See also:  [New Realism () (art movement)

Linda Nochlin

Realism Now

Orig pub'd Vassare College Art Gallery, 1968; repub'd in "Contemporary Esthetcis", Kostalonitz, Promethius Books. ?date? NOTE: Due to the large size of the paragraphs in her article ;) I have used a x.y notaton; x being the para#, y the decimal value (percentage) within the paragraph (.25, .50, .75) etc. The text below is intended to be a "study guide" to the complex narrative of visual references in her essay. Realism Now (annotated text) This is probably one of the most important papers ever written in the 20th century (and that covers a *lot* of intellectual territory). The debate as to exactly where realistic representation belongs in the post-post-post-modern (post-9/11) era is one of supreme significance. Her article was written in 1968 (that CRITICAL year of revolution through-out the entire world -- Firsr Dr. King was shot, and then Bobby Kennedy, and these kinds of things were happening through-out the world; refer to "../../../pdde/history/1968l.html">1968 History For that reason, we now present:


(the "now" being 1968) 1.1 Ever since Maurice Denis proclaimed in 1890 that a painting was essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order before it was a battlehorse, a nude woman, or an anecdote; realism has fought a losing battle for inclusion within the ranks of Despite a few minor skirmishes; eg, the Neue Sachlichkeit () in Germany, and the work of Balthus () in France, and some American attempts of noteworthy if provincial intensity. [Anyway] realism in the sense of creating an accurate, detailed, and recognisable simulacruum of visual experience, has been relegated to the limbo of philistinism: The propaganda machines of Soviet party hacks [re: 1968] or the sentimental platitudes of Saturday Evening Post covers. [ref: ?artists?] . In the great leap forward march of modernism, that gradual stripping from visual art of all extravisual meaning, whether literary or symbolic, to paraphrase Barbara Rose, that rejection from painting of all that is non-pictorial, that reduction pf art to its literal qualities; ie, in painting to the flatness and shape of the canvas itself. It would seem realism is indeed aside from the point, retardataire, or at the very least, sentimentally revisionist. Wistful attempts at "getting the human figure back into painting", such as MOMA (NY)'s "New Images of Man" exhibition of 1959, supported by a heavy dose of popularised existentialism, only seemed to underline the point: Despite a horatatory introduction by Paul Tillich and a commendible effort to equate smeared contours with modern angst or calculated grotesquerie with contemporary alienation, the "new images" turned out for the most prt to be not very different from the old expressionism, and modernism marched on its reductive course with Barnett Newman, [Ad Reinhardt, Morris Louis, Jules Olitski, Frank Stella in the vanguard. To this view of modernism as a ">teleological progression toward more and more purely optical values in painting, the emergence of pop as a major force in the early sixties [1960d] seemed to offer tghe first un-deniable challenge. Yet, after the intial shock of confronting recognisable motifs drawn from contemporary life on the canvas had worn off, pop scale, coolness of tone and pictorial handling, its emphasis on surface and brilliant color, its flatness of form and emotion, and its use of ready-made imagry rather than direct perception made it assimilable to the modernist aesthetic postion. Indeed, many of the qualities of pop have been correctly, if at times grudgingly, equated with those of cool or hardl-edge abstraction. How, then do the new realists fit into the contemporary art scene? Or, one might ask, is it possible for a realist to be new at all in the second half of the 20th [195x-]c century? The answer to the second question is, as the exhibition revelas, an un-qualified yes. If pop drove the opening wedge into the entrenched view of modernism as a necessary and contiguous progresion starting with Paul Cezanne and ending with Frank Stella (a progression that requires a bit of internal juggling to maintain its consistency, in order to dissociate the pure abstraction of Kasimir Malevich, who had worked uncomfortably close to the beginning of this unfolding of the reductive spirit from that of Newman or Ad Reinhardt, who were situated with greater chronological convenience near its end term), then the new realism has exploded the modernist myth entirely. Despite the patronising attempts of some critics to consign the new realism to the peripheries of the contermporary art world, for example Philip Leider that the work of Philip Pearlstein, Lennart Anderson, Jack Beal, Alex Katz is "irrelevant to our fears and hopes for the best modern art" or at most "a respectable minor art", or Hilton Kramer's dismissal of a recent Alex