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:
Presence as an Aspect of A New Realism
by John Lloyd Taylor
Of the seventeen artists in this exhibition, it may safely be stated that each represents a different aspect of a new realism, but that there are several factors which make it possible to unite them under that one general heading. There are, of course, as is widely recognized, two divergent yet in many ways parallel approaches into which these artists may generally be divided. However, it must be emphasized that we are in no way attempting to suggest that there are two distinct categories or kinds of new realism, but simply that there are two approaches which, although conceptually different stylistically, are searching out and establishing similar redefinitions of former to contemporary "realist" values.
The purpose of the exhibition is not to compare new realism to traditional Realism, Pop Art, or any other stylistic concept, but to point out those various similarities within the range of its divergencies that make somewhat possible the implications of a "movement", although as such caution must be exercised in any consideration of a new realism.
Obviously new realism has reintroduced subject matter into painting in a unique manner. Subject matter according to most of the artists themselves is not used for its own sake, but as a language for transliterating recognizable images, or "likenesses" (Lawrence Alloway's term for this kind of representation which seems most appropriately to convey the meaning required), of things common to everyday experience. For most of them also it is a matter of visually experiencing things peripherally as we normally do, before a cognitive identification and experiential process translates them into an intellectual or emotional response. The attitude is thus neutral; the result is not.
Furthermore, it is certainly relevant to note that the new realists choose the plain and ordinary, without either glorifying or vilifying it, in contrast to all earlier forms of Realism which could not help but at least romanticize about commonality. Nor is there the satirization of banal subjects that was endemic to much of Pop Art, for new realism is concerned in many instances with acceptance of the fact of banality as such, as legitimately a part of American culture and environment. Therefore, the selection of subjects is entirely contemporary, be they the cars of Robert Bechtle; the teeny-boppers of Ralph Goings; the buildings of Richard Artschwager, Richard Estes and Gabriel Laderman ; the interiors of Jack Beal, Richard Joseph and Lowell Nesbitt; the portraits and figure studies of Alfred Leslie, Alex Katz, Philip Pearlstein, Wayne Thiebaud and Sidney Tillim; the likenesses of commercially processed old master reproductions or utilization of photographic sources of John Clem Clarke, George Deem, Malcolm Morley and Bob Stanley.
Similarly, each is concerned with the object, or if one likes, subject matter, in a direct and bold manner - a clear, precise, straight-forward, "cool" statement; non-lyrical, non-romantic, non-expressionistic, and non-sentimental in the Romantic-Realist tradition. This places almost totally without immediate comment, but certainly with commitment, the subject of the painting squarely in the realm of factual perception. It is the fact of what is described that is paramount, and this is antecedent to any notions about it. The paintings are honest, forthright statements of visual fact as presence, with commentary about the pictorial subject involved occupying a secondary value level.
"Presence" is a term which both Linda Nochlin and Tracy Atkinson have used in connection with new realist painting, and it perhaps deserves further examination and interpretation here, for it does indeed seem to be the single most important aspect of new realism. Presence can not be thought of as the physicality of objects painted, nor as the simple recognizable (knowable) identification of the existence of the painting's subject. Presence is meant strictly in an ontological sense. In traditional representational painting, the object painted exists formally in relation to common experience; i.e. the painting is a representation of emotional and intellectual interpretations of the object as known through the relationship drawn between object, artist, painting and viewer. As object it is inconsequential in any other connection, excepting of course its formal physical properties which themselves have no bearing other than for identification purposes. The presence of that object is not known, however. But by painting likenesses of the essence and information contained within the object, while at the same time remaining neutral to its abjectness (be it a photograph of it or the object itself), which new realists seem to be doing in contrast to previous attitudes of realism, they have made the object important in spite of itself. And it is this neutrality which enables the artist to concentrate on the presence of the object rather than on the subject of the object. (An extreme example of this is Morley's technique of often painting upon the canvas turned upside down, thereby enabling himself to become totally detached from what it is he is painting and concentrate on the substance and specificity of the painting itself.)
The distinction between presence as brought forth through likeness and the Cezannesque concept of restructuring the object itself is indeed great, albeit not easily comprehensible. For clarity it may be appropriate here to quote from the contemporary French existentialist philosopher, Gabriel Marcel, and apply perhaps somewhat loosely his notions of presence to an interpretation of what we are talking about -- a new realism which "... is the active recognition of something permanent, not formally, after the manner of a law, but ontologically; in this sense, it refers invariably to a presence, or to something which can be maintained within us and before us as a presence, but which, ipso facto, can be just as well ignored, forgotten and obliterated." (The Philosophy of Existentialism, The Citadel Press, New York, 1963, P.35) Marcel goes on to say: "presence ... is more than the object, it exceeds the object on every side." (loc cit, pp.36-37) That is to say, for example, Thiebaud's River Boat exists as visual fact in itself and is both knowable and known through the subject; yet the "reality" of that subject matter is of little importance for what Thiebaud seems to be concerned with, and what the viewer is confronted with is the presence contained within his likeness of the object. River Boat therefore becomes in itself a reality beyond its own subject matter. Again, Leslie's Constance West is the presence of Constance West herself as known through likeness, and is not at all about the "reality" of Constance West painted realistically.
An appropriate analogy can also be made between new realism and minimal sculpture, as they both have in common this ontological comprehension of presence. A McCracken plank, for example, has of course the volume and mass which all sculpture either contains or sets up. Yet through an austere, almost serene detachment from any subject references, McCracken has presented to us an object as the presence of "plankness", with the specificity of "plankness" contained within its presence and not within the object. In this sense only, new realism is actually more closely, if unintentionally, related to minimal art than it is to previous forms of representational art.
Stylistic differentiations are quite compatible in new realism's whole approach to likeness. It matters not whether it is Clarke's Gericault: Raft of Medusa, as transliterated through a process involving the use of color slides and stencils, or whether it is Beal's Madison Nude, drawn directly from the model -- they are both about the same thing in the end -- the presence of the thing itself. Paradoxically, this detached neutrality evokes through presence a deeply personal, nostalgic, highly idealistic humanism in the work of all the artists in this exhibition. Of earlier realists, Hopper came close to this attitude of presence as set forth herein, but the sense of loneliness in his painting obviated the detachment from his subjects so necessary to a new realism, while Sheeler perhaps came even closer despite his strongly referential implications. What is really "new' about a new realism is this almost total conceptual departure from all previous attitudes towards representational painting.
It is certainly manifest that a natural evolution of a new realism which flows smoothly from one unified hierarchal concept is not the case. As Tracy Atkinson, Sidney Tillim and William S. Wilson elaborate upon in their essays published with this catalogue, there are numerous sources, both recent and historical, from which new realists have drawn Furthermore, to say that anyone of these traditions dominates another would be equivocal. Likewise to even suggest that either the "photographic" or the" figurative" attitudes of new realism can be thought of as one being more valid or more important than the other is at the least unreasonable. The ramifications of a new realism are indeed problematical, complex and obviously diverse. Yet in the face of the limited and heterogeneous criticism existing at this early stage of new realism's development, there is perhaps one truism which can assuredly be stated about the works in this exhibition -- a truism which simultaneously both validates and negates all criticism about them: the paintings speak for themselves!
A final note about "Aspects of a New Realism: Two Critical Essays", which appears as the second section of this catalogue. Sidney Tillim's "Figurative Art 1969: Aspects and Prospect", and William S. Wilson's" Operational Images" were commissioned by the Milwaukee Art Center especially for the exhibition. Mr. Tillim has long been the outstanding spokesman for contemporary figurative painting, and Mr. Wilson is importantly concerned with the photographic image painters. It is our belief that their critical points of view can not he eliminated from any understanding of new realist painting. Although there may be instances where we do not necessarily agree with their appraisals of individual artists' work, the exhibition's value can only be enhanced by these essays which are indeed so important to the subject.
About the author
John Lloyd Taylor was an art critic and museum director from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Taylor was the Assistant Director and Director of Exhibitions at the Milwaukee Art Center when he wrote this essay. Mr. Taylor is deceased.
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. Mr. Taylor'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.
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