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The Figure: Symposium at Snug Harbor

by Diana Manister and Robert Sievert


"PAINTING THE FIGURE IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY: Keeping It New", a conversation with artists Ellen Eagle, Jeffrey Saldinger and Costa Vavagiakis, hosted by Robert Bunkin. October 10, 2004, Snug Harbor Cultural Center Newhouse Gallery, discussed by Robert Sievert and Diana Manister.

DM: Robert Bunkin used the word "academic" in making the case that the critical establishment is anti-figurative. I don't hear figure painting being accused of being academic, although it can be guilty of being conventional. This is a loaded term. Is "conventional" always a pejorative term? And what are the conventions of figure painting? "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" is figure painting, but in its time it wasn't conventional, although if someone painted in that style now it would be. Is realism so conventional that it has no chance of major success?

RS: Realism is a major successes at the moment. There are many top galleries in Chelsea and on 57th St. that show realism as well as other forms of figurative art. This is a great time for figurative art.

Bunkins provided his panel with a number of questions or "leads" into how they saw figurative art in terms of critics and market. A number of these questions contained charges waged at figurative painting back in the day when it seemed to be a battle going on between figurative or abstract painting. Academic, conservative and reactionary were issues Robert raised. I have not heard these terms applied to art in years. As I recall everyone brushed off this question.

One of Robert's questions asked if there was a difference between abstract and figurative art. As far as I can remember no one addressed that issue and of course that's the one that most interests memost. I am fascinated by painters whose work drifts back and forth from figure to abstract such as Guston, Cajori, and even DeKooning falls into that category .

It was interesting that this panel was really critical and dismissive of the successes in their style. I was reminded of a panel in the Artists talk on Art series of figurative artists I attended had back in the 70s 㫨s, (SoHo days). Back then it was Julian Schnable who was the enemy. A new renegade painter who put up plates in his work and vaguely came into a "Figurative" contex was all over the art world.. He was demonized by that panel just the way this panel reacted to John Currin and his show at the Whitney. It's hard to accept an artist in your field or style having a major success. I am completely sympathetic to their plight. The art world is a hard knock life.

I can remember only one critical stab at figurative art.. In the early seventies critic John Perreault who was writing for the once-formidable Village Voice praising Phillip Pearlstein for his dehumanized figures saying other figurative art of the day seemed sentimental. He changed his mind in later years and curated some wonderful figurative shows.

You're right to bring up the term "realism" To me this has always been the far right of the figurative art world. "Realistic" can imply a certain disregard for formalist concerns in favor of making it look "real". To "realists" details are the important aspects of the picture, .Other figurative artists go for the an overall effect of color and design and find detail constraining..

Ellen Eagle's work seemed to be focused on realistic detail. It was stunningly beautiful as such but in no way excited my artistic juices... There was a lack of artistic experimentation and personal input save her wonderful ability to draw faces. Is that enough? For some yes, for me I liked better Saldinger's quirky self portraits. They looked like paintings. During her presentation of her work Eagle said that she in no way wanted to travel beyond appearances or know what her models thought or did. I think this attitude extended into the formal aspects of her work as well. She was just after appearances.

DM: Eagle's work is realistic, and this is a drawback, because of the time we live in. I think that the mimetic capabilities of photography makes mimesis created by handwork less impressive. Now that we have computer applications like Photoshop where even distorting images expressively is easy, only long training and the relative degrees of skill of the artists distinguishes realistic figurative art from photos, and of course tactility or "touch".

I want to say here that Eagle's facility with the medium of pastel is of an extremely high order. I was amazed by it. In one Eagle work, the ornate earrings worn by the figure were rendered with the painterly glints of light one sees in a Vermeer oil painting. And she obviously has an empathic identification with her models; she communicates a sense of common humanity. In fact I found nothing offensive in her work, and much that was very beautiful.

An audience member described the difficulty of separating human figures in art from the billions of human images we are bombarded with in films, tv and advertising. Those images are selected and enhanced to look as attractive as possible. When Eagle presents us with realistic human imagery, it unfortunately sinks into that commercial morass, even though it's better than that, having more profound humanistic things to say, whereas Jeffrey Saldinger arrests our attention by having us look up the nostril of a male figure or depicting a bony finger pushing up the skin on a forehead into ugly folds. The positions of hands and facial features in his closeups are awkward and unattractive. This is refreshing in a this world of supermodels and chic and we take a second look.

Eagle and Costa Vavagiakis, who also has great ability to exploit the mimetic capabilities of his medium, are a bit too close to commercial imagery to stand out. Probably the fault is with the world using realistic human images to exploit our narcissism in order to sell us products, rather than with the artists who get buried under the tons of junk imagery the market dumps on us. But this is the world we're living in, and until it changes (to be optimistic), it behooves an artist to render figures that are vastly different from commercial imagery. I can't say what they would look like, though, because as I'm sure you know very well Bob, advertising co-opts even brushy, painterly effects to make its ads attract the eye of upscale consumers with artsy pretentions. Look at the Times Magazine and New Yorker ads.

RS: Costa Vivagiakis' work definitely had a finish that would satisfy a Madison Avenue art director. Much of figurative art does has an on-going exchange with commercial art. I know a number of artists who use commercial techniques or quote some form of commercial art in their work. But after Warhol that seems to be par for the course. Quoting Madison Avenue Art became big with the pop artists.

Funny though I always thought Warhol had a very painterly take in his work. Maybe I thought the subject matter mundane but I could never fault his paintings or prints. they were solid, strong painterly statements.

To me none of the artists on the panel really presented much of a rationale for figurative art. They spoke mostly of their methods for producing work.

Jeffrey Saldinger spoke with intellegence about his art and let us in on some of his creative thought processes. I'm sorry Robert didn't do a presentation.

DM: Well Robert is a lively, energetic and informative speaker. I enjoyed his wit, and his staying on message and guiding the discussion back to the topics when it strayed. His message, however, I found to be that unless figurative art is ironic or flashy it will be dismissed as "academic" which I can't agree with. It suggests a conspiracy against figurative art.

First off, a culture has to have an academy for any of its art to be aligned with a prevailing style or academy. Bunkin sounded like he was starting a "Salon des Refusés" as the Impressionists and Cubists did in reaction to the sterile imitations of Renaissance art that constituted the academy of their time. A breakaway bunch of rebels that were challenging the hegemony.

Now I ask you Bob, since the demise of Color Field Painting has there really been one style that reigned over all others? Yes, there have been attempts to take the throne: Neo-Geo, that kind of thing, but they were not academies of taste, simply highly promoted styles that are probably mouldering in storage right now. Mostly we had individual marketing phenoms like Mary Boone's promotion of Julian Schnabel.

And irony as an artworld desideratum is really problematic too. Right now one of the most talked-about shows is at the International Center of Photography, consisting of snapshots taken by soldiers guarding prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. These are literal, unstyled human images of prisoners undergoing torture without a shred of irony. And let's not forget Leon Golub's long successful career painting the same kind of images.

I really don't know where Robert got the notion that irony is required for figurative painting to be successfully marketed. Yes, of course Warhol had ironic detachment. It was a new, refreshing breeze at the time, but he is so 70s now, and I've seen quite a few ads on busses going by that quote Warhol, so he has been swallowed by advertising too. But in his own time he was outnumbered by many major artists who were painting figures in more traditional ways, or at least in the modern tradition. I think of Milton Resnick, an abstract expressionist who in his late work seamlessly moved into non-ironic, transcendent figure painting. I'm sure you can mention others who had no trouble showing during Warhol's heyday.

RS: My personal favorite was Paul Georges. He showed at the Green Mountain Gallery during the seventies when I was there.. I always felt like a little kid around him, he was so accomplished. He painted the most beautiful figures. I clearly remember a painting he did of his daughter. She was leaning forward and had a fur coat draped over her shoulders. The paint was so fresh. After the Green Mountain closed he moved up to 57th st. to Fischbach. He showed continually everywhere.

As well there always seemed to be a group of galleries that showed figurative art: Fischbach, Frumkin, Forum, Tibor DeNagy and the wonderful Robert Schoelkopf. These galleries showed contemporary figurative art for the last 40 or more years. Most of these dealers are no longer active and a whole new generation is beginning to take hold, but during the 60's, 70's and 80's these dealers did very well with figurative art.

