2017 was a strikingly strong year for all kinds of figurative representation and portraiture: contemporary, midcentury, imagined, caricatured, oil-painted, and drawn.
Robin F. Williams, “Your Good Taste is Showing” (2017); acrylic, airbrush, and oil on canvas, 72 x 72 inches (copyright Robin Williams, courtesy P.P.O.W)
The human form was a popular and generative subject in 2017, after years when it felt like enthusiasm for figurative painting and drawing was muted, at best. From Hilton Als’s intimate curation of Alice Neel’s portraits of friends and neighbors from her half-century living in Upper Manhattan to Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s utterly contemporary, imaginative, haunting conceptual portraits, figuration — old and new — was everywhere and somehow constantly fresh. Here are five of our favorites.
Nina Chanel Abney, Seized the Imagination at Jack Shainman Gallery and Safe House at Mary Boone Gallery
November 9–December 20 and November 9–December 22
The figures in Nina Chanel Abney’s concurrent shows were something like snapshot allegories of our precise cultural moment. The paintings are full of sharp edges and confusing scenes; language is abstracted or decontextualized or thrown suddenly into stark, violent relief. Race, gender, and power collide as figures are unable to escape the frames into which she’s fit them. Motifs emerge and recede and repeat. Crammed together into scenes of chaos, confusion, or conflict; holstering guns and framed by smart phones; covered by words of horror, surprise, or resignation; looking like cops and Trump and us, Abney’s figures embody and evoke all the tension of intersecting narratives that make America great and terrible. —Laila Pedro
Alice Neel, Uptown at David Zwirner
Alice Neel, “Ballet Dancer” (1950); oil on canvas, 20 1/8 x 42 1/8 in (51.1 x 107 cm); Hall Collection (© The Estate of Alice Neel, courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London and Victoria Miro, London)
February 23–April 22
Hilton Als, one of our preeminent chroniclers of faces and presences, finds something of a kindred spirit in the powerful presence of Alice Neel, who if she were still alive, would make a wonderful subject for one of Als’s Instagram portraits. Als curated a selection of Neel’s paintings from her time living in Upper Manhattan that show her striking, relentless curiosity for the people around her and make her neighbors feel as vibrant and themselves as though they’d just left her studio. Hardly sentimental, Neel’s unflinchingly direct gaze is nonetheless imbued with a deep quality of sympathy, a palpable need to get at the fleshy humanity of her subjects. Sometimes these seem so organic it’s easy to forget how ingeniously they are constructed. But take 1950’s “Ballet Dancer”: a young man’s powerful slimness belies the languor of his pose: a single forceful, pale vertical stripe emphasizes the strength of his bony shin; curvy, precisely shaded swipes of black draw his hamstring forward and out from the sharp protuberance of his ischial tuberosity. Neel’s superb color sense emerges in harmonious palettes, as in 1976’s “Benjamin,” where the cool hues in the child’s skin echo his shirt, which in turn point to the background color, yielding a stunningly balanced, utterly unified composition that nonetheless feels completely natural and alive. In Als’s curation, which foregrounds Neel’s portraits of people of color, the writer’s and the painter’s shared abiding fascination with other human beings shines and inspires. —LP…………….