State of the Art in American Figurative Painting: A Fractional Survey of an Impossibly Broad Topic

Written by Daniel Maidman

I am an American figurative painter, and I write about art, so D/RAILED asked me to write about where American figurative painting stands today. This was exciting at first, but the more I chased it, the farther the topic receded. The field is enormous and shows almost no conceptual or procedural unity. One’s only hope, in approaching the topic overall, is to build up a mosaic of specifics, and so I’ve chosen three figurative painters to discuss; not because they are representative, but only because I like them, I think they are interesting, and they seem to me to reveal a fair fraction of the tremendous diversity of the field as it stands.

 Yedidya Hershberg

Consider Marissa, one of the paintings in Brooklyn painter Yedidya Hershberg’s recent solo show at Rothschild Fine Art in Tel Aviv.

Yedidya Hershberg, Marissa, 2016, oil on paper mounted on board, 22 x 28 in., courtesy the author

At first glance, this seems simple enough: the subject, modeling for the artist, lies on her back on a table or stand. The contrast is low and the colors are muted, like in Puvis de Chavannes’s paintings. Pleasing color harmonies are established by the contrasts of pinks and turquoises. The interest of the eye in line is satisfied by a clear, though not overstated, contour around the figure. This line is sinuous and elegant. The hunger of the hand for form is satisfied by the careful recording of structures turning toward and away from the light source: light where the abdomen rises toward the curve of the ribs, dark where the ribs angle down toward the table.

Recording is the operative word, here and leads into what makes this painting increasingly fascinating, the more one looks at it and reflects on what it shows.

Consider this: under the modern painting regime, the only truth to which paint is called to testify is that of paint itself. It bears witness to its physical nature and the act of its application to the canvas. By contrast, figurative painting involves a more complex and variable interaction with the truth. Once one concedes the legitimacy of illusion, of paint made to represent, then there are many truths with which it may align itself. One of the most fundamental and elusive of these truths is that of the scene in which the painting came to be. The persistent popularity, among artists at least, of model-in-the-studio paintings, is not only a matter of the popularity of the nude (particularly the female one), or of the gleeful indulgence of sexual fantasies about the bohemian artistic life. Rather, it is because, hidden behind virtually all narrative figure paintings – all domestic scenes, all famous moments from classic plays, all grand histories – is the simple truth of the painter and the model getting together in the studio and playing pretend. Recording the scene of the pretending is riveting for the figurative painter, because it offers the opportunity to represent that one true interaction which underlies all of the truths that depend on layers of masquerade.

Look again at Hershberg’s Marissa, at how lovingly he has captured certain basic truths of the scene: the light is dim and flat because they are working in a studio in the afternoon, and the studio is not especially well lit. The pose has been selected in part for certain unglamorous anatomical details which rarely make it into finished work – the way the breasts slide asymmetrically to the sides and flatten out when the model relaxes into a reclining pose, the way the neck folds beneath the chin when the head turns and looks down toward the viewer. Hershberg catches the flush of the face when the room is a little bit too warm, and the model has been lying in position long enough to be aching in the arms and hips and a bit sweaty on the cheeks and forehead. The model’s expression penetrates Hershberg, and through Hershberg, the viewer, but she is no transcendent Consciousness: she is also a little bored and irritated. This painting has a wonderful physicality to the paint, which supports the physicality of the depiction of the model. That physicality, in turn, supports the psychology of the model’s exact pose and gaze. The pose and gaze lead up to the meaning and nature of that long, inspired, tedious moment of art making, a profound intimacy which is one of the foundational truths of figurative painting.

This is not an accident of a single painting. In Hershberg’s current work, he focuses again and again on different facets of the real event of the artist painting the model.

