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"The New American Painting"
In 1958, the Museum of Modern Art organised an exhibition of first-generation Abstract Expressionists under the title "The New American Painting". They sent it on tour to some eight European capitals where the paintings were well received but the title was not. There were growing suspicions that it wasn't, in fact, "new". Art critic Harold Rosenberg summed it up succinctly: "Today it is felt that a new art mode is long overdue, if for no other reason than the present avant-garde has been with us for fifteen years... No innovated style can survive that long without losing its radical nerve and turning into an Academy." He dismissed second-generation Abstract Expressionists as "method actors", having lost any innovative edge.

The question of what was to replace Abstract Expressionism found a whole host of candidates waiting in the wings. Pop Art emerged, as did Minimalism, but so did representational art and in particular, a sort of rediscovery of "the figure". Two artists came forward to lead this renaissance--Richard Diebenkorn, and Philip Pearlstein. Diebenkorn (1922-1993) had at one time been an Abstractionist, teaching at the California School of Fine Arts where he was influenced by his colleagues Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still. However, by the mid-fifties he began to once more use a model, and though his work continued to bear abstractionist painting techniques, he was able to capture new emotional elements associated with his figures which seemed to him more universal than that he'd experienced with Abstract Expressionism. In doing so, he was accused to "caving in" to West Coast "provincial" tastes.

Philip Pearlstein (b. 1924), also fled Abstract Expressionism when it seemed to him to have lost it's "edge". Over a period of several years, his paintings became more and more descriptive, eventually evolving into Photo-Realism. However, unlike Diebenkorn, any emotional attachment to his figures was often negated by his habit of hiding models heads or merely cropping them using the top edge of his canvases. The result was that his nude figures (often with less-than-ideal physical proportions), though extremely realistic, became mere compositional elements, often twisted, overlapped, or cropped in such a way as to not only eliminated any erotic overtones, but any individual identity as well. In these two artist we see one, returning to subjective painting but in an abstract style, while the other retained the strong compositional attachment of Abstraction but in a realistic mode.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
14 April 1998

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