Many of the Abstract Expressionists remained successful throughout the 1950s without ever returning to figurative representation. However, Pollock and de Kooning (and, in the late 1970s, Philip Guston) eventually reverted to more obvious attempts at figuration. After all, the direct quality that Greenberg valued so highly, unmediated by “rules” of painterly representation, need not in fact exclude the expression of recognizable images, especially those as basic to the human experience as the face or body. Thus, not only did Pollock produce, toward the end of his life, a series of black and white quasi-figurative works, he stated of his own work that he was “very representational some of the time and a little all of the time,” and he pointed out that “when you’re painting out of your unconscious, figures are bound to emerge.” Similarly, De Kooning shocked many of his contemporaries by painting recognizable depictions of women using the same technique that he had used in completely abstract paintings. In this regard, Thomas B. Hess (1920-1978), critic and editor of Art News, recounted the following anecdote in his 1967 book about de Kooning’s then-recent work: “‘It is impossible today to paint a face,’ pontificated the critic Clement Greenberg around 1950. ‘That’s right,’ said de Kooning, ‘and it‘s impossible not to.’”
For the Abstract Expressionists, the ability to convey the complexity of human life as they experienced it through contemporary culture could be augmented by expressing a common language and emotion through the physical act of painting abstract gestural constructs. The artists of this school therefore sought an absolute aesthetic style that was representative of the modern psyche, an art form based on a philosophical elevation of aesthetic over cognitive and ethical forms of judgment. As Robert Motherwell (1915-1991) explained, “Abstract art can convey…feeling in its ‘essence,’ in a way that naturalism cannot: [the latter] has far too many extraneous details and loses its emphasis, its focus….” Critical thinking of this kind led to abstraction being “chosen” as a more spiritual and hence more suitable alternative artistic language than figuration. Yet the crossover work of some of the abstractionists and, indeed, the work of the Figurative Expressionists demonstrates that the mere presence of figuration does not prevent art from participating in the spiritual freedom and formalist energy that was so highly prized in mid-twentieth century abstraction. Indeed, the American Figurative Expressionists typically avoided the blatant iconography of literal visual narrative that Motherwell felt threatened the “essence” of the artwork. Their paintings are not naturalistic depictions of the world around us, but rather reflections of the human condition expressed by a new image of man, one that represents an elevated psychological and spiritual awareness. These artists thus sought to do more than just comment on the world in which we live: they tried to surpass the natural world and to achieve mystical effects while juxtaposing a certain allegorical beauty with a logical discourse on contemporary themes and an increased psychological and spiritual awareness. These artists were not only commenting on the world around them, they were seeking to surpass the natural world and achieve supernatural affects.
As Hess wrote in “The Many Death of American Art,” Art News 59 (October 1960), “the ‘New figurative painting,’ which some have been expecting as a reaction against Abstract Expressionism, was implicit in it at the start, and is one of its most lineal continuities.” Indeed, the representational figurations constructed by members of the second generation of American Figurative Expressionists had some similarity with the work of the Abstract Expressionists, including the shared humanistic ideology that art should be true to life as it is experienced. For the Figurative Expressionists, in fact, art making was a powerful form of dialogue that expressed the nature of the human condition. This dialogue was presented through a dramatic process that was similar to poetry, music, and theater. The artists’ emotions and expressions were displayed in paint that was impulsively applied (dripped, splashed, or gesturally spread) onto a flat surface. This led the art historian Harold Rosenberg (1906-1978) to describe the practitioners of this approach as “action painters.”
Despite the formal and ideological affinities of their work with abstractionism, however, the Humanism of the Figurative Expressionists was envisioned as a narrative that unfolded through the incorporation of figures and landscapes into allegories drawn alternatively from traditional or imagined subject matter, fueled by the artists’ experiences and spirituality. Because Figurative Expressionism bordered on representational or narrative art, it bridged the distance between the artist and the observer, confronting the viewer with an image that conveyed both the introspective essence of the artist and an explicit yet poignant expression of human nature. The work that emerged from this approach was, as Leon Golub observed, less intangible and more committed to establishing a dialogue between the artist and the viewer than Abstract Expressionism had been; and whereas Abstract Expressionism often appeared to contain an implicit element of ethical, psychological, or social commentary, Figurative Expressionism engaged openly in these vital modes of critique.
The second generation of Figurative Expressionism, which was distinctly American, began during the mid-1950s. In addition to their affinities with Abstract Expressionism, the artists of this school were influenced by the Renaissance and Old Master paintings, and they drew subject matter from the Old and New Testaments, from Romantic poetry and theater, and from other visual and literary archetypes, much of which was filtered through notions of the human psyche and of human experiential horizons that were derived from or inspired by the psychoanalytic theories of Carl Jung and Eastern philosophy. One of the seminal artists in this stage of the figurative movement was the German refugee Jan Müller (1922-1958), who attended the formalist painter Hans Hofmann’s (1880-1966) school in Provincetown from 1945 to 1950. Müller’s early work shows the unmistakable influence of Hofmann’s style of abstraction, with paintings from the period 1948 to 1950 consisting of erratic squares and primary colors. However, Müller’s mosaic-inspired abstractions soon shifted toward gestural figuration, and Müller eventually clashed with his mentor by returning to completely figurative painting. In his breakthrough work, the artist presents the horrors of fascist utilitarianism revealed through the idyllic lyricism of biblical and classical mythology. He began painting dreamlike landscapes and idyllic and bacchanalian narratives from the bible and from classical mythology. Some of his greatest monumental figurative works, such as The Great Hanging Piece and The Search for the Unicorn, were produced in Provincetown in 1957. Around this time Müller remarked (in “Airless Despair,” Time (2 February, 1962): 44.), “Abstraction is no longer enough for me. So I am returning to the image. The image gives me a wider sense of communication.” Many artists who came to Provincetown—including Lester Johnson, Bob Thompson (1937-1966), George McNeil (1908-1995), Robert Beauchamp (1923-1995), Jay Milder, Red Grooms, Emilio Cruz (1938-2004), Tony Vevers (1926-2008), Bill Barrell, Peter Dean, Gandy Brodie (1925-1975), Wolf Kahn (b.1927), Earle M. Pilgrim (1923-1976), Peter Passuntino, and Robert De Niro Sr. (1922-1993)—reflected this statement in their work.
The post-WWII American Figurative Expressionist movement was not, however, limited to Provincetown. Chicago was notable for the work of Golub, Nancy Spero (1926-2009), June Leaf, and other figurative artists whom the art critic Franz Schulze dubbed in 1959 as the “Monster Roster.” In New York City, key artists of this movement included Larry Rivers (1923-2002), Irving Kriesberg (1919-2009), and Nicholas Marsicano (1908-1991), along with the aforementioned artists who summered in Provincetown. There was also a related Bay Area Figurative Expressionist School that flourished from 1950 to 1965 and that included, among others, David Park (1911-1960), Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993), Joan Brown (1938-1990), and Elmer Bischoff (1916-1991). See Caroline A. Jones, Bay Area Figurative Art 1950-1965 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989).
The critical impact of this diverse movement was, however, short-lived, lasting only about a decade before the bulk of attention shifted from the rough and emotional style of expressionism to the cool stance of Pop Art. When this new form of figurative artwork superceded Figurative Expressionism, some of the artists who had been working in this mode sought ways to maintain their distinctiveness from the popular trends in the American art scene. Some found success through solo careers, but many began to form loose alliances and to show their art as groups. In Chicago, there were the Imagists and The Hairy Who. On the West Coast, there was the Underground Comix movement and the Kustom Kulture scene. In New York there was the No! Art Movement and the Rhino Horn group.