The lockdown made collectors even more hungry for paintings of the human form. Is figuration fatigue next?



The Art Detective is a weekly column by Katya Kazakina for Artnet News Pro that raises the curtain Really going on at the art market.

Given the contemporary art market’s voracious appetite for portraits, an art dealer recently told me over coffee: Imagine all these collectors waking up one morning, looking around their homes and wondering, “Who are all these people ? “

It was a joke, of course. But it got me thinking: is there figuration fatigue on the horizon?

There is an abundance of figurative art: on social media, in galleries, auction houses and museums. Before the pandemic, the desire for figurative painting, and especially portrait painting, only accelerated in the last 16 months. Recently, Asian collectors have seen prices skyrocket for works by Dana Schutz and Amy Sherald, Amoako Boafo, and Emily Mae-Smith.

Amoako Boafo, Baba Diop (2019). Image courtesy of Christie’s.

According to Artnet Analytics, human figures appeared in all but three of the top 30 contemporary and ultra-modern works of art that were auctioned in the first half of 2021 (two of the three exceptions show exception plants and Trees).

“It’s hard to break away from portraiture,” said Miami-based collector Mera Rubell, whose family museum will show new figurative works by three artists in December. “It remains powerful. Every generation has its own version. ”

For millennia, artists have depicted the human figure, starting with cave paintings. But the current obsession has been fueled by a number of factors. Key to this: As museums and private collectors alike work to fill gaps in their holdings of women and artists of color, and especially black artists whose work has been undervalued for decades, portraiture has become an important genre.

However, some wonder whether the single-minded focus of for-profit collectors may prevent them from delving into the true breadth of cultural production. “People want to check those boxes and say they are in the moment,” said art consultant Rachael Barrett. “You want something recognizable, something that people can easily see on a wall. I think this is getting tired. I hope that the range of artistic practice of color artists will be valued more. “

Installation view, "Hugh Hayden: Huey" © Hugh Hayden.  Courtesy of the Lisson Gallery.

Installation view, “Hugh Hayden: Huey” © Hugh Hayden. Courtesy of the Lisson Gallery.

There are signs that this is already beginning. In the Lisson Gallery in Chelsea, Hugh Hayden created three chapel-like rooms that with Carefully shaped, sawn, and woven objects such as reclaimed church pews, basketball hoops, and school desks.

Nearby, Gagosian hosted “Social Works,” an exhibition that focuses on community engagement in black art practice with monumental sculptures, video installations, and even a functional farm. Theaster Gates contributed an exhibition of 5,000 records compiled by DJ Frankie Knuckles, who was influential in black queer circles in the 1980s. House music fills the gallery and an on-site DJ is busy digitizing the archive for the duration of the show.

Works of this magnitude and complexity would be difficult to appreciate or even grasp on Instagram, the social media platform that contributed to the saturation of figurative art during the pandemic. Portraits are much easier to digest and acquire because people know what they are looking at.

Social works, installation view, 2021. Artworks © artist.  Photo: Rob McKeever.  Courtesy of Gagosian.

Social works, installation view, 2021. Artworks © artist. Photo: Rob McKeever. Courtesy of Gagosian.

“Even sculptures in lockdown have a hard time taking that leap of faith and buying something digitally,” said art consultant Ed Tang. “If you don’t stand in front of it and look at it from different angles, it’s difficult to commit to it.”

In a moment of social isolation, figurative imagery was comforting. “There was a desire to see us one way or another, to see the context around the human figure, socially, historically or just on a physical level,” said gallery owner Franklin Parrasch. “The urge to figuration is part of the replacement of the socialization process.”

When physical interaction with art resumes in museums, art fairs, and biennials, audiences can Swing towards something a little more challenging.

“The way people look at art will change,” said Tang. “Can you imagine going to Venice and seeing figurative painting in every pavilion?”

It’s hard to say what the next big trend will be, but the pendulum seems to regularly oscillate between abstraction and figuration. And while some artists do work that suits prevailing ideas and preferences, many do what they do independently of them. Sometimes it takes decades to understand the meaning of a particular work or artist. A recent remodel of the New York Museum of Modern Art radically connected