Committed abstractionists are finding themselves irresistibly drawn to the figure.

Inka Essenhigh was surprised by the figures that emerged in her abstractions. Capturing the evolution: Chainlink Fence, 2004.


I’ve come out!” exclaims Stephanie Pryor, 33, referring to her recent about-face—from making buoyant abstractions with colorful shapes to painting small acrylic ink works featuring wild animals, opera singers, and ballet dancers. “It’s like having a heterosexual relationship if you’re gay,” the Los Angeles–based painter says of the earlier pictures, which were shown at galleries in California, New York, and Milan. “And if it doesn’t feel right, why keep doing it?”

In today’s anything-goes atmosphere, switching camps—from abstraction to representation or vice versa—is not considered exceptionally radical, or even brave, but it still gives us pause. “People felt betrayed, as if I did it to them,” says Jonathan Santlofer, who shifted in the early 1990s from making abstract constructions to painting portraits and other representational images.

Similarly, Alfred Leslie “got a tremendous amount of flack” some 40 years ago, when he stopped painting canvases covered with thick, broad strokes and splatters and began making large grisaille portraits. Says Leslie, “I still receive it today. Many people saw my realist work as a negation of my abstract work.”

“People have a hard time with artists making such a dramatic change—as if they have given something up, given something away,” explains Kathy Muehlemann, who, with her husband, Jim Muehlemann, cocurated “A Bend in the Road,” at the Maier Museum of Art in Lynchburg, Virginia, last fall. The exhibition featured painters who had all made the move from abstraction to representation.

Arguably the most legendary conversion was that of Philip Guston, one of the artists included in the Maier Museum show. When Guston exhibited a group of figurative canvases at New York’s Marlborough Gallery in 1970, the art world was stunned, the critics outraged. How could an artist they had counted among the heroes of Abstract Expressionism for two decades venture into forbidden territory? Guston began by working in his rough, cartoonish style in the evenings, while continuing in his abstract mode by day, according to art historian Martin Hentschel. “We are image makers and image ridden,” Guston declared in a discussion with fellow New York School painters in 1960. Less known is that Dan Flavin, who never actually abandoned abstraction, indulged a passion for the Hudson River School, painting and drawing landscapes and sailing pictures while making his neon sculptures.

Historically, though, the tendency is for artists to “renounce one mode to go to the other,” notes Russell Ferguson, curator of “The Undiscovered Country,” an exhibition examining the rising prominence of representational painting since the 1960s, on view at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles through the 16th of next month.

Why painters decide to change course often has as much to do with their reactions to prevailing modes of expression as with their personal circumstances. Santlofer, for instance, was moved to make representational pictures after he lost more than a dozen abstract paintings in a 1989 Chicago gallery fire. Jake Berthot found the outside world creeping into his works when he moved from Manhattan to upstate New York. Other abstract artists, notes Mark Rosenthal, curator of the ambitious survey of abstract painting at the Guggenheim in 1996, are prompted to make the jump to representation because of a “sense of exhaustion” with what they have been putting on canvas. “I was making so much work, but not reflecting on what I was doing,” says Pryor. “It became stylized. It wasn’t serving any purpose.”

Whatever the impetus, the transition, according to many of these artists, is often as surprising to them as it is to their audiences. “I hadn’t planned it, but it is where I really wanted to go,” says Leslie, a show of whose paintings from 1951 to 1962 is on view at New York’s Allan Stone Gallery through the 22nd of this month. Leslie, who is also an independent filmmaker, says he was initially attracted to abstraction because “at the end of the war, figuration seemed false and to carry no real weight.” He was also influenced by William Baziotes and Tony Smith, who taught art classes at New York University, where Leslie was enrolled for a short time on the GI bill.