Yedidya Hershberg, Ronit Revisited, 2016, oil on canvas mounted on wood, 26 x 18 in., courtesy the author

In Ronit Revisited, we again see the face flushing under the influence of sitting still a long time in a slightly over-warm studio. The hands and feet have relaxed and flattened out, and the left leg sinks into the right in a way which will soon become uncomfortable. The setting and dress suggest that the sitter is a friend of Hershberg’s, and not a professional model, and her gaze reflects the same relation. She has that irritation which is common to most who are made to hold a pose, but also the sudden access to lost thoughts and feelings which non-models experience when they pose for paintings. They are not used to long stretches of silent and motionless time, and their minds recollect events and ideas which the pace of living has kept them from processing properly. They sink into a deep and frequently disconcerting awareness of how they are actually doing. They often do not enjoy this revelation, but afterward, are startled at how glad they are to have had it. This is what I see in the sitter’s blank, slightly sad features looking toward the smallish window across the room. I see the true story of a painter painting a model.

Yedidya Hershberg, A Point In Time, 2017, oil on canvas mounted on wood, 27 x 23 in., courtesy the author

In A Point in Time, an element of pure artifice is introduced into the paradigm of realism: a cat noses the model’s fingertip. Surely this happened. It must be the point in time referred to by the painting’s title. It is of the species of dramatic truth, instantaneous interactive truth. It does not last; the point in time is submerged in the sea of time which is the remainder of the painting. Aside from this comical moment, the rest of the painting reflects the same interests Hershberg has expressed throughout. The model serves here as a physical instance of a set of principles which are interesting to Hershberg, of the simplification and unification of forms. Those dim half-lights are brightest across the single plane of her chest, an almost Manet-like flattened plane.

Édouard Manet, The Dead Christ with Angels, 1864, oil on canvas, 70 x 59 in., source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%C3%89douard_Manet_-_Le_Christ_mort_et_les_anges.jpg

In A Point in Time, the light on the model’s chest falls off everywhere else: on her arms, her legs, and her face. Built atop the physical and pictorial elements, we see another stage of the psychology and narrative of the model and painter making a painting together. The sitter’s features, like Ronit’s feet, have settled over the hours into their most natural configurations. Her mouth has a slight and meaningless pout, her heavy lids fall half-down as she drowses. A sheen of sweat focuses the highlight on her brow. Her entire body has entered this state: it has accommodated the pose and could go on holding it a long time longer. She is completely comfortable and completely detached from the present. We look at her, but she no longer looks at us. She has become self-enclosed, inaccessible. She tells nothing. This too happens at some point in the process of painting. It could not have lasted the many hours it took Hershberg to paint this, but it must have happened at least once, and in recording it, Hershberg records a truth which requires no dramatic interference to evoke. It happens of its own accord, as available to the eye of the artist as a mountainside or a flower. Like a mountainside or a flower, it is painfully difficult to faithfully observe and convey; because it is human, it may be more precious than the mountainside and the flower. Hershberg’s recitation of this truth is what makes his art profound, and special in its insight into the nature of making art.

 Eric Fischl

Eric Fischl’s work pursues truth at a totally different locus. His recent solo at Skarstedt Gallery, Late America, represents a return to familiar elements and themes in his work. Figures – families and their friends – cluster around a private swimming pool. The suburban scenes are painfully brightly lit by the summer sun.

Eric Fischl, Growing Old in the Company of Women, 2016, oil on linen, 65 x 82 in., courtesy the author

There is a sense of unease to this, of the sensibility of an introvert nauseated at the reckless proximity of flesh to flesh, at the conduction of contact through water and the eye so that things which should not touch, press together.

This is a strange assertion to make, and perhaps best supported through comparison. Here is a still of a thematically similar scene, the harem sequence from Fellini’s 8 ½:

Federico Fellini, 8 ½, 1963, film still, source: https://www.reddit.com/r/TrueFilm/comments/37lpi6/federico_fellinis_8_12_guidos_harem/?st=j4c8zyzc&sh=646ef6b8

In this scene, the hero, Guido Anselmi, fantasizes about being babied in a harem by all the many women in his life. As in the Fischl painting, many disparate women crowd around an aging central male. But Fellini orchestrates them into a graceful chorus, at ease with one another, while Fischl’s women remain atomized, separate, lost in disconnected and private concerns. In both cases, the auteur is sheepishly nosing his way toward an orgy. We know that Fellini’s Anselmi proves hilariously incapable of maintaining this fantasy, and yet its physical precondition of mutual compatibility comes easily into being because Fellini is not much conflicted about flesh. We do not know how Fischl’s scene will end, but it is shot through with anxiety. In this sense, it is much more perverse than Fellini’s nearly identical narrative. Fellini merely craves the impossible, while Fischl craves something of which he disapproves.