As far as a dominant trends, that all seems part of the past. I think it is the quality of individual artists that gets them shown today. The major galleries seem to have diversity in their selection of artists. There is no "in" thing or underground movements. I think that is a very good thing for art. There has never been so many different types of art before the public as now.

The group of artists in Robert's program did not have a unifying philosophy or stylistic similarity. The thing that tied them together was subject matter. And as such this panel occupied a small area of figurative painting. I am sorry there wasn't a broader view of contemporary figurative art.

Is there is a current academy? I am glad I Went to this symposium as it forced me to think about all these issues. I do believe that there is a modernist tradition that is the outgrowth of the advances of the Abstract Expressionism which include many figurative painters working today. I am sure there are other traditions as well still being followed

DM: Bob, I want to make the point that for us to try to do justice to the art of these four artists at the same time as responding to questions the seminar raised, such as what is academic or whether the art market demands ironic content, is grossly unfair to their work.

Figurative art, like all art, is the victim of commercialist culture. A wit once said that whatever grows in capitalism becomes capitalist: religion, art, philosophy, science and on and on. An artist might as well admit that advertising will co-opt anything that interests the public, and use it to sell cars or cosmetics. If you're a cubist, dismembering the human figure to express an age fractured consciousness, somebody will use your imagery to market something. Matisse's black outlines are in every other ad. The Ashcan School created vernacular images, taking exception to the taste for European "high art", and they got vulgarized too. Ellen Eagle said her work was faulted for lacking edginess, but I say it's just as well because today's cutting-edge is tomorrow's Donna Karan ad in The New Yorker.

The painterly images of Robert Bunkin and Jeffery Saldinger fall into an interesting hidey-hole that is not easily mined for commercial purposes. Robert's elevation of aging flesh to iconic status is not going to be co-opted by Estee Lauder, because you don't need to buy anything to get it; Jeffrey's candid glimpses of a human being doing what we all do when nobody's looking don't cater to narcissism so marketing won't swallow it up. They both use pictorial conventions, but their content is unconventional in a way that the media can't glom on to. As I suggested earlier, the humanism and subtlety in the work of Ellen Eagles and Costa Vavagiakis is very vulnerable , because the media has so exploited the human image that we've been conditioned to treat it as a visual equivalent of a sound bite: only a very tiny enlightened slice of the audience today knows how to read figure painting for poetic suggestiveness. It's a sign, and the signified is the product being sold, nothing deeper. Unless a figure painter clearly carves out a non-commercial niche, the art will blend into all these images in the environment: tv, films, print, internet. Even fine artists who use grotesque human images will be helping prepare the storyboards for the next Nightmare on Elm Street. Commercial artists have picked over Hieronymous Bosch too; they are image-vultures. Artists whose figure paintings have profound content are misunderstood and overlooked, because their difference from superficial images with no humanistic content is not seen, or they are immediately absorbed into non-art media. There's a lot of money in giving human beings others people to look at. As I suggested, we're like parakeets kissing a mirror; whatever you're selling, it's easier if you put in human figures getting ecstatic using it. So Ellen and Costa and other traditional artists are run over by the media juggernaut. I hope they dig in and keep making their gentle music for its own sake, even if it gets drowned out by blasting rap music.

RS Diana, I so admire your critical thinking and thank you for mining some of the issues of this symposium. I am not entirely convinced that any of these artists have to be worried about their style being co-opted by commercial predators.

For me the surprise is that they felt that there was no critical support for figurative art. Figurative art is on the scene and is written about all the time. I think that certain art journals are highly geared toward promoting certain styles. ART IN AMERICA can't print enough about DIA and minimalism. But they also write about figurative art . The New York Times does a pretty good job of covering a wide variety of artists. The fact of the matter is clearly the ratio of hordes of artists to a handful writers and publications that will write about artwork.

. . I think it was an interesting afternoon and was happy to become acquainted with these artist's work.

DM: It was wonderful to have such a stimulating discussion at Snug Harbor; I'm grateful to Bob and the artists and wish them all "bonne chance!" I learned quite a bit from you too, Bob, about what we used to call, when I was a color field painter, "the figgies," the figure painters. I admire you for your dedication in sticking with it. Now you are an "éminence grise" of figure painting yourself! I'm kidding; but you are having success now, and your work is appreciated. So one should never give up!


  Text copyright © 2004 Diana Manister and Robert Sievert




November 15, 2004