Kats show as "the pictorial equivalent of vers de societe", it has become increasingly clear during the course of the last two years that the new realism, far from being an aberation or a throwback in contemporary art, is a major innovating impulse. Its precise quality of novelty, it would seem to me, lies more in its connexion with photography, with new directions in that most contemporary of all media, the film, or even with the advanced novel, than in its relation to traditional realist painting. Yet if one rejects the narrow, abstractionist aesthetic teleology as the proper framework for viewing the new realism, one must by no means ignore the central role played by recent abstract painting itself in the formulation of the new realist style. The largness of scale, the constant awareneww of the field-like flatness of the pictorial surface, the concern with measurement, space, and interval, the cool, urban tone, with its affiration of the picture qua picture as a literal fact, the rejection of expressive brushwork, or, if it exists, the tendency toward bracketing its evocative implications through irony or over-emphasis. All of these elements bring the work of the new realists closer to the spirit of contemporary abstraction and serve to disassociate it irrevocably from the meretricious mini-platitudes of a self-styled "old" realist like Andrew Wyeth. The ladies of the suburban art-study clubs, who in recent years have dutifully gulped down doses of Frank Stella and Andy Warhol while secretly yearning for "something nice" that they can "recognise", are not getting the answer to their prayers in Pearlstein's nudes, or Gabriel Laderman's landscapes. It is no mere coincidence that many of the new realists came to their present position after an earlier involvement with abstract art, and their concern with what might be considered purely formal problems remains constant. For Alex Katz, working on the tense borderline between the generalising conventions of ready-made imagery and the concrete subtleties of immediate perception, the compositional problems presented by expanded scale -- overlaping of volumes, cropping the whole idea of gesture, "how things move to each other across a surface" -- are major pre-occupations. Philip Pearlstein, a former abstract expressionist, resolutely denies any evocation or expressive intention in his nudes or portraits, asserts that he is interested only in the problems of painting, and, like Flaubert in the nineteenth century century, who dreamed of writing a novel about nothing at all, conceives of his enterprise as "the perfection of nothings". Yvonne Jacquette tells us that the ***James Bond Car Painting*************** is "part of a series concerning the space between objects"; Sidney Tillim seems primarily concerned with the inter-relation of volume within a compressed pictorial space; and the expressed aim of Neil Welliver a former student of Josef Albers, Burgoyne Diller, and Conrad Marca-Relli, is to "make a 'natural' painting as fluid as a de Kooning." What is therefore the distinguishing feature of the new realism is not some phony super-imposition of humanist values onto old formulas, but rather the assertion of the visual perception of things in the world as the necessary basis of the structure of the pictorial field itself; indeed, not since the impressionists, has there been a group so concerned with the problems of vision and their solution in terms of pictorial notation and construction. In making this assertion, they are at once re-introducing an element that, from the Renaisance to the twentieth century, had always been considered an irreducible property of the purely pictorial itself -- that is, the recording of perceptual data -- and at the same time, pointing out the increidibly changed nature of perception itself in the second half of the twentieth century. Whether this perception is direct, or mediated by the mechanical apparatus of the camera, as it is for so many of our artists, is irrelevant to the major issue. The very fact that Pearlstein, who neer uses photographs, but always works from the live model, was "accused" of relying upon them at a recent panel discussion is a good case in point. Instead of using photographs, Pearlstein has, as far as possible, transformed himself into a camera, and has assimilated many of the many of the characteristics normally associated with photography, such as arbitrary cropping, the close-up, and radical disjunction of scale, to his painting style. The act of perception is itself total, condition both in its mode and --What about context, b/g, history, in its content by time, place, and concrete situation. While it may eviron, etc, be willfully objective -- and realists have traditionally tried to divest themselves of personal and cultural impedimenta -- it can not occur in a vacuum; it is this that makes the new realism so new and