Gallery  May 11, 2021  Paul Laster

Revisiting Figuration in Contemporary Art

Courtesy Richard Taittinger Gallery.

Gérard Fromanger, Au Printemps ou la Vie à l'Endroit, 1972. Oil on canvas. 59h x 78.70w in (149.86h x 199.90w cm).

At a time when figuration is the dominant way of working in the international art world, New York’s Richard Taittinger Gallery takes a look back at an important figurative art movement in Europe in the 1960s and ‘70s. The gallery’s engaging exhibition—Narrative Figuration 60s-70s, which was curated by Richard Taittinger in collaboration with Yoyo Maeght, granddaughter of the celebrated French art dealer and publisher Aimé Maeght—presents nine international artists who were related to the movement through the strength of the visual storytelling in their artworks.

Coming together in Paris in the same period as Pop Art and its European counterpart, Nouveau Réalisme (New Realism), the Narrative Figuration painters worked in opposition to abstraction, which had dominated the international art scene for the two previous decades. Interested in everyday life, they drew upon imagery from newspapers and magazines, comics, films, and advertisements as storylines for their paintings.

Courtesy Richard Taittinger Gallery.

Installation view, Narrative Figuration 60s-70s. Richard Taittinger Gallery, New York. March 13 – May 16, 2021.

While sharing graphic concerns with the Pop artists, their work was dramatically different in content. Rather than embracing consumer society, the Narrative Figuration artists took a more critical view of it. They were also more politically engaged—even before the civil unrest of May 1968, which shook all of France, and more after it. Because of these social concerns, the movement attracted the interest of such venerable French philosophers as Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, and Michel Foucault.

The movement was founded by the young painters Bernard Rancillac and Hervé Télémaque, who organized the Mythologies Quotidiennes (Everyday Mythologies) exhibition with French art critic Gérald Gassiot-Talabot at the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris in 1964. In the Taittinger show, there’s a 1966 painting by Rancillac, Fin tragique d'un apotre de l'Apartheid  (Tragic End of an Apostle of Apartheid), that turns a political photo from a South African newspaper into a montage of colors and forms, while Télémaque’s 1970 canvas, Contamination verte (Green Contamination), juxtaposes a precisely painted clasp from a woman’s garter belt with a portable closet to comment on consumer consumption.

Courtesy Richard Taittinger Gallery.

Erró, La Bombe, 1977. Alkyd paint on canvas. 45 11/16 × 64 3/8 in. (116 × 163.5 cm.).

Peter Saul criticizes American imperialism during the Vietnam War in his 1966 painting Killroy, which mixes metaphors of fighting cocks and obedient dogs in cartoon-like characterizations; Erró uses a comic book-style of illustration in his 1977 painting, La Bombe (The Bomb), which shows how the world powers had dangerously banked their money on nuclear defenses; and Eduardo Arroyo transports citizens who are about to be turned into ash by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius to fascist Madrid, where Generalísimo Francisco Franco ruled Spain with an iron fist, in his 1969 canvas Les derniers jours de Pompéi Madrid (The last days of Pompeii Madrid).

Courtesy Richard Taittinger Gallery.

Installation view, Narrative Figuration 60s-70s. Richard Taittinger Gallery, New York. March 13 – May 16, 2021.

Cybele Varela, one of the few women artists in the group, marks the passing of time in a self-portrait that’s mounted on the wall of an apartment overlooking Paris in her painting 10 heures (Ten O’clock), while Valerio Adami paints a more erotic scene of a woman, where her partialy clothed body and the room she inhabits are reduced to flat, colored forms bordered by thick black lines, in his 1970-71 canvas Figura in Casa (Figure in House). Rounding out the artists in the show, Gerard Fromanger continues the group’s critique of consumerism in his 1972 painting Au printemps ou la vie à l'endroit (In springtime or life in the place), which shows colorful pedestrians in contrast to the grayness and mediocrity of the department store they are passing, and Jacques Monory, who started out as a graphic designer, flaunts his love of films, which he also made, in his theatrical 1977 canvas Technicolor No 23, celebrating valor for country as though it’s a scene from the past.

Courtesy Richard Taittinger Gallery.

Valerio Adami, Figura in Casa, 1970-71. Acrylic on canvas. 31.8 × 25.5 in. (81 x 65 cm.).

