Since then, representational painting has always been made in cognisance of abstraction – sometimes polemically against it but more often incorporating aspects of it into a new synthesis. The exhibition draws on some of the forms in which this contentious encounter has taken place and its impact on the many ways painters have revised their conception of what representation can be.
Francis Bacon explained his art to David Sylvester as ‘a kind of tightrope walk between what is called figurative painting and abstraction.’ He continued, ‘It will go right out from abstraction, but will really have nothing to do with it. It’s an attempt to bring the figurative thing up on to the nervous system more violently and more poignantly.’ Just as Matisse’s liberation of colour and Picasso’s deconstruction of form helped make abstraction possible, the prevalence of abstraction has encouraged figurative painters to incorporate the geometry of the Constructivists and the free gesture of Abstract Expressionism, as well as following Duchamp in responding to and incorporating mechanical reproduction and the photographic. Some fragment the depicted body or recombine these fragments into new synthetic combinations. Sometimes objects become stylised signs for human presences and absences – or vice-versa, the human form in objectified. Some painters continue to work from an encounter with the model, but the result is just as likely to be a dichotomy rather than an accord between perception and depiction; others cut the cord to any pre-existing reality in order to deploy images purely as means of fiction and metaphor.
In many different ways painters before and since Bacon have been walking this tightrope between abstraction and the recognisable image, and the results have included some of the greatest works of the last century as well as this one. This exhibition looks specifically at what effect the advent of abstraction has had on painters’ determination to continue painting non-abstractly. It aims to open new perspectives on familiar artists and to draw some of the lines connecting a number of today’s best painters to their modernist forebears.
Featuring work by artists ranging from Matisse, Picasso, and Duchamp through Alice Neel, Philip Guston, Lucian Freud and Bob Thompson, to contemporaries such as Michael Armitage, Georg Baselitz, Cecily Brown, Tracey Emin, Alex Katz, Marilyn Minter, Dana Schutz, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, and many more, ‘Tightrope Walk’ is curated by Barry Schwabsky, art critic for The Nation in New York and co-editor of international reviews for Artforum as well as author of several books included Vitamin P: New Perspectives in Painting (Phaidon Press) and its sequel, Vitamin P2. His new book, The Perpetual Guest: Art in the Unfinished Present, will be published by Verso (London and New York) in March.
A fully illustrated book, with an essay by Barry Schwabsky, is published on the occasion of the exhibition.
© Alex Katz, DACS, London / VAGA, New York 2015. Photo © Paul Takeushi Courtesy White Cube