so completely of our time. Courbet's nudes could never have looked like Pearlstein's or Beal's or Leslie's ????leslie???? How could they, since they were painted before the invention of the close-up, the flood lamp, or phenomenology? Laderman's West Side Highway landscpae could never have been painted by Pisarro, even though both were scrupulously recording visual facts, not merely because the West Side Highway did not exist when and where Pisarro was painting, but because Picturamic Postcard Vues and concepts like alienation and distancing were unavailable as well. Nor could John Button actually have seen his girl on the beach in that particular way if Mark Rothko had never painted or Andy Warhol had not made his "My Hustler. Richard Estes' New York seems light-years away from that of John Sloan or the Ash Canschool. Would the stringently controlled reflections in Cocoanut Custard, based on the objective recording of the camera lens, have come out that way if there had not been a Mondrian or hard-edged abstraction? Or has New York itself become harder-edged in the last 50 or 60 years? For Sloan, as for Edouard Manet, reflection immediately implied diffusion and blurring of the image on the canvas. (Think of the shimmering, hazy mirror mirage in the background of the "Bar at the Folies-Bergere). For Estes, who relies on the photographic enlargement of reflections is too fuzzy. Estes sez, "Perhaps the more you show the way things look, the less you show how they are or how we think that they are." He muses, concerned with converying the non-coincidence of the tactile and the visual reality. Even in what might be considered a relatively neutral realm of subject matter, the still life, the impress of the immediate present makes itself felt. It is not merely the choice of subject that is contemporary -- although the James Bond car, the New York drain pipe???, the Triple-Decker Hospital bed-??? are particularly of the moment, and the interest in these painters in the theme of garbage or wastepaper may perhaps be related to a similar concentration on refuse, astutely pointed out by Siegfried Kracauer, in the medium of the film -- but the choice of vantage point, of cropping, and the deliberate removal of compositional focus. Although, the oblique view, the cutoff, and asymmetrical compostion were exploited by the impressionists to convey a sense of the fleeting, the momentary suggested by the firm, un-broken contours and deadpan, descriptive surfaces of the canvases of Jacquette. Tillim, or Nesbitt. Their close-up vantage point, radical cropping, and randomness of distribution are related to the dispassionate intimacy of the television screen and that rejection of an a priori order and an a posteriori significance associated with Alain Robbe-Grillet and the new novel as well as the as with the French new wave cinema. Indeed, Robbe-Grillet's call to arms, "Let it be first of all by their presence to prevail over whatever explanitory theory may try to enclose them in a system of references. ... Gestures and objects will be there before being something; and they will still be there afterwards, hard, unl-alterable, eternally present, mocking their own 'meaning'." -- this credo could serve as the leitmotif of of the new realist outlook as a whole. William Bailey's "Eggs" establishes itself in this way, as does Don Nice's "Turnip", wich asserts it unique vegatable non-significance through sheer scale and scrupulous notation of detail. Jerrold Lane's observation that Bailey's "Eggs" is reminiscent of pittura metafisica "but with no sense of volume or spatual interval" is very much to the point. It is precisely by refusing to impose the artifices of volume or interval upon his eggs that Bailey removes them from the realm of the "metaphysical", that is, from any context other than that of their sheer visual presence. The world of the familar, the ordinary, the experienced, and the common-place has traditionally been the realm of realism ever since the time of Courbet and Flaubert and down to that of contemporary fillm, and with it have come the more or less standard accusations of willful ugliness, of lack of coherence or discrimination, of over-emphasis on petty or distracting detail, and concomitant coldness or lack of emotion or expressivenewss. "Mme. Bovary," wrote one critic at the time of the novel's appearance in 1857, "represents the obstinacy in description. ... All the details seem to have been counted one by one, giving the same importance to each. ... THere is no emotion or feeling in it". [My scathing review here] Courbet was accused of painting objects just as one might encounter them, without any compositional linkage, and of reducing art to the indiscriminate reproduction of the first subject to come along. "He makes his stones as important as his stone breakers", complained one outraged critic of the eponymous painting. [