Then, in 1949, Clement Greenberg included Leslie’s paintings in the exhibition “New Talent,” at New York’s Kootz Gallery, and his third film, Directions: A Walk After the War Games, was presented at the Museum of Modern Art. “At this point,” Leslie recalls, “I began to realize there was conflict between the disciplines. I felt I couldn’t have two public voices.” After first trying to resolve the situation by working exclusively in paint, he says, he finally gave in to both impulses, ultimately bringing the figure from the screen to the canvas. In paintings such as The Black Line(1960–61), he began to break the unity of his picture field, eventually eliminating all of the abstract elements in subsequent canvases. By the end of 1962, he had made a body of works, “Confrontational Paintings,” based on “20 Rules on How to Paint the Nude Person,” a laundry list he had devised. This included eliminating color, environment, and gesture while emphasizing symmetry, frontality, and the serial image. “Abstraction had occupied the high ground,” says Leslie. “And now I saw concrete examples of what I had imagined and saw that they worked as paintings and as pictures of people.”

“Something bit me from behind,” is how Carroll Dunham describes his unexpected move to rendering identifiable forms after being devoted to abstraction for some 20 years. “I never doubted the fact that out along the vector of abstract painting I’d find the possibility of making something I hadn’t seen before,” says the 55-year-old artist. Now, looking back to his canvases from the early 1980s, he sees an underlying animation, “a whiff of something there that couldn’t be named.” Gradually, Dunham says, he became less and less interested in sticking to his original program and deliberately let things from the world slip in. “At first I’d think, ‘That actually does look like someone’s crotch, but it’s blue.’ Then it became more difficult, more challenging, to confront a male body part in the painting than to deal with a phallic symbol.”

Berthot, 65, found himself wrestling with a similar dilemma in the mid-1970s when he painted Walken’s Ridge, a 16-foot-long canvas filled, as one critic described it, “with green/brown weather, smoky as any dusk on Heathcliff’s moors.” Says Berthot, “It had the scale and space of landscape. But at the time, I didn’t want to make paintings that were about metaphor, so I decided to really work against anything that had a kind of association.” Then, in the early 1990s, Berthot moved from his one-window studio on New York’s Bowery to the country. Unexpectedly, he says, his work began to change. “One day Martin Puryear, who lives nearby, came to visit. We were standing on my deck, and I told him how I planned to take a chainsaw and cut down all these trees to allow for some light to get into my studio. He looked at me and said, ‘You sound like a landscape painter.’ My response was ‘You got to be crazy!’ But then, later, I realized that the spaces—the very specific distances from one tree to another—kept coming through the studio window.”

Just as many of these artists say they could not have foreseen their conversion to representational imagery, neither, they maintain, could they have anticipated the subject matter of their figurative paintings. “I try to remain open and available. I see myself as a receptor,” says Dunham. Inka Essenhigh, too, is often surprised by the images that emerge. She starts her fantastical pictures of comic book–like hybrid creatures by flinging dribs and drabs of paint onto the canvas and then looking for recognizable forms.

After graduating from Columbus College of Art and Design in Ohio, Essenhigh went to New York in 1991 to do graduate work at the School of Visual Arts. She became an abstract painter, she explains, “because I didn’t have any content. I could move the paint around without worrying what it was and why I was doing it.” Suddenly, she recalls, cartoonish figures—a pig, for one—began to pop up in her abstract compositions, and then she wasn’t able to finish them. “I feared being corny. I had it in my head that style was a substitute for content,” she says. Essenhigh changed her mind soon after she got a job designing fabric for men’s boxer shorts, which she sprinkled with pictures of little cheerleaders and soldiers. “I didn’t have to take myself so seriously. There was lightness. There was abstract patterning. But, for the first time, I found content.” Now, she says, she is confident when she sees forms materialize out of the doodles she makes on canvas, whether it be a pig or even, she says, “a pig over a tennis racket over a cat.”

Although Essenhigh’s painting World Traveler or Hotel Room(2004) has a distinct, if surreal narrative element, it also has a strong sense of abstract patterning and movement. Red accents swirl through and around the painting’s monochrome figure and futuristic-looking accoutrements that spill out across the bed and on the floor beside him. The scattered suitcases appear to morph and twist along with the traveler, who is bending over his belongings. All of this stands in stark contrast to the empty expanse at the top half of the canvas.

