Graham Nickson’s Bather with Outstretched Arms, 1981-82

Just as I was beginning to despair between the Cy Twomblys (Cy Twombly, 1928-2011, American)



The Shield of Achilles

usually hangs outside a room at the Philadelphia Museum of Art



entirely dedicated to Cy Twombly’s Fifty Days At Iliam, in 10 parts (including The Shield of Achilles),  oil, oil crayon and graphite, 1978.

  Whorls, scribbles, words written in a disorderly and childish way all passing for art.


and the Howard Hodgkins ( Howard Hodgkin, 1932-2017, British)



A Leap in the Dark, 1992, oil on wood.  Howard Hodgkin, 1932-2017, English.  On loan to the Philadelphia Art Museum 2016


which have been filling up my local museum  for the last year, twenty-five years – accompanied by museum wall scripts which make you despair for their obtuseness –  I came out of a lift in the much expanded and thoroughly inviting East Wing of the National Gallery in Washington DC.


And there was this marvelousness, solitary on a wall with little natural light which focused your eyes on the light in the painting.

This painting is 36 years old. 



Detail of Bather with Outstretched Arms, 1980-1981, liquitex on museum board.  Graham Nickson, British, born 1946.  National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC


We have been, of course, on a well-documented adventure of 100 years, this year, initiated by Marcel Duchamp in 1917 when his fountain was rejected as an object of art.



Fountain; porcelain urinal, 1950 version of 1917 original, Marcel Duchamp, 1887-1968, American born France.  Philadelphia Museum of Art. 

Banned from the 1917 exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists, New York, for obscenity, unoriginality and lack of seriousness.


Adventures with Abstract Expressionists, Pop artists,  Conceptualists, Minimalists, land artists and those for whom light, words, video, found objects, textile, fiber and wood, performance and the human body are primary tools of  their artistic expression.  And all their derivatives.  All continuing at full tilt.


Some of this has been and is enlightening.

DSC00277  DSC00278-1


Canyon, 1959, oil, pencil, paper, metal, photograph, fabric, wood, canvas, buttons, mirror, taxidermied eagle, cardboard, pillow, paint tube, and other materials.  Robert Rauschenberg, , 1925-2008, American.  MOMA, New York

The artist, who began making his Combines in 1954, combined found objects, painting and collage.  The photograph in this, one of Robert Rauschenberg’s seminal early works – many layers, many referents – is of the artist’s son.


Much that passes for non-representational art is derivative, repetitive, and banal for the obvious reason that concepts are as difficult to evolve and express artistically as they are difficult to evolve in the discipline of philosophy.  

Often we are not being told anything new.  Or anything we know in a novel or expansive way.  Or anything at all.




Blue corner piece, 1970, elastic corner.  Fred Sandback, American, 1943-2003, collection of Virginia Dwan exhibited at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC in 2016


And sometimes we are being told this nothing with uninteresting, shoddy and unimaginative execution which is accepted without comment because there are, especially when you have become famous, no clear standards of execution for work that is conceptual, minimal, non-representational.


In this context, the undercurrent of contempt for art which is figurative, representational, realist during the last 70 years is disheartening.




Some of this contempt was loud enough in 1967 to drive the celebrated abstract expressionist, Philip Guston, to physical isolation outside of New York never to return to that city after he moved back to the representational imagery (‘neo-realism’) with which he had begun his artistic life.

The artist said that he was tired of the ‘purity’ of abstract expressionism and he wanted to tell stories.  


Philip Guston Painting 1954 MOMA


Painting, 1954, and detail; oil on canvas.  Philip Guston, 1913-1968, American.

Painted at a time when the artist relished direct expression.  He said that even the time it took between palette and canvas in the making of this work was too long for him.




The Sleeper II, 1959, oil on canvas.  Exhibited at the National Gallery of Art courtesy of Jeanne and Richard Levitt of Des Moines, Iowa

One of a small series (3?) of paintings on the subject of The Sleeper, the technique of this painting looks to me like evidence of the artist’s exhaustion with abstract expressionism even if it was painted 11 years before he gave up abstract expressionism.


Philip Guston gave up abstract expressionism in 1970. 

The cartoonlike style he then adopted, painted on a large scale, achieved wide public recognition.



Head, 1968, synthetic polymer paint on panel.  Philip Guston, 1913-1980, American born Canada.  MOMA, NY


Among the artist’s subjects after 1970 were the social disorders roiling the United States in the wake of the Vietnam war and the implementation of the Civil Rights Act(s); and individual isolation and anxiety.




Stationary Figure, oil on canvas, 1973.  Philip Guston, 1913-1980, American born Canada.  Metropolitan Museum, NY




The Oracle, 1974, oil on canvas. Baltimore Museum of Art.

  The subject of this canvas is evil of all kinds.  The single light bulb is thought to connote suicide; the jumbled shoes those of Jews from whom these were confiscated at death camps in WW2; the hood that of the evil of the Klu Klux Klan.  The pink-red points to the carnage of the Vietnam war.

The Oracle looks out: out of this mess.




The Ladder, 1978, oil on canvas.  Philip Guston, 1913-1980, American born Canada. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC




Even cows have been corralled to lecture us to give up representational and figurative art because those traditions, supposedly, had, by the 1960’s, of the 20th century,  worn themselves out and had nothing further to say to us.





