Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Contemporary Figurative Realism- is it Pointless Now?

"Two Sisters"
John Graham

"Young Girl with White Skirt"

I love painting the figure- especially faces.
That is all I have really done
excepting for rendering trays of drinks
and other products in my illustration years.
Things were much simpler then.
-the art director said
draw this and we will give
 you money and you can
 pay your rent and buy those
 nifty Ferragamo shoes
you have been lusting over. There was 
no existential angst
over whether or not my oeuvres
consisted of an advancement of 
western art in the 20th century,
no sleepless nights kept worrying 
about whether or not
I should fire my model,
pack it in and crochet
to old Masterpiece Theater reruns.

Even though I have not been posting much art
I have been drawing a lot
and questioning where to go with
this  figurative stuff-
meaning for me the relatively naturalistic idiom.
Everywhere I look I see dead ends.
Except for Balthus and Euan Uglow- 
in my opinion- Manet, Picasso
and Matisse blew the figurative world to pieces. 
It had to happen.
The French Academy, was a mausoleum 
of European art
until the Impressionist movement
released its stranglehold.
The walls were clogged with treacly, tittering nudes
and faux hysterical historical soap
dramas-veiled excuses for the Victorians
to get their cultural jollies.

I have looked to the new Classical Revivalist
 for inspiration
but many seem to be coloring 
old daguerreotypes.
I have at times been swept off my 
feet by Jacob Collins'
technical virtuosity and 
beautiful feeling of light,
but a prescient friend of mine, artist Bill Murray,
said though he admired him- 
he felt something was
missing- the element of surprise.

It takes a great deal of courage
 to break the mold-
 especially to create a new 
figurative language.
 I know-the impossibility of it terrifies me.
Manet was an early rebel, because he took
the figure out of the murky brown shadows
of the Academy and flattened the plane
so he could play with pattern,
color and design- something he learned
along with Van Gogh, and Gauguin
from Japanese prints. 

Matisse ran with this. From-
"The Age of The Avant-Garde" 
by Hilton Kramer:
"Drawing upon the precedents
of Islamic art and Japanese prints,
of Gauguin and
the decorative strategies of Art Nouveau.
 Matisse launched his frontal attack on
the syntax of three dimensional illusionism
-which is to say,
on the pictorial tradition
which had nurtured him and 
which he had displayed
such extraordinary gifts in mastering.
Flatter patterning, drawing simplified 
to the contours of a silhouette,
larger areas and heavier saturations
of unbroken color, the pictorial image
reduced to a single plane-
these are the salient elements of the
new pictorial syntax which he was here
proposing as an alternative
to the established procedures
of Post-Impressionist painting.
The authority Matisse
brought to this bold innovation is
still breathtaking.
The sheer grandeur of these paintings
is overwhelming......
But even in this,
 the most joyous and exalted period
of Matisse's accomplishments, 
he was constantly drawing back,
reconsidering his ground,
casting a covetous eye on the conventions 
he was so effectively dissolving
and repairing his links with a tradition
he had already seriously,
if not irrevocably, undermined.

That leaves the 
 igurative artist with the question- 
whither now?
I read an article about the art students
in the MFA program at Columbia-
a hot recruiting ground for New York art Galleries- 
they were 'deskilling'.
From what I could see they do not have far to go. 
Should I distort-
John Graham detested distortion though
he did not mind a few (actually a lot)
crossed eyes here and there.

And the there is Fred Ross, priggish, myopic poohbah
of The Art Renewal Center.org
with his silly Living Masters list. They should really be
called Living Embalmers.
There is nothing new being
 said or done but pale rehashes
of a long dead age made easier by photo copying.
 No fulminations,pretentious speeches,
and annual prize contests
for the most boring, insipid and pretentious paintings
of the year will bring back the past.

It is appalling to think of art
in the unending grip, unabated for another century
of The French Academy. It would be an
unending nightmare of Venus's on waves,
stupid cupids and old Greek wars fought
over and over again on canvas battlefields.
Though the Avant-Garde has at times
confused me- but it has
also challenged me as it has
whole generations of creative people.

