Alice Neel and me have a few things in common. We are both artists, and we both have had difficult and rocky relations with Modernism. Alice Neel spent most of her life in poverty, pursuing a very independent and quixotic career as a figurative painter – and a portrait painter – in the decades when painting was abstract or nothing. It was only toward the end of her life that she began to enjoy some critical recognition and commercial success. She was lucky enough to outlive most of the ideologues who dominated American art criticism from the 1950s to the 1970s.
Today, being a figurative painter is almost a non-issue. There are lots of them out there. There are painters with big ambitions who don’t quite have the skills to bring them off. And there are those with amazing skill who don’t quite know what to do with it, and spend it on upper middle class genre scenes (ala Fairfield Porter), or on tangled allegories of one kind or another. I’m still puzzled by the reluctance of so many artists to use that skill and that form language for the very thing for which they were invented, storytelling.
Storytelling (“narrative” was the term, pronounced with the same snarl of contempt that Gingrich uses for “liberal”) was the big No-No in Modern art for a long time. A story was a distraction from what was supposed to be the real drama of the picture, form. Beginning with Cezanne, there was a self-consciousness about the act of painting itself, about the struggle to make meaningful form without the distraction of imagery or narrative. I’m at least partially sympathetic to this concept. A great work of art embodies an idea rather than describes it. I don’t think that idea precludes either narrative or imagery. Cezanne didn’t think so. And neither did that great Abstract Expressionist Willem deKooning whose work went back and forth between abstraction and figuration all his life.
I went through art school in the waning days of the Modernist ideology. It was slowly dying out because it no longer spoke to people, or met them where they lived. The absence of the Vietnam War from so much of the art of the 1960s and 1970s remains very striking to this day. While the country was tearing itself apart, the art world was battling over the claims of color field painting versus soup cans to the title of Next Chapter in the Art History Textbooks. I began, like most young artists, as a figurative artist. I earned my high school art star status by my ability to draw what I saw, and to make it look like what everyone sees. By the time I got to art school, I was smitten by the romance of Ab Ex, the heroic days of The New York School; Willem and Jackson wrestling with Existential Despair and their ids in their studios, and then drinking and fighting it out down at the Cedar Tavern on 8th street. Like so many young artists bitten by that bug, I began to see past the romance and look at the paintings themselves. I slowly began to understand the greatness in their work (as opposed to the squalor of their lives) that makes their legacy enduring. While in art school, I did some of the worst painting in my life as I struggled to come up with some kind of answer to the Modernist demand for reduction and abstraction while trying to stay true to myself.
It was while I did a year of study at the Cranbrook Academy of Art that I decided to return to those figurative roots, and my, did I get into a lot of trouble for it! Cranbrook was founded for the promotion of Modernism in design and fine art. It was home to such pioneers of architecture and design such as the Saarinens, and Charles and Ray Eames. The architect Daniel Liebeskind was teaching at Cranbrook when I was there. Institutions like Cranbrook were created in the 1920s and 30s to promote modern form in a then very resistant United States. You can imagine their distress when I began to abandon those quasi-abstract evening sky and leaf paintings I painted then for figurative paintings that told stories. People came in and turned my pictures upside down and compared me to Norman Rockwell (that was back in the days when such comparisons were considered pejorative).
I figured out in 1982 that reductivist form was for reductivist thought; something which I’ve resisted all of my life. Abstract painting truly requires an abstract view of the world and of life in order to work. That’s something which I just did not have, nor did I want it. I’m not interested in penetrating the “veil” of appearances to reveal essences. Artists like Kandinsky, Mondrian, and Tatlin made abstract form work because for them it was a matter of burning faith. Kandinsky and Mondrian were true-believing Theosophists and Tatlin was a true believing Marxist; both schools of thought are “essentialist” in their own different ways. For me, that “veil” of appearances (and the eye that looks at it) matters. That world of appearances is the one we live in and are responsible for. Whatever is essential can take care of itself. The world of the essential and the categorical is as hostile an environment for human life as outer space.
People assume that because I am a figurative painter (and a classically inclined one at that) that I must be hostile to Modern art. I do not belong to that school of thought that believes art ended with Cezanne. That view is as ridiculous and sweepingly unjust as its opposite, the view that art didn’t really begin until Cezanne. Just because I’m not a Modernist does not mean that I am hostile to Modernism, or indifferent to its greatness. I teach modern art and design history with genuine pleasure and enthusiasm. But, I think the old chestnut of embattled modernism is long over. It has no more basis in reality. Since the end of World War II, modern art and design has changed the look of the human environment more than any other design movement in history. It long ago replaced Neo-Classicism as the power style of preference for everything from global corporations to military dictators. I grew up in a world dominated by modern form. I was an artist marinated in Modernity. My professors’ battles with lingering old academic classicism were not my battles. That horse was long dead and buried when I was born in 1957.
By the same token, my battles with Modernism are not my students’ battles. What separates the Modern from the Post Modern is a passionate faith in the future. Modernism had it. Post Modernism does not. Modern art criticism was the last holdout of the Hegelian model of history as the unfolding of idea into form. Post Modernism does not believe in the future. I can’t decide if we are worse off or better off. As far as I can tell, Post Modernism is a kind of holding pattern until someone can figure out where to go next. In that sense, I’m very Post Modern. I have no desire to shape history. I don’t really believe in History in that old sense.
If I feel a kinship with anyone, it’s with the great Romantics. Like them, I value authenticity, and believe that the artist has to be true to that vision no matter where it leads. The audience is rarely fooled and can smell a fake.
Portrait of This Artist as a Young Man
Me as an insufferable young poseur in about 1978 in Dallas posing in my room with one of the worst paintings I've ever done, my one essay in that hallowed Texas tradition of the bluebonnet painting. I lost the goatee after I heard a woman complaining on the bus that I looked like an old billy goat.
This scruffy looking bunch is the graduating seniors from the painting department of the Kansas City Art Institute in 1981. I'm the one standing contrapposto third from the right. After all these years, I've lost contact with almost all of them.
I loved art school so much that I went back in my 30s. This is the graduating class from the New York Academy of Art in 1993. I'm the one with the long hair and sky-high forehead third from right in the front row. Right behind me are my closest compadres from that time; the young man with long hair and glasses is Conrad Cooper from the Texas Panhandle, at the time an artist and East Village punk rocker; next to him and right behind me is Gregg Pierce, a sculptor who played bass and drums in Conrad's band; and to the left of Greg Pierce is Ivar Kronick, an extraordinary artist who now does computer web design. The African American man third from right on the back row is David Newton who designed and sculpted the Freedmans' Cemetery Memorial in Dallas. I still have contact with a lot of these people. We were good friends and good artists, and we had a great time.