The Innocent Eye Test and detail, oil on canvas, 1981.  Mike Tansey, born 1949, American.  Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY


The Young Bull, 1647, oil on canvas. Paulus Potter, baptized 1625, died 1654, Dutch.  Mauritshuis, The Hague



Details of The Innocent Eye Test, oil on canvas, 1981.  Mike Tansey, born 1949, American.  Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY


In this painting of two cows confronting each other, Mike Tansey, himself an illustrator of note, pictures an experiment where his own painted cow, accompanied by the cow’s own offal attendant, is shown a painted cow (in Paulus Potter’s 1643 The Young Bull at the Mauritshuis, the Hague).

I take it that we are expected here to agree that Tansey’s cow adds nothing to the depiction of cowhood  just as we are expected to see how unexcited Tansey’s cow is to meet his gloriously painted forbear. 


The real point being, of course, that real cows might have a very different reaction to each other just as their real human depicters might have very different ways of representing these animals.   And that we will enjoy and judge these depictions as we see fit. 

An example is this endearing astonishment from the founding collection of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum:



Yellow Cow, 1911, oil on canvas.  Franz Marc, 1880-1916, German.

Expressionist painter and printmaker and one of the founding members of ‘The Blue Rider’.  Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, NY, founding collection.


The Metropolitan Museum of Art says that Mike Tansey is offering a critique of representational painting in modern art as a method of revitalizing painting.

An interesting word REVITALIZATION in this context because in its core is, of course, the word VITA (life) and VITAL (containing life). 

As in paintings about real life in the real world populated by real beings experiencing that life in all manner of ways.


The life which is notably absent in this celebrated painting by Ad Reinhardt who said that this was the ultimate painting after which there would be no more.

Can anything be more lifeless than this all-monochrome black with no glint of anything else?




Ultimate Painting, 1963, oil on canvas.  Ad Rheinhardt, 1913-1967, American.  Collection of Virginia Dwan on exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC


Dead as a doornail.


So we are fortunate that, looking at Mr. Nickson’s bather, Ad Rheinhart took a turn down a dark cul-de-sac on that 100-year journey.  A huit clos, better.


The work of realist artists have, of course, never ceased even if few have been awarded the glittering prizes in the 70 years just passed.





Subway Ride, oil, acrylic and enamel on canvas, 2016.  Josias Figreirido, a student in 2016 at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, Philadelphia




Girl on a Swing, 2004, oil on linen.  Cecily Brown, American, born 1969.  National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC





Portrait of Mnonja, 2010, rhinestones, acrylic and enamel on wood panel.  Mickalene Thomas, American born 1971.  Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Washington, DC




Morning Ritual, 2016, mixed media on canvas.  Mickael Thurin, American, born 1987. On display in 2017 at the Woodmere Museum of the Art of Philadelphia and its Region




Elevator, 2017, oil on canvas.  Dana Schutz, American, born 1976.  2017 Biennial at the Whitney Museum of North American Art, New York





Melanie in Repose, c. 2005, tempera on panel.  George A. (Frolic) Weymouth, 1936-2016, American.  Brandywine Conservancy and Museum, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania



My View, 2012, oil on panel.  Charles Edward Harrigan, American born 1981.  Woodmere Museum of the Art of Philadelphia and its Region.

The artist acknowledges his debt to the Western artistic tradition  represented here by Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights (1510).




Calm, 2014, pastel on paper.  Lesa Chittenden Lim.  On display at the Woodmere Museum of the Art of Philadelphia and its Region.  Spring 2017.




Untitled (Painter), 2008, acrylic on PVC panel.  Kerry James Marshall, American born 1955.  Exhibited in the autumn/winter 2016/2017 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

The artist has worked to use the techniques of the Western graphic tradition – the historical tableau, portraiture, landscape, genre painting – to depict African Americans, their history and lives to the end of including his community in this tradition.




Untitled (Studio), 2014, acrylic on PVC panels.  Kerry James Marshall, American born 1955.  Exhibited in the autumn/winter 2016/2017 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

The artist has worked to use the techniques of the Western graphic tradition – the historical tableau, portraiture, landscape, genre painting – to depict African Americans, their history and lives to the end of including his community in this tradition.




No darling, thank heavens I can’t remember a wife, 2006; packaging tape on plexiglass, with light box; with a side shot of the light box.   Mark Khaisman, American born 1958.  Delaware Art Musuem, Wilmington.

The artist layers translucent packing tape over Plexiglass and light and thereby creates what he calls ‘pictorial illusions’.  The title comes from Spellbound, a 1945 Alfred Hitchcok film.



Grover Washington, Jr.: a mural of 2001 by Peter Pagas for the Mural Arts Program on North Broad Street, Philadelphia.

There are several thousand murals representing many different artistic styles in Philadelphia.



And so welcome is this traditional making of an artist:  a little girl in the Metropolitan Museum of  Art, New York in the Spring of 2017



studying Fire, a limestone sculpture – one of the Four Elements – thought to be the work of Jean-Pierre Defrance, 1694-1768, French, in order to represent it in pencil on paper.


And welcome all those still toiling in the vineyards of the real despite contrary head winds which may or may not be subsiding somewhat.




 Bather with Outstretched Arms, 1980-1981, liquitex on museum board.  Graham Nickson, British, born 1946. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC



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