Profound or provincial, American realism searches for meaning
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Fairfield Porter, on the other hand, was more concerned with purely painterly and coloristic issues. His sparingly composed and luminously colored figure studies, landscapes, and still lifes were not so much statements about life as exquisitely fashioned feasts of pure painting, served up by someone who refused to go along with the prevailing trends and who ended up as one of the first to present young Americans with a viable alternative to Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and Minimalism.Skip to next paragraph
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Larry Rivers was another who struck off on his own, and who not only produced a few outstanding pictures but served as an example to others wanting to break away from the artistic mainstream as well. The 1958-65 period, in fact, produced a cluster of young independents eager to try their hand at the human figure or with precise representations of nature. Jane Freilicher, Alex Katz, Jack Beal, Neil Welliver, Red Grooms, and Alfred Leslie were among the first to reject purely modernist goals, and they wer e followed rather quickly by even younger painters eager to establish careers within a fully representational context.
No one of that generation, however, put more energy, focus, and determination into the depiction of the human figure than Philip Pearlstein, and no one succeeded quite as spectacularly as he. His large, tightly designed compositions in which one or two nudes sit on chairs or sprawl upon richly decorated carpets have become a mainstay of recent exhibitions, both here and abroad. It may be true that it is easier to respect than to like his paintings, but there can be absolutely no doubt that he is one of today's major ``realist'' voices. A few of the other older independents haven't wavered, either. Will Barnett continues in his gently romantic fashion, as indeed do Morris Graves, Robert Vickrey, and George Tooker. Joyce Treiman becomes more powerful every year; John Wilde never ceases to amaze with his diminutive fantasies; and Darrel Austin remains as magical as ever.
It is among the younger realists, however, that some of the most determined and clearly thought-through deviations from modernism are taking place. William Beckman, Alan Magee, and Peter Poskas bring precise draftsmanship and structural finesse to bear in paintings that may look like straight transcriptions of nature, but are actually as shrewdly designed as any of Leger's or Gris's abstractions.
Gregory Gillespie, William Bailey, and Brooks Anderson tackle landscapes as though no one had ever painted them before. Gregory Paquette fashions images with pencil and charcoal that challenge those of Sheeler; Charles Moser monumentalizes ordinary-looking landscape elements; and Idelle Weber transforms flowers into major pictorial statements.
No list of recent independents would be complete without the names of Joseph Raffael, Jerome Witkin, Robert Birmelin, Joan Brown, Melissa Miller, and Tino Zago, each of whom is making a very special contribution to today's art.
Neither would it be fair to exclude the category of contemporary Western or ``cowboy'' painting -- difficult as it may be for some to take it altogether seriously. Regardless of what one may think of the works of James Bama, for instance, no one can deny their technical sophistication and extraordinary pictorial effectiveness.
Theodore F. Wolff is the Monitor's art critic.
Second of two parts. The first appeared yesterday.