Old friends and new faces in the figurative tradition

"The Figurative Tradition and the Whitney Museum of Art" is an important exhibition, which serves as a dramatic reminder that paintings and sculpture of people and of human events still occupy a central position in our cultural consciousness.

It's a reminder that, prophets of doom and champions of abstraction notwithstanding, the figurative tradition in American art is alive and is in very good condition.

That is the inescapable conclusion to be drawn from this large and impressive exhibition of roughly 120 paintings and 60 sculptures from the Whitney Museum's Permanent Collection, on view here through Sept. 7.

Beginning at the turn of the century with the art of Henri, Sloan, Glackens, etc., and ending with today's various types of realists, this show chronicles the full range of that American art produced during the past 80 years in which concern for human form and human activity took precedence over the purely formal attributes of painting and sculpture.

In many ways this exhibition is like a huge family reunion to which several generations and all the children have been invited. One has to expect a crabby uncle or two and a few family embarrassments, but one can also expect to meet some old favorites one hasn't seen in years -- and to welcome some of the bright and bushy-tailed newcomers to the family.

Among the oldr favorites I was pleased to see Walt Kuhn's "The Blue Clown," Arshile Gorky's "The Artist and His Mother," Ernest Fiene's "Concetta," Reginald Marsh's "Why Not Use the El?," Gaston Lachaise's "John Marin," and Thomas Hart Benton's "The Lord is My Shepherd."

I was delighted to be able once again to look at several works of the 1950s I hadn't seen since the exhibitions in which they made their debuts. I often wondered at their fate, and so it was pleasant not only to realize that they were safely tucked away (some of them need only be seen every 30 years) but also that my memory of them was actually quite correct.

The newcomers, by and large, are quite overwhelming in their size, and tended to remind me of my father's retort to my youthful awe before the colossal heads of the presidents at Mt. Rushmore. "Yes," he said, "but how good would they be if they were one foot tall?"

The question is not entirely inappropriate here in front of some of these giant paintings. But even so, Neil Welliver's "Girl With Striped Washcloth," Sidney Goodman's "Room 318," and Chuck Close's "Phil" are knockouts. Welliver, who is fast becoming one of America's major artists, has a truly remarkable ability to systematize his perceptions into exciting areas of color and pattern.

On the other hand, Richard McLean's "Still Life With Black Jockey," for instance, is already beginning to look dated, even though it is only a bit over 10 years old, and Audrey Flack's "Lady Madonna" will, I suspect, be as big an embarrassment 30 years from now as Peter Blume's 1951 "Man of Sorrows" is to us today.

I've never been a particular fan of the Soyer brothers -- Raphael, Moses, and Isaac -- nor of Alice Neel. And so I'm a bit surprised to report that they hold up very well in this show.

At least they, together with a few others like Marsh, Henri, Luks, and Davidson, seem practically the only ones in this large exhibition devoted to art derived from the human figure to have cared as much about how their subjects felt as how they looked. Now I know that in some quarters this empathic quality might be suspect, but I found it utterly enchanting to see people painted with all their physical and emotional idiosyncrasies laid out for all to see, and not perceived and painted as though they were anonymous puppets in some formal scheme of things.

In this light I was particularly pleased to see Alice Neel's portrait of "The Soyer Brothers" -- which makes them look more like themselves than they do in real life -- and her offbeat portrait of "John Perreault."

I must admit that there is some perfectly awful art on view. Peter Blume's "Man of Sorrows" makes it difficult to imagine the creative twists and turns necessary to produce such a travesty on the crucifixion theme and also on that artist's earlier work.

Much the same must be said for Siegfried Reinhardt's "Crucifixion," Philip Evergood's "The New Lazarus," and George Tooker's lugubrious "The Subway." And I can't help adding to the list Paul Cadmus's tawdry "Fantasia on a Theme by Dr. S."

If nothing else, these last-named paintings, all of which were produced at the time Abstract Expressionism was bursting onto the scene, should make it abundantly clear that that movement's function was as much to clean house as to bring a fresh point of view into American art.

Seen within this context, the works produced during that period by Ben Shahn, Edward Hopper, Robert Gwathmey, Jack Levine, and Stephen Greene now look like minor monuments to good sense and simple integrity. But I for one am pleased that Patricia Hills and Roberta K. Tarbell, who curated the show, saw fit to include some of figurative art's bad mistakes as well as many of its successes.

There is a great deal less to say about the sculpture than about the painting in this exhibition, for a great deal of the best sculpture of this period was abstract -- and so beyond the scope for this exhibition. Even so, there are excellent pieces by, among others, Calder, Davidson, Fleischner, Frank, Hanson, Lachaise, and Trova.

I thoroughly enjoyed the show, because it is such a full demonstration of what 20th-century figurative art has been all about.

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