There is still a need for
standards and craftsmanship-
I admire those willing to slog
through the often tedious effort for mastery
to bring something beautiful
into being- something woefully lacking in today's
throw-away culture. However
 the rigid approach of this direction,
and sneering dismissal
of the explosive changes in art in the 20th
century has resulted in images and concepts
that remind one of the fascist
art Hitler supported - it was very skillful and
classical in its approach 
to the idealization of the figure.
In a more flippant vein, the smarmy paintings
of John Currin's are eerie doppelgangers.

That said- I do think that there should be a 
grounding in the basics of
drawing and craftsmanship. 
Matisse, Manet, Picasso could draw.
Eric Fischl cannot.

The visual arts are 
the one place where the present dictum is-
according to  the that talent-bereft twit "Tracey Emin"-
"Art is what I say it is" and she made her sloppy bed
and has to lie in it- forever.
The other arts thankfully demand much more.
You cannot fly across the stage at
The American Ballet Theater just to express yourself
and not expect to
end up in Bellevue.
In this article in the The New Criterion,
James Panero writes about
just how difficult it may be to resuscitate this old patient.
 ("The New Criterion" is a conservative news and
culture journal founded by Hilton Kramer ,
the former head art critic of the New York Times.)

The New Old School
by James Panero
The New Criterion
September 2006
On the rise of Classical Realism
 and its dean, Jacob Collins

An actual “battle of styles,” as for instance between
realism and abstraction, is desirable only to those
who thrive on a feeling of partisanship.
Both directions are valid and useful—
and freedom to produce them
and enjoy them should be protected
as an essential liberty. There are,
however, serious reasons for taking sides
when one kind of art or
 another is dogmatically asserted to be the
only funicular up Parnassus or,
worse, when it is maliciously attacked
 by the ignorant, the frightened,
the priggish, the opportunistic, the bigoted,
 the backward, the vulgar
 or the venal.
Then those who love art or spiritual freedom
cannot remain neutral.
—Alfred Barr, 1949

If you like your story of art told neat, start to finish,
be sure not to visit the Water Street Atelier. 

Once you open
the door to this wrinkle in the storyline,
the chapters of art may never fit together
quite so well again.
Here, behind the elegant brick facade
 of a carriage house
situated along an exclusive residential block on
Manhattan’s Upper East Side,
an unmarked enameled door opens
 onto a room that resembles more an
ideal vision of the artist’s studio
 than anything you might expect to
see this side of the nineteenth century.
Tacked to the back of a bookcase,
facing you upon arrival,
 a display of small portraits
painted in a realistic manner repeats
a similar arrangement found 
along every wall and
on every shelf and propped up in
every open space.
Plaster busts of Benjamin Franklin
and Thomas Jefferson,
models of the human skeleton
and human musculature,
casts of angels, and 
a relief depicting the Three Graces:
all are mixed in among the paintings
 and a dusty assortment of art books.
Above, dark fabrics 
drape down from the ceiling,
shielding and directing the light in
the room onto a raised platform of plywood,
used during studio hours for the 
display of nude models.
At any given time, a large ease
l or two may be positioned
beside this proscenium. Here, 
half-imagined forms of
naked flesh slowly take shape
on canvas, one limb at a time.

