Joe Fig, Contemplation
September 1st - October 17th, 2020
By JONATHAN GOODMAN September, 2020
Joe Fig is currently showing a group of paintings about looking at art; the exhibition is named “Contemplation.” In addition to being a nuanced description concerning the regard of art, the project enables Fig to represent well-known works by recognized artists such as Donald Judd, Alice Neel, and Ben Shahn. At the same time the exhibition may be practically useful, affording glimpses of works particularly hard to visit in the time of quarantine. Whatever the painter’s personal motive, the show makes sense as meta-art--work whose visual motif lies directly within the artworld, being images about other images. Today, in contemporary art, we are living in times of intense self-awareness, so the implications of a show like Fig’s underscores the extent to which new art is looking toward immediate precedents rather than to the rigors of art history. The limits inherent in emphasizing mostly recent bodies of work can be noted, but in Fig’s case the results are visually interesting and in fact sociological: it is an art history that occurred yesterday, in which work done a short while ago is seen again in an even newer work of art. At the same time, Fig’s paintings do incorporate great older art--pictures by Rembrandt and Lucas Cranach.
That is the historical aspect of “Contemplation,” but the show is more about the actualization, on canvas, of art’s perception. In earlier times, of course, there has been art in which we have seen the subject of other art’s display. This is a sly way of incorporating important works, or efforts the painter cares about, into a newer, more contemporary perspective. In Fig’s paintings we take the position of the viewer--the audience in his work always has their back to us, so that both his viewer and we ourselves study the art he renders. Thus, we are looking at those looking--a kind of rabbit hole in which the viewing of art is being championed as much as the art itself. We can wonder whether so much self-awareness is in fact useful in the production of viable culture, but our time is one of unusual personal involvement in new artwork; in academic proceedings, studies in contemporary art are being given the same weight as traditional scholarship of the Old Masters. Fig’s work underscores this relatively new phenomenon.
Why is this so? It is hard to determine exactly, but it looks like we no longer fully trust a historical reasoning. The emphasis has shifted from the long past to the immediate past. Fig’s work, titled Alice Neel Andy Warhol/Whitney (2020), presents the portrait artist’s deification of Warhol, who ushered in contemporary art and who remains enshrined as the most important persona of the recent American (and indeed international) artworld. We can argue about the strengths and weaknesses of American popular art culture, to which Warhol belongs, in fact created, but today his ubiquitous image shows he has become a celebrated historical figure. With his torso unclothed, his platinum hair, and his visible scar, Warhol is envisioned as a saint of new culture in this copy of Neel’s painting. Indeed, his closed eyes add close to a mystical presence to his portrait. While the three viewers’ faces are not visible to us, they look like they are young; they are wearing informal clothing. The painting works well; it is a notable piece of conscious historicity, in which Warhol’s apotheosis becomes a defense of apparent pastlessness.
In Donald Judd MoMA (Pandemic) (2020), the artist’s six shelf-like compartments, with their light-colored frames, vertical dividers, and plastic yellow interiors, are presented without any viewers at all--the consequences of the quarantine are starkly implied. What happens when an artwork’s merit goes unrecognized, especially in a time when popularity in art is its chief distinguishing character? Judd was a minimalist, particularly active in the Sixties and Seventies; his esthetic was impersonal, manufactured, and ostensibly devoid of feeling: an art for our time. A 2019 painting, entitled Henry and Haim Steinbach, Serralves, Portugal, shows a youth in a short-sleeved red shirt and shorts on the right, directing his gaze toward one of Steinbach’s sculptural shelves, which display stacked, bright red cookware and two lava lamps. Steinbach made altars to American materialism; Fig’s title indicates that they are now seen in Portugal. Henry may well be American, adding to the seemingly patriotic nature of Fig’s recognition. When Steinbach’s art first surfaced, it was hard to tell whether he was praising or condemning our obsession with things. Fig’s copy of the work doesn’t solve the puzzle.
So “Contemplation” is a historical show about art history. Fig is a skilled painter; his 2019 rendition of Shahn’s painting, The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti, accurately renders the powerful portrait work. Here, vicariously, Fig may be introducing a note of political awareness, but given the wide range of his subject matter, his reproduction feels more art historical than socially driven. Fig does include, in Artist’s Choice: Amy Sillman--The Shape of Shape (Frankenthaler, Bontecou, Oehlen, Mueller, Duchamp, Fecteau, Hesse, Greene/MoMA) (2020), contemporary painter Sillman’s selective overview of recent and modern recent art. A major work by Bontecou is prominently displayed. This painting and most of the others celebrate modernism and contemporaneity, although historical masters do appear in a very few works of art. By including artists from long ago, Fig extends his argument to one of general as opposed to contemporary appreciation. It is clear, though, that his theme rests mostly in the act of gazing at late efforts in painting, in which the audience is nearly as important as what they are looking at. WM
Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications.
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