and Crafts; the many other regional movements, including the Northwest Figurative Artists Alliance and related organizations. Unfortunately the era will have to wait for its William Gerdts. Although we are now talking about events and people from the last 50 years, we know scarce little about them. I’m confident that this history will eventually be written, and frankly feel that the historicity claimed by most of the contemporary art market is just a hollow sales pitch, much like the claim that Thomas Kincade’s paintings are heirlooms. I believe that much of the art that claims to be radical today will be judged by the historians of the future to be just market fodder intended to cement the social positions and cultural aspirations of the currently ruling elites, much as the art of the Pompiers did in the late 19th Century.
Figurative and Realist styles in painting, drawing and sculpture have spread across the globe over the past 3 decades, and represent many independent strains. Immigrant, academically trained Social Realists from Russia and China have found work and a ready audience in the West. The burgeoning atelier movement and plein air resurgence have proliferated and, after many years of seeming isolation, are beginning to communicate and network. Contact engenders friction, and that’s a good thing. Distributed networks create distributed spheres of influence, which undermine market and ideological entrenchments. The wheels have been set in motion, indeed started turning over 50 years ago. It remains to be seen how things will shake out. We’ll see changes in patterns of patronage, in venues for exhibition and distribution, and in the critical infrastructure that weaves these trends into viable narratives.
In the late 1980s Robert Hughes, writing as chief art critic for Time magazine, wrote that the artworld was becoming more decentralized. He suggested that the structure of that world, and its patterns of influence, more closely resembled that of the Medieval City States rather than the supremely dominant Rome of the Caesars or Paris in the early Modern period. Emergent technologies and social networks will make this decentralization even more granular. Because of the nature of the work, Realists tend to be more closely aligned, more symbiotic with the communities where they reside. This latter development will be all the more welcome as it supplants the image of the artist as a global dilettante effecting grand but empty gestures for an increasingly novelty-besotted public. Perhaps then a model for an engaged art appropriate to modern democracies can emerge.