Throw out your assumptions
about art world inevitabilities,
about postmodernism and
the ironies of John Currin.
Through the anachronistic scenes
that are now played out in dozens of
specialized ateliers in the 
United States and Europe,
 the story of art just went up for
a re-edit.
At the Water Street Atelier, only the
Chrysler mini-van parked in the garage bay
and the sound of the rock band
Guns n’ Roses may betray the modern era.
The atelier occupies the ground floor
of a townhouse belonging
to Jacob Collins and his young family.
Collins is not just an instructor,
He has for years been the in-residence
master of his own small school,
which began on Water Street in Brooklyn. 
Born in 1964,
Collins has already become something of the
elder statesman of Classical Realism,
as this energized movement of traditional
painting has come to be called. Collins’s
best students have already become
sought-after instructors themselves.
As an artist Collins is 
now represented by the blue-chip
Hirschl & Adler Galleries,
after showing for years at Spanierman,
another top-drawer space.
Along with John Pence Gallery, Forum Gallery
Eleanor Ettinger,
and Arcadia, these galleries have for a decade pushed
the market of Classical Realist art.
Collins’s second solo show at Hirschl & Adler,
following one in April 2004, will open on October 6
and run through November 4, 2006. Roger Kimball
has written the show’s catalogue
essay. He identifies Collins as part of a
“counter-revolution in taste and sensibility."
In a matter of just ten to fifteen years,
Classical Realism has positioned itself to
become a serious player in the future of art.
Beyond a mere style,
Classical Realism is a value system.
For many, it borders on an evangelical faith.
Foremost there is the belief that certain forces—
modernism is among the usual suspects—
have wrecked our understanding of art production
as it was first conceived in the Classical period,
resurrected in the Renaissance,
 and carried down through the academies
to the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
There are now hundreds of individuals
and dozens of ateliers
dedicated to this cause.
Through chapters titled
“The Great 20th Century Art Scam,”
“Bouguereau and the ‘Real’ 19th Century,” and
“Abstract Art is Not Abstract and Definitely Not Art,”
here is how the website www.artrenewal.org
describes the philosophy:
For over 90 years, there has been a concerted
and relentless effort to disparage,
denigrate and obliterate the reputations, names
and brilliance of the academic artistic masters
of the late 19th Century.
Fueled by a cooperative press, the ruling powers
have held the global art establishment
in an iron grip. Equally,
there was a successful effort
to remove from our institutions
of higher learning all the methods
techniques and knowledge
of how to train skilled artists.
Five centuries of critical data
was nearly thrown into the trash.
It is incredible how close Modernist theory,
backed by an enormous network of
powerful and influential art dealers,
came to acquiring complete control
over thousands of museums,
university art departments 
and journalistic art criticism.
A second tenet of the faith, having to do
with resurrection, maintains
 that over the past couple of
 decades a handful of artists have been able to recreate
the lost practices of observation
, illustration, copying from still life and the nude, and
 techniques like “sight-size.” This last term concerns
the distances between painter,
canvas, and subject matter, and the practice of
 using strings and mirrors to measure an object in space.
 Up until one hundred years ago, these methods
 were the standards of painterly reproduction.
Such lost arts have been
gleaned from nineteenth-century
drawing courses, like the 
series of lithographs comprising
cours de dessin by Charles Bargue
and Jean-Léon Gérôme,
and by the analysis and copying of art by masters
 like Michelangelo and Caravaggio, and rather more
maligned fantasists like William Bouguereau
and other academic painters.
In the pursuit of their practice, Classical Realists
have fervently sought out the plaster casts of great art
that once occupied pride of place
in every museum and school.
Another lost art, these copies have
become central to the instruction
of Classical Realism, where copies are built upon copies.
Finally, and most significantly, there is the belief that
by training in the rigorous techniques of copying and
observation for years as an apprentice,
a contemporary artist may tap into the
lineage of Western art
and so learn the secrets of art through the ages.
It is this final belief that fuels Jacob Collins.
In certain respects, he is less doctrinaire than
his fellow forerunners,
 most notably the artists surrounding
the Florence Academy of Art,
which Daniel Graves founded in 1991
and which has grown to become
the Harvard and Yale of Classical Realism. Collins
is rather more eclectic than all that.
He relies on less chiaroscuro
than his contemporaries and employs
a more colorful gradation of form.
He does not use sight-size. There is no
“Shaolin-temple thing,”
as he describes it, of requiring students
to graduate in stages from lithograph
reproduction to still-lives and finally the nude.
Yet Collins has surrounded himself with students
since his early twenties. Starting this fall, this influence
will spread through a new institution he has founded
called the Grand Central Academy, which seeks to become
New York’s version of the Florence Academy.
The GCA, as it is dubbed, will offer “three-year intensive
training in classical drawing and painting,”
as well as night classes and workshops around the clock.
Collins, along with Michael Grimaldi, Kate Lehman,
and Dan Thompson, some of his best-known
Water Street painters, 
will serve as instructor and director.
On the day I met up with Collins,
Grimaldi, and Thompson,
they were about to review student applications.
The location of the meeting was the building of the
General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen,
where the school has leased space in partnership
with the Institute of Classical Architecture and
Classical America, an organization
“dedicated to advancing the practice and
appreciation of the classical tradition
in architecture and the allied arts.” The GCA will occupy
three large rooms on the sixth floor of the building.
Upon our visit to the half-finished space,
the rooms were newly painted 
and the lighting rehung,
but Collins was far from satisfied.
He arrived in painter’s pants and a fresh white tee-shirt.
Everything about him, from his grizzled hair
to the material of his glasses, was wirey.
He moved quickly,
starting in a room with towering wooden easels,
$250 each, standing like
 sentries around an elevated stage.
This will be Water Street times twenty-five:
a space dedicated to the nude figure.
Collins looked up at the box of full-spectrum bulbs
called the drop light. “That’s low.
 This is going to be a problem.”
He then looked over to the ring of ambient fixtures
in the room: “These are misplaced! Dammit! 
Terrible glare.
I’m looking at glare! They have to be overhead!”
Back to the drop light: “OK, let’s decide now.
It should move three feet to the
wall at a thirty percent angle.”
We walked quickly through the other rooms.
“That’s going to be lectures and figures.
That’s going to be the figures all the time:
morning, noon, and night.”
Collins injected a snap between each of the final words.

The creation of the GCA within the ICA has clearly
moved as fast as Collins’s manic energy has allowed.
Collins’s speed would seem to belie
the stop-and-smell-the-roses pace one might assume from
 someone who endorsed
the “Slow Art Manifesto.” This is a document that many
Classical Realist artists signed at a dinner in 2005 hosted by
Gregory Hedberg, the former head of the
New York Academy of Art, another school
with a classical component,
and a promoter of Classical Realism
 in his current position as a
director at Hirschl & Adler. 
Collins now has reservations
about the manifesto: “I feel like I was driven so
 strongly as a child toward something… .
 It wasn’t only a patient attitude… .
The reason I don’t like the slow art label is
 that we do have a real phenomenon on our hands… .
We have something real, yet we are packaging it and
pitching it like we’re making up another
twentieth century modernist movement.”

Collins has often been 
the articulate spokesman of his cause,
a gift of both his talent and his pedigree.
A native New Yorker, 
Collins attended Columbia University,
where he majored in history.
His maternal grandmother, Alma Schapiro, 
was a modernist painter
who studied with Hans Hofmann. 
His maternal grandfather
was Morris Schapiro, a banker who gave tens of millions
 of dollars to Columbia University throughout his lifetime,
 financing everything from a new residential hall
 to a science center
 to the endowed chair of Rosalind Krauss,
often in the name of his 
academic younger brother, Meyer.
That’s right: 
Meyer Schapiro—the “multi-disciplinary
 critic and historian, galvanic teacher,
 lifelong radical and for
 more than fifty years a pre-eminent figure
 in the intellectual life of New York,” 
as The New York Times
opened its obituary of the Columbia professor in 2001—is
 the great-uncle of Jacob Collins.
Such family connections have placed
 Collins in an enviable position.
Through the Water Street Atelier and now the GCA,
Collins has exercised his prerogatives to great effect
 for the cause of Classical Realism.
In one room of the new GCA we came upon
 dozens of plaster casts: parts of the Parthenon Frieze,
 a Centauromachy,
a candelabrum attributed to Michelangelo
— examples of every period of Western art
. These were the treasured finds of Paul Gunther,
the president of
 the Institute of Classical Architecture.
 In 2005, Gunther secured
 several hundred of them from
 the Metropolitan Museum of Art,
 which for nearly a century
 had stored them in dusty vaults beneath
 the Henry Hudson Parkway
and in a warehouse in the Bronx.
As a board member of 
the Morris and Alma Schapiro Fund,
Collins has become his own Maecenas.
He seized the opportunity to use Gunther’s casts by
underwriting the GCA. He also created a travel grant
in his grandmother’s name with the ICA,
where he now sits on the board of trustees.
Where will it all lead? One answer is that the art world
 has been conquered by far less than the forces now
 assembled in the name of Classical Realism.
 But it is the very rigors of the movement that may
 be its undoing. Classical Realism is enraptured
with its urge to teach, but much of its best work
 can resemble a demonstration piece
of technical abilities
without a vision beyond the schools.
Even Collins’s work can betray such sentiment,
for example in some of his more posed, idealized,
and faceless nudes painted along
the lines of the French academy.
For me, Collins’s best paintings speak to the
empirical tradition of early modern America.

