Post Abstract Figuration and the Midwest Paint Group
The term figuration is frequently confused with "figure painting” which depicts human or animal subjects. However, the term, figurative and figuration here is used as art depicting the shape of things, objects, places and perceptions. This work is composed with marks, forms, rhythms, color, tone and structure, the things traditionally used to create perceptual sensations in paintings.
Post Abstract Figuration is a classification advanced by Gabriel Laderman to describe painting's representational revival breaking from Abstract Expressionism (AE). However, not all Abstract Expressionists worked in purely non-objective forms. Both movements overlapped in time and were equally abstract based. In fact, AE painters started out from representational beginnings. Franz Kline and Willem De Kooning worked with theories of European Modernist art early on while Jackson Pollock and Phillip Guston moved back into Abstract Figurative work later in their careers.
In the 60's and 70's this revival of representational work was associated with Laderman and Leland Bell. Both started out as abstract painters (Laderman studied with Hans Hoffmann and de Kooning) and both became proponents of the "New Realism" movement.(1) New Realism or Post Abstract Figuration are the same theory of painting. The other realist school of the time, "Photo Realism", was more formulaic in theory and fundamentaly different than the New Realism's abstract theory.
Historical, Post Abstract Figuration comes out of "Abstract Figuration" just as Abstract Expressionism did. Abstract Figuration was the painting style and theory associated with the School of Paris.(2) Early 20th century Modernists’ such as Mondrian, Picasso and Matisse worked with a new pronounced structural emphasis. They worked out sophisticated abstractions that synthesized representational paintings into what most believed to be a new kind of painting. Like the later AE painters Mondrian also evolved his work into pure abstraction.
As a case in point, Andre Derain (who helped initiated Fauvism and Cubism) soon shifted allegiance to a traditional palette and concern for earlier enduring themes and forms of painting. He dropped all "isms" and reinvested in the predecessors of the impressionists, as did the postimpressionists, Cezanne and Pissarro. They looked for a solid painting style. They studied Corot, Courbet and Delacroix as well as Golden age Dutch painting, Italian and French Baroque painting. The purpose was to make structured painting based in Nature while they stayed committed to the abstract forming of the picture.
Like Derain, Picasso, Braque and Matisse continued to look back from their modern inventions to traditional Masters. They were moving on with Modernist theories as much as they were informed by traditional painting ideas. This new Abstract Figurative art was not strictly from their own time but rather these ideas were a timeless essence of painting in their own contemporary styles.
The generation of European painters after the School of Paris include Jean Helion, Alberto Giacometti, and Balthus. Other Post Abstract Figurative painters in America with Laderman and Bell were Albert Kresch, Robert De Niro Sr. and Lennart Anderson. It was a robust movement generating many followers and students striking out on their own. In the Midwest the Kansas City Art Institute was a leading painting school, and where many of the original Midwest Paint Group members studied in this modern tradition. Their teachers at KCAI were Wilbur Niewald, Michael Walling, Stanley Lewis and Lester Goldman.
Later MPG members came from other schools such as Indiana University, Yale, Boston University, New York Studio School, American University among others. They did their studies in the Midwest and East Coast having worked with teachers already mentioned, Lewis, Laderman, Bell and other strong abstract or figurative painters such as Bay Area painter James Weeks and New York painters Nicolas Carone and Gretna Campbell.
What unites these painters is the Abstract Figuration behind their process.
In 2005 Gabriel Laderman wrote an essay for the Midwest Paint Group’s Chicago exhibition. He titled it: “An Exhibition of Mid Western Post Abstract Art”. In it, he passed the mantle to the group for their involvement with the ideas of Post Abstract Figuration: