Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on January 20, 2009 with permission of the Milwaukee Art Museum. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, or wish to obtain a copy of the exhibition catalogue from which it is excerpted, please contact the Milwaukee Art Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:


Directions 2: Aspects of a New Realism

by Tracy Atkinson


The "Directions" series of exhibitions organized by the Milwaukee Art Center to examine various significant recent developments as these occur on the contemporary art scene continues this year with "Aspects of a New Realism".

"Options", the inaugural exhibition of the series held in the summer of 1968, pointed up a widespread attitude among artists concerning the relationship of the viewer to the work of art which in every case included some kind of physical manipulation or other direct participation. Optional art is independent of questions of style and it does not constitute a "movement" in art in the strict sense of the word. "Aspects of a New Realism", on the other hand, involves both. It embraces an important stylistic development and it may well be a proper "school" of art with broad new implications of significance for society well beyond the realm of art alone.

In questions of style are subsumed the basic issues of art, for style names the mode in which the artist manipulates his world and consequently determines the values he expresses. Where optional art has added a new dimension to art's possibilities and functions, a stylistic shift of the magnitude implied in a new realism may stand a chance of altering its fundamental structure. There are, moreover, some important terminological problems involved and the choice of a title for the exhibition is intended to reflect some of them. "Aspects of a New Realism" like "Options" was arrived at in the desire to isolate the phenomenon being considered with a reasonable degree of accuracy without at the same time distorting it through precipitously or arbitrarily "naming" it. The invention of such terminology properly lies in the realm of the critics and they have indeed wrestled with the problem, but as yet there is only a modicum of agreement and we are left with the inadequate adjective which springs only from the novelty of the thing -- "new". Since in the discussion of any new development in art the semantics always lag behind the manifestation, our position is certainly not a new one, particularly in this complex century. But it is important to note that it is a new realism and not The New Realism to which we point.

Clearly in one sense there is no new realism at all. There have been other "new realisms" in recent years and everyone knows that there has been realism of some kind in art for several centuries. Even including the more hieratic imagery of the Middle Ages there has in fact been a gesture toward figuration, at least, since the very beginning of the Western tradition. But it is equally clear that a strong new manifestation of the realist tradition is upon us, and it is especially problematic since its resurgence comes after half a century of hegemony of quite opposite directions even though those directions were never themselves absolutely exclusive. The old tradition never actually died after all, although it has indeed at times shrunk to a mere shadow of its former self.

The first word of the title, "Aspects," moves closer to the real problems involved and it intentionally leaves some room for maneuver as well as, possibly, a hedge for error. We are still perhaps in a transitional phase to the new style and there is a chance of claiming too much too soon, but clearly something is afoot. There is a group of artists and a body of obviously significant works of art which have a common quality -- a concern with imagery in painting which has important references to what the eye sees in the natural world outside the realm of art. In some ways this is rather astonishing and it poses several crucial questions. What in more precise terms are those common qualities which unite the group? What is the real relationship of the "new" to the old realism? From whence in more immediate terms did the style spring? And finally, and perhaps most difficult, what is its significance for the present time in terms of its statement of human values? The new realism is not completely uniform, not nearly so much so as Impressionism, for instance, or the Realism which developed in France during the middle of the nineteenth century. It is not even as consistent as Abstract Expressionism closer to our own time. In a period of such great diversity in art as the late sixties to expect unanimity would be folly and to find it should lead to re-examining one's premises. There seem at the moment, however, to be at least two major phases to the style, one stemming from that other most recent manifestation of realism, Pop Art, and the other reaching back farther in time to the mainstream of Renaissance tradition and especially its nineteenth and earlier twentieth century manifestations. Each of these aspects has its champion in the critical field, the former in Lawrence Alloway who coined for it the term "Post-Pop" in a searching effort to develop a new language for a new attitude in art, the other in a more partisan and impassioned stance presented on several occasions by Sidney Tillim, himself one of the artists involved. Though the exhibition reflects these two streams there are other important aspects as well and we have tried to avoid over-dichotomizing the matter.

Since it is axiomatic that art grows primarily upon itself, the question of the relationship of any new style to both what has gone before and what is happening concurrently cannot be ignored. It is, in fact, very useful and instructive to undertake such analysis in spite of at least one inherent danger. The comparison often tends to emphasize the relationships of a given style to its predecessors at the expense of asserting what that style brings with it which is new, and it is this after all that keeps our horizons expanding and fulfills the revelatory function of art which is its principal reason for being. Nevertheless, the methodology is effective and sometimes sheds considerable light.

Since Pop was stylistically relatively diverse, the new realism's most interesting relationships with it seem to be first a similarity of subject matter and second the matters of technique and method. The question of content forms perhaps a more challenging comparison with the older tradition of Renaissance realism, while style has references to both these as well as considerable influence from other current and non-realist directions.

The new style undoubtedly had the way paved for it by Pop's espousal of subject matter itself and by its use of banal material, but the new subjects themselves have curiously turned largely to traditional themes -- studio interiors, single figures, portraits, the classical nude and landscapes with and without figures. They turn also to a relatively rare but fascinating old theme -- pictures of pictures. An important emphasis on the banal and ordinary remains from Pop, but it assumes a rather different guise.

The comparison with the grand tradition of naturalistic style is quite compelling. Tillim has at times passionately censured the movement for not coming to terms with all the old problems, to the point that he sees it as an ethical, even a moral issue. There are certainly many criteria inherent in such a long tradition which any artist must consider if he is to espouse any aspect of that tradition. Simple good drawing is one. In spite of the hierarchy of values which the lay mind has always called up on this issue with respect to the various abstract styles, and the confusion it is now going to present again in this regard, this is a valid point. We have, in fact, often considered it ourselves in selecting the exhibition. The layman should be warned, however, that this is not a matter of superior skill, but merely of a different set of skills which is required. An additional point is clearly also that not all of the old standards may apply and the problem remains to establish the new ones.

The relationship of a new realism to abstraction in the twentieth century presents some real dilemmas. The layman may be inclined to herald the advent of a new interest in recognizable images as the long-awaited return to "normalcy" in art after a false-start in Pop. There may be something to this in a way, at a deep atavistic level of a desire by artists for more direct and specific communication, but the layman should again be cautioned that it may not be that easy. The strength and inherent quality of the abstract tradition of our time has not been the result of accident nor, as is often still suspected, of the eccentric vagaries of artists or the willful charlatanism of a desperate art market. The simple fact is that we have painted abstractly because we believe in the reality of abstractions and our whole lives are indeed significantly affected by them. A diversion from this stance by a substantial number of artists cannot thus escape speculation about the statement of values involved, but it is not a question of a simple return to the past in any sense. This problem has received a certain amount of critical attention and William Wilson in an essay commissioned for this exhibition, suggests the term "operational images" in connection with his response to the challenge.

It has been widely noted that a good deal of influence can be traced in the new pictures from various recent abstract styles. The concern for "presence" which Linda Nochlin, especially, has noted as being almost unanimous among the new artists' assertions about their work, would for instance seem to have a distinct connection with a similar quality which is central to that most abstract of all styles, minimalism, although in the one it concerns a transfer of a real presence into art and in the other the presence is nonreferential and confined to the work of art itself as a compelling object. There are also broad similarities of the pictorial qualities of the new paintings to much of the somewhat longer recent tradition of "hard-edge" abstraction, albeit again with marked differences, in this case particularly in attitudes towards space. There is thus clear enough indication that the values of the new realism are not totally isolated from those of abstract art which is not unexpected but may be illuminating. This is an entirely normal continuum, of course, but worth important mention with regard to the contemporaneity of the new work.

One of the limitations of abstraction is the impossibility of making a specific statement about some thing or some event without violating its own means. Music, as the most abstract of the arts, cannot do this either. Literature and poetry on the other hand can, since they deal with words which have their own connotations as do visual images. In a sense painting may be seen as moving back and forth between the desire for these abilities of its sister arts in its shifting emphasis on abstraction versus representation. One cannot help but wonder if painting in its new acceptance of literalness now seeks to revive its old nostalgia for specificities.