The specificity of his portraits is a highpoint.
But then there are also artists like Graydon Parrish,
who has adapted Classical Realism for more
grandiloquent ends,
such as addressing the international AIDS crisis.
Parrish has just completed a commission
for the New Britain Museum of American Art
that allegorizes 
the attacks on the World Trade Center
as two weeping men in loincloths.
Judging from reproductions, the work appears
to be yet another tragedy of 9/11.
The modernism of
 The New Criterion and the Beaux-Arts
radicalism of the Classical Realists are responses
to the same ruinous state of contemporary art.
The schools—one must add the Harlem Studio and
certain classes at the New York Academy and the
Art Students League—
can be a last refuge for art students
hungry for formal training. But there may be
no one funicular up Parnassus.
As a former student of the classics,
I wonder whether a classical education in itself
can even supply the necessary parts to build one.
In one of Collins’s most eloquent letters,
which he showed me for this article, he writes:
“In the way that liberalism was co-opted by socialism,
modernism was co-opted by anti-ism… .
It is a reflex. It is a commitment to an attitude.
It is the pervasive and unrelenting rejection of tradition.”
Just as certain forms of modernism has become
a perversion of taste, my hope is that Classical Realism
does not become that unrelenting embrace of tradition,
with similarly dire results.



Meabh Warburton said...

Sharon, thanks for my birthday greeting !
Your recent post is a long column three words wide whilst all the rest are as normal. It reads like a Tom Philips poem from A Humument. regards, Ian

ian warburton said...

No Meabh didn.t say that, I did. How did her photo creepin there?

Sharon Knettell said...

Thanks Ian! I do not know if this is working. I have had trouble with this from the get go since I lifted it from the New Criterion.
By the by- I have been reading everything I can by Jed Perl- "Eye Witness- reports from an art world in crisis". Magicians and Charlatans" " New Art City"
Much of his criticism is to do with how the art world has been neglecting talent because the giant supernovas of self-promotion like Hirst, Koons and Emin etc. are sucking all the air out of the room. He is the champion of the artist underdog. Many fine and important artists are feeling discouraged. I had hardly heard of Uglow- he had one or two LINES in the New York Times in obscure reviews. The others have dozens.

Perl has been a help not dissolving into nihilism. I saw a recent bio (2012) on Hawking- he is 72 and in a shriveled body and yet he retains his zest for life- even though he blew his belief of God out of the water.
And I think of Manet- painting the Folies Bergere- his last masterpiece in constant pain.
Matisse asked why he painted what he painted said-"C'est mon plaisir" Say hello to your lovely wife? Meabh- great name.

ian warburton said...

I have just started on Eyewitness myself. But my bookpile is growing too fast. I need a year to read all that I have aquired recently AND NOT BUY MORE until I have. One of my Christmas presents was Lisla by Robert Pirsig and another was 50 years of painting, a review of Prunella Clough and I picked up The Blair years Alistair Campbells diaries to boot!
I"ve said Hello.
Your ecent post on Pete Seeger is fine but the NC one is still not.
signing off, Saturday night at our house is Pizza night. Sometimes I make it but I think M's are best.

Sharon Knettell said...

Yeesh! My bookpile is high too!

I checked my NC post on my husbands Apple- it seemed fine. Dunno wots going on.