The Figure Abstracted

From the exaggerated proportions of ancient fertility goddesses to the exacting mathematical ratios of the Classical Greek canon, the human body has long been used to represent cultural values and intellectual systems in art. However, as abstract painting rose in prominence following World War II, representations of the figure largely disappeared from avant-garde painting, and the presence of the body was subsumed by the physicality of gestural brushstrokes. This spring an installation of works from the Museum’s collections, together with a group of spectacular loans from private collections, considers the ways in which artists of the 1970s and 1980s returned to the body as a site and subject of artistic practice. Instead of using the figure to represent an individual, as in the tradition of portraiture, they treated the body as an abstraction, a physical and symbolic territory upon which regulatory systems are enacted and corporal, as well as psychic, conditions are manifest. In addressing the social and political structures that define gender, race, and sexuality, these artists transformed the place of figuration in artistic expression, leaving an influential legacy for artists today. 

To hear from the Nick Cave and see the Soundsuit in action, see:

  • Soundsuit
    Soundsuit, 2017
    Nick Cave, American, born 1959
  • Dog
    Dog, 1983
    Keith Haring, American, 1958–1990
  • Poison Oasis
    Poison Oasis, 1981
    Jean-Michel Basquiat, American, 1960–1988
  • Zona de Guerra, from the series El Gráfico
    Zona de Guerra, from the series El Gráfico, 2008
    Daniel Guzmán, Mexican, born 1964
  • Omnicron
    Omnicron, 1974
    Lynda Benglis, born 1941, Lake Charles, LA
  • Phototherapy: Work on Emotional Eating
    Phototherapy: Work on Emotional Eating, 1984
    Jo Spence, 1934–1992; born London, UK; active London
  • Sloppy Melt
    Sloppy Melt, 2017
    Kenny Scharf, American, born 1958
  • Dayglo Special
    Dayglo Special, 1998
    Sue Williams, American, born 1954
  • Scarred Chest, from the series B®anded
    Scarred Chest, from the series B®anded, 2003
    Hank Willis Thomas, born 1976, Plainfield, NJ; active New York, NY
  • Negra Es Bella
    Negra Es Bella, 2014
    Robert Pruitt, born 1975, Houston, TX; active New York, NY | Printed by Tamarind Institute, founded 1960
  • Counting
    Counting, 1991
    Lorna Simpson, American, born 1960
  • Karintha
    Karintha, 2000
    Martin Puryear, born 1941, Washington, D.C.; active New York