Bodies of work

The Henry puts on quite a show—figuratively speaking.

"Coming to Life: 1955-1965" is the third and last in a series of figurative art exhibits at the Henry the last year. Each exhibit stands on its own, although there are echoes of influence between them. Taken together, they form an important document, a reading of the figure in American art in the last half of the 20th century.

By 1955, abstraction was practically an article of religious faith for American artists. Artists like Willem De Kooning remained cheerfully unconverted, and his graphic treatment of the figure can be seen in Untitled (1954). As frank as phone-booth graffiti, two bulgy, blocky women drift across the canvas like malevolent Macy's parade balloons. Painted the colors of Necco wafers, their faces look like a mile of lipstick smeared across a giant pancake.

Coming to Life: The Body in Figurative Art 1955-1965

Henry Art Gallery

ends June 13

Kenneth Callahan also remained true to the figure, showing its power in semi-abstract settings. In Riders on the Mountain (1956), paper-white figures on pale horses rise from mud, pushing through Callahan's ethereal space to the edge of the painting. Like fierce, silent ghosts, they seem to seek readmittance to the world.

Abstraction claimed to reflect the artist's inner state, but it lacked an essential human quality—the messy, bloody reality of human relations. Like a bomb thrown into a hall of mirrors, Leon Golub's Family Group (1955) confronts art with fractured human psychology. It's a menacing, witty piece, showing a family that is half totem pole, half Rorschach ink blot. A winged, bearlike creature nestles a bird-masked child in its huge arms. Mom and Dad's heavy heads loll helplessly on the creature's blue shoulders, and between them a sprightly, alien face, like Eraserhead with a makeover, pops out to see the sun.

Figurative art of this period reminds us of the artist's delight in the body. Like brother and sister, the delicate watercolor of Nathan Oliveira's Two Nude Studies (1961) and Aaron Siskind's chiaroscuro photograph The Pleasures and Terror of Levitation #491 (1954) belong together. They both celebrate youthful, leaping strength, and the joy of muscle moving on bone.

Figuration also brought back humor, as in Marisol's Self-Portrait (1961-62), which depicts the artist as a large wooden sculpture with six heads and bodies. This is silent comedy genius: Each face, man, woman, screaming monster has its own comic expression, its own hat, and, if you walk around the back of the sculpture, its own set of pink-cheeked buttocks.

Pop artists like Andy Warhol and James Rosenquist came not to praise the figure, but to bury it. Their flat, affectless art—like Warhol's silkscreened paintings of Marilyn Monroe and Campbell's Soup cans—suggested that for the artist, people were only another advertised commodity.

Warhol's Birmingham Race Riot (1964) is a silkscreened painting of a newspaper photo, and a good example of the icy-cold pop aesthetic. The tonal values of the painting's surface give equal emphasis to the black stubble on the policeman's cheeks and to the dark colors of the black man's slacks—being ripped apart by an attack dog. Here history is reduced to newsprint, and black-and-white figures are all grist for Warhol's mill.

Rosenquist gave his paintings the look of billboards, suggesting that there was little difference between commercial and high art. In Vestigial Appendage (1962), he treats subject matter in an equally ambivalent way, giving a large, bright Pepsi-Cola bottle cap as much visual weight as the hair, hands, legs, and lips of the female figure. Pop artists sold value-free merchandise as is, leaving viewers to decide which was more important: the lady or the bottle cap (which she appears to be kissing).

Pop said that commercial art and subjects were no less important than high art. Freed from abstraction's mythology of the artist as solitary genius, endlessly plumbing his inner state of mind, artists could use the figure to explore new ideas with new media.

For the San Francisco "Funk" school artists, the human figure was a political platform, built from found materials. George Herms was a garage Dr. Funkenstein, and his Greet the Circus with a Smile (1961) is a powerful antiwar statement—a human figure made from spare parts, left over from the war machine.

Romare Bearden experimented with photo montage to show a decaying society and its reluctant inhabitants. Evening, 9:10: 461 Lenox Avenue (1964) is a study of three card players in a tenement room. Their faces, taped over and built up in layers of collage, are distorted and wistful. The room and the world outside are constructed from junk, and so are they—but Bearden's genius is to show the humanity still visible in their eyes.

From 1955 to 1965, the human body burst out of the abstract canvas, and was sanctified, demonized, commercialized, and chopped up and sold for parts. The variety and scope of artistic approach to the human figure in these three exhibits show how primal the human figure is as a subject. Depicting ourselves, we disclose our interaction with the natural and human landscape and the mysteries of our own personality.

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