For other artists the connection between their figurative and abstract compositions is less obvious. Besides their epic dimensions, Leslie’s looming, hyperreal nude portraits, for instance, seem to bear little resemblance to the raw, exuberant quadrants of color that constitute his abstract paintings—that is, until viewers find themselves drawn into the pictorial space where Leslie’s aggressive figures seem almost to threaten to knock them over. The effect, notes Leslie, is achieved by painting the model using nonnaturalistic light sources and from multiple perspectives—as seen straight on from the head, chest, stomach, and hands, respectively. In other words, the body is deconstructed, laid out, and then reassembled on a flat plane.

Lately, Santlofer’s representational paintings have been getting closer in many ways to his shaped abstract constructions, with their broken edges and projecting surfaces. In works such as Icon—a montage incorporating bits of handwritten text and painted reproductions of classic Marilyn Monroe images—the artist disrupts the borders of the rectangular canvas and, as in his earlier, subject-free works, inserts trompe l’oeil elements. Though the representational pictures he juxtaposes are far more loaded than the geometric forms, the way he arranges them, he says, is still fairly intuitive. “I wanted to do something more personal, to connect with viewers in a more specific way by using known imagery,” explains Santlofer, who admits that his attraction to recognizable images may relate to his having lost his artwork in a fire. “I had a need to connect with something more tangible,” he says.

While some artists consider their conversion to representation irreversible, others are less certain. “I would never rule out going back to abstraction,” says Pryor. “The marks I’ve been making within the figure could, in ten years, stand on their own.” Dunham also leaves himself open to the possibility, as does Francesca Gabbiani, a Los Angeles–based Swiss artist. Gabbiani began her career making oil-and-wax paintings on aluminum in the abstract, geometric style that prevailed in Switzerland in the late 1980s, when she was studying there. “When I feel I have reached a dead end in my work, I need to move in another direction,” says Gabbiani, 38, who, a few years after her arrival in the United States in 1995, became known for her decadent paintings of stately hotel lobbies, bathrooms, and hallways imbued with a sense of foreboding reminiscent of that in Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining. “It seemed like my brain was so fast in coming up with ideas, and I was spending so much time trying to abstract them and then realize them,” she says. “It didn’t really make sense after a while.”

Pat Passlof, who studied with de Kooning and was part of the downtown art scene in the heady 1950s, when the New York School was in ascendance, looks at her decision to work exclusively in figuration in the early to mid-1990s as a “little bit of a step back. If you want to make a jump,” she insists, “you have to step back.” After painting dozens of canvases with horses, centaurs, and caryatids scattered over heavily worked grounds, she returned to making abstractions. Her most recent efforts will appear in a show at New York’s Elizabeth Harris Gallery in February. “At a certain point, I fell too much in love with someone’s ankles,” says Passlof, explaining her temporary decision to abandon figuration and stop working from a model. “It got in the way, and I had to stop.”

When she painted from life, Passlof often did so along with her late husband, Milton Resnick, who, although he had a separate studio, “didn’t want to be alone with a young model.” Passlof recalls one session in which she and Resnick seated themselves on either side of a woman who had particularly large breasts. “During her break,” Passlof recalls, “the model went over to look at our canvases and then started to laugh. Not seeing the other’s work, we had both made her flat chested!”

Resnick, once counted among the most dedicated abstractionists, eventually abandoned his imposing, pigment-encrusted fields of color for gouache renderings of representational imagery. “I got old. I had to sit down,” he told David Rattray in a 1992 interview published in conjunction with an exhibition at New York’s Robert Miller Gallery. “Sitting down working with gouache is not working with paint…. It has no dimension, it’s water…. Paint has a kind of life.” Perhaps to compensate for losing the expressiveness of oil paint, he began to entertain the figure. And by having to sit down and look up, he found, “The shock of figures filling space I now saw as a problem I must solve.”

Today, deciding to paint figuratively or abstractly, artists and curators agree, is no longer considered a problem. “My own sense is that it is now a false distinction,” says Robert Rosenblum, a professor at New York University and a curator at the Guggenheim. Rosenblum singles out Gerhard Richter, an artist who has oscillated between realism and abstraction since the mid-1980s, as having made that abundantly clear. “The issue is why paint at all versus whether what you paint is representational or not,” adds Ferguson. “If you are going to paint, paint what you want.”

Deidre Stein Greben is a contributing editor of ARTnews.

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