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