Two additionally notable New York exhibitions, which also revisit the exploration of figurative art through mediated sources and social concerns, are Ray Johnson: What a Dump, which focuses on the gay, deceased artist’s recurring fandoms and obsessions with celebrity, at David Zwirner and David Hammons: Body Prints, 1968–1979, the first museum show dedicated to the African American artist’s enigmatic body prints, at The Drawing Center.

Featuring more than 100 artworks and archive materials by Johnson, his friends, and collaborators—including Jimmy DeSana, General Idea, David Wojnarowicz, John Giorno, and Peter Hujar—What a Dump takes a deep dive into the artist’s fascination with fame and his poetic process of creating intimate visual storylines through collage and drawing. Curated by Jarrett Earnest and organized in collaboration with The Ray Johnson Estate, the captivating presentation offers an amusing array of never-before-exhibited artworks from the 1950s through the 1990s.

Courtesy David Zwirner.

Installation view, Ray Johnson: WHAT A DUMP, David Zwirner, New York, April 8 – May 22, 2021.

After studying at Black Mountain College, Johnson moved to New York and worked in a Lower East Side bookstore while creating collages, performances, and mail art. In the 1960s, he founded the New York Correspondence School, exhibited with the Pop and Fluxus artists, and had solo shows throughout the 1970s, before becoming more reclusive in the 1980s and ‘90s. He was last seen on January 13, 1995, when he dove off a bridge in Sag Harbor, Long Island and swam out to sea. His body washed up on the beach the following day.

© Ray Johnson Estate. Courtesy of the Ray Johnson Estate.

Ray Johnson, Untitled (BRUNCH), n.d.

Some standout works in the show include Untitled (BRUNCH), a collage featuring a newspaper photo of the actress Shelley Duvall chugging a Coca-Cola with the word BRUNCH below; Untitled (Liza Minnelli with Pink Paint), a collage with a magazine photo of the eponymous actress and singer in her costume from the film Cabaret and splattered with drippy pink paint; and Untitled (Basic Instinct Lucky Strike), a picture of the actress Sharon Stone from the movie Basic Instinct—where she’s seated, lighting a cigarette with her legs crossed, and to which the artist has collaged two Lucky Strike cigarette labels.

Photo: Daniel Terna.

Installation views: David Hammons: Body Prints, 1968-1979, The Drawing Center, February 5-May 23 2021.

The Drawing Center exhibition of Hammons’ early works on paper focuses on a seminal body of work, featuring monoprints and collages, made over a twelve-year period. The show starts with a series of documentary photographs of the artist making prints in his Los Angeles studio in 1974 by physically pressing his greased body to sheets of paper sprinkled with charcoal and pigments.

Throughout the sprawling show, there are experimental works that include the artist’s body and the bodies of friends and others in singular and multiple figure scenarios. Some have added imagery, such as an American flag draping Hammons’ head and torso in 1974’s Pray for America or the addition of two spades to make him look like a giant playing card in 1969’s Spades (Power for the Spades). The 1969 print Wine Leading the Wine presents the portrayal of the negative racial stereotype of a black man as a down-and-out drunk, while Shine, from the same year, offers another clichéd depiction of a black man in the role of a struggling shoeshine boy.

Hudgins Family Collection, New York.

David Hammons, The Wine Leading the Wine, c. 1969. Grease and pigment on paper. 40 x 48 inches (101.6 x 121.9 cm).

Deeply moving in the way the faces and bodies are hauntingly pressed against the paper, like a person trying to get into a place where he or she is forbidden, the works are metaphors for the segregated structure of American society in the 1960s and ‘70s.

About the Author

Paul Laster

Paul Laster is a writer, editor, curator, advisor, artist, and lecturer. New York Desk Editor for ArtAsiaPacific, Laster is also a Contributing Editor at Raw Vision and Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art and a contributing writer for Art & Object, OculaGalerie, ArtsySculptureTime Out New YorkConceptual Fine Arts, and Two Coats of Paint. Formerly the Founding Editor of Artkrush, he began The Daily Beast’s art section and was Art Editor at Russell Simmons’ OneWorld Magazine. Laster has also been the Curatorial Advisor for Intersect Art & Design and an Adjunct Curator at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, now MoMA PS1.

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