But a troubling aspect of this interpretation is the widespread neutrality of the new painting with regard to its subjects. The presence of things is strongly asserted, but their emotional connotations are generally secondary considerations. The artists almost without exception claim they are mainly interested in the pictorial problems involved. This undoubtedly accounts for both the variety of subject in the work of some and its uniformity in others, and it certainly underlies the differences in treatment which varies widely from a cold classicism through disinterested recording to a rich, warm lyricism. Thus rather than being a question of the subjects themselves the phenomenon would seem to be more one of "illusionism", the old problem of creating a three-dimensional image on the flat surface of the canvas. This of course, remains primarily a problem of the studio and it can still be discussed in the language of abstraction, and it does not yet come to terms with the essential question: why recognizable images then? The answer probably lies on another level.

The new realism is above all a painting style and it assuredly offers a real alternative in painting to the problem posed by the work of among others, Ad Reinhardt -- Where does one go from the absolute minimum? The specific option to which these artists have turned may well go quite beyond the studio in its deeper motivations. A number of recent phenomena in art may indicate that the artist is seeking a new and more direct relationship to society in general. Many sculptors today desire to create huge "public" works which insert themselves into our lives by their very size -- they simply cannot be enshrined away in museums or private places -- and some actually succeed much to the discomfiture of our cramped museums. The immediate and widespread public acceptance of light art probably has much to do with the fact that these artists make a coherent and ordered statement from a very common modern experience -- the lights of the city and the electronic devices with which we are all so fascinated. A similar common denominator of experience was central to Pop Art, although with an ironic bent, and we have recently seen a new appearance of words in paintings with very specific emotional connotations. Optional art seeks a new, closer sharing of experience of artist and viewer through the invitation to directly participate. All seem to be going "outward" in various ways as opposed to a previous twentieth-century tradition which, whatever its real achievements have been, has generally been turned "inward" in the sense of seeing art as a personal revelation or working toward ideas of what art ought to be which have, after all, not been immediately subject to general comprehension.

I find it difficult to see an espousal of visual images in painting as isolated from all this. It may well at bottom have something to do with a desire for more direct communication of ideas, a greater sharing of common problems within the society, a greater accessibility for art. None of this would be outside the specifically American tradition and after five decades of "retreat from likeness" it will certainly be interesting if that is what indeed is occurring in art today. As a final indication that this may in fact be the case, witness the universal repugnance of the artists of the movement at the attempt of one critic to apply to them the term "Inhumanists" with reference to their treatment of subject matter. It has been almost the biggest brouhaha in art since the critic Vauxcelles christened the "Fauves" back in 1905.

If we are tentative about some of this it is because we are wary of the critical problems involved. It should be importantly noted that no such reservations apply to the works of art presented here -- we are confident of their status and of the real achievements of the artists represented.

The exhibition has been under the direction of John Lloyd Taylor, Assistant Director of the Milwaukee Art Center, and much assistance has been received from many individuals whose help is gratefully acknowledged elsewhere. I should like to add my own thanks to all of them and to extend the gratitude of the Milwaukee Art Center for their interest and their confidence. Once again special thanks is due to the Jos. Schlitz Brewing Co. for its very generous support without which the exhibition would not have been possible.

The exhibition is not quite complete in the sense that certain works could not be included because of the length of its circulation period. We have also, understandably, been arbitrary in many cases as well, especially at the peripheries of the movement both in time and space -- we have tried to concentrate on the central core of the development, possibly at the expense of some significant variants and certainly of some transitional figures. We have made no effort to include the history of the style as that is not the intent of the "Directions" series.


About the author

Tracy Atkinson was an art critic and the Director of the Milwaukee Art Center from 1962 to 1976. He retired as Director of the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut in 1987. He is Director Emeritus of the Wadsworth Atheneum.


Resource Library editor's note

The above exhibition catalogue text was reprinted in Resource Library on January 20, 2009, with permission of the Milwaukee Art Museum. The permission was granted to TFAO on January 13, 2009. Atkinson's essay pertains to Directions 2: Aspects of New Realism, which was on view at the Milwaukee Art Museum from June 21 - August 10, 1969.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Gwen Benner, Senior Director, Business Enterprises of the Milwaukee Art Museum, and Stacey Wittig for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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