The anxiety in Fischl’s paintings rises a degree when the subject matter turns from the relations of friends to those of family.

Eric Fischl, Daddy’s Girl Age 11, 2017, oil on linen, 84 x 108 in., courtesy the author

A girl sits on a poolside chaise lounge with, presumably, her father. She has insisted on wearing the kind of bikini which makes parents queasy on their prepubescent daughters. The father is naked. A dog getting his muzzle in the pool motivates the girl’s gaze, but there is an inward-turned and beat-down quality to her expression and her posture, and there is an ever-so-careful glimpse of hairy genitals in the space between her waist and her left arm. The intimacy of capturing such a scene, combined with the degree of exactness with which the figures are placed in order to make that little glimpse possible, suggests to me Fischl’s position as being native to this world but alienated from it, repulsed by its incidental carnalities.

He returns to this theme, of the withered flesh exposed to related youth, in the title painting, Late America:

Eric Fischl, Late America, 2016, oil on linen, 80 x 98 in., courtesy the author

Again I would contend that the quality of the glimpse of the genitals, of the entire pose or composition, arranged to show us a little but not all, indicates that Fischl doesn’t group the genitals in a seamless continuity with the naturalness of the body, but finds their exposure in this context to be significant; and in mostly hiding them, he tells us that the significant exposure is wrong. But he returns again and again to it, as he has since his earliest mature work. In Feeding the Turtle, he switches the genders, presenting the mature woman and the youth, a pairing he has explored since the early 80’s. As with the men in the current body of work, the woman reveals while hiding, wearing a bikini under a transparent gown. She stands over a teenaged boy, relation unclear, taking him in while he looks down at a turtle. Her interest seems specific, his possibly just as specific but less forthright.

Eric Fischl, Feeding the Turtle, 2016, oil on linen, 66 x 78 in., courtesy the author

I am not at all persuaded by Fischl’s title for the show, Late America, because I am not persuaded that this work can be seen as an analysis, or given the term “late” presumably an indictment, of America at this stage of its evolution. A painting as a synthesis of the nature of a civilization at any given point in time is a form of truth-telling which is not only extraordinarily rare, but also nearly invisible until long after the fact. I am, however, entirely persuaded by Fischl’s truth-telling at the level of the psychology and social dynamics of these scenes. He is not telling the microscopic, interior truth of a Hershberg, but rather selecting elements from the truth of the artist looking at the model and rearranging them to tell a story he has in his head. This story in his head is a true story. It is not true for me – I do not tend to share Fischl’s anxieties – but the elemental force, and conviction of representation, in the paintings makes the story true for me while I look at his paintings, and thus they wrench my world wider, as art is meant to do.

Heather Morgan

Now here we get to the third level of truth-telling, which actually happens to be something Fischl used to specialize in: the breathless excitement of figuring out how to make an image at all.

Heather Morgan, Hustler, 2017, oil on canvas, 60 x 50 in., courtesy the author

You could be forgiven for seeing a lot of Alice Neel in this because it’s there. Neel, early Fischl, and Heather Morgan all participate in the same general idiom of the painfully constructed image. Not all painfully constructed images are the same. Consider the flattened detail and illustrationistic brushwork of Frida Kalho, or the cartoonish and featureless shapes of Henri Rousseau. There are many ways to lay bare the present-tense problem of making paint look like something. Neel, Fischl, and Morgan share thick, visible, clashing brush marks, a vivid response to local color, and a general sense of how to draw a face, so individualized as to become awkward and caricaturish.

This is a difficult and rare path for an artist to pursue. Almost all artists with any practice are technically capable of making work that is more polished and “better” executed. To willfully suspend development at this particular level is no easy matter because the increase of skill is instinctive. Moreover, to succeed, one must not only suspend development, but do so with purity of heart. The technique must be sincere in its crudity; Fischl doesn’t really work like this anymore because, my hunch suggests, the pressure of decades of practice robbed him of sincerity in his crudity. And beyond suspension of development, and sincerity of crudity, the image must, of course, work. All the conditions of its creation conspire against it. It wants to fall on its face. That it manages to lift off the ground at all is the miracle of it. This is the miracle to which Morgan currently has access. The story she tells is quite close to the modern story of paint-as-paint. She tackles truth at the level of persuading paint to become representational. The dense and shifting outcome, of things working and not working, is the highly textured form of truth she is able to present.

Consider Hustler: How does she decide where to stop and start using paint to model forms? It is inconsistent. And yet she manages to capture the colors of multiple light sources with brown shadows picture right and black shadows picture left. She leaves unpredictable splotches on the breasts and shoulders where she seeks forms and then gives up. The outline of the torso has all the classical grace of a contrapposto female figure, but the head is too big, the shadowed neck has turned into the dreaded mud of overwork, and the interaction of the hand with the hair is a mess. But they are all absolutely perfect for this painting. They tell us what we need to know about the subject, while recounting for us a tense drama of creation, of the fundamental act of image-making. You cannot bullshit your way through a painting like this. It is true, or it is false.

A similar process is on display in Showtime:

Heather Morgan, Showtime, 2017, oil on canvas, 36 x 36 in., courtesy the author

Look at the insane thirst of this painting, of a compelling urge to get the image down, and then an abrupt boredom once the essential nature of it is revealed. A few vertical slashes will suffice for a curtain, a couple blotches for the faces of the men, some scribbles for the woman’s shadow. The focal points – her giant hair, her eyeshadow, her cigarette, her underwear – get a little more attention, but even so, once the gesture and the woman making the gesture are clear enough, they get no more love than the merest background detail. Every inch of this painting acts to record craving on the part of the artist, and a bare-bones solution to the problem of representation in the context of the restless hand and eye behind it.

The radical distortions, elisions, errors, and narrow solutions which result from this kind of process serve not only to reveal in shockingly intimate and honest detail how Morgan sees, but also how we ourselves construct an image from even minuscule traces of evidence.

In Behind the Door, Morgan’s variable attention is on stark display:

Heather Morgan, Behind the Door, 2017, oil on canvas, dimensions unknown, courtesy the author

She has put an enormous amount of work into two things: the subject’s facial expression – the confrontational rise of the left side of the mouth higher than the right, the wide, dilated-pupil eyes beneath raised eyebrows – and, oddly, the gleaming doorknob, with its detailed reflections. Morgan barely has the patience to get through anything else in the image, leaving much of it sketchy or blank. Again, her confidence is rewarded by her talent. She has put in exactly what the painting wanted, and nothing more than the painting wanted. It is a savage painting, an attack on the viewer: the light is harsh, the hallway dead ends right where we stand, and we are locked in with this angry woman who faces us without forgiveness or hesitation.

So there are three artists working on vital truths in figurative painting. They are three of hundreds whose work I follow. If the “contemporary” scene suffers from a crushing surfeit of concept and reference, which ends in tedium and irrelevance, the contemporary figurative scene suffers from a lack of internal criticism, from a failure to distinguish between what is well painted and what is good art, which ends in mediocrity and kitsch. Despite this catastrophic flaw, many painters are doing good work and even great work. Hershberg, Fischl, and Morgan have little or nothing to do with one another. But they have everything to do with the endless potential of the figure for giving voice and form to the human search for meaning. Confronted with work like this, I feel every specific thing that I feel for the work, and then more generally – gratitude, that they took the trouble, that they disciplined their passion enough to capture some fraction of it in paint, that they made that gesture, both generous and greedy, of capturing how and what they see and making it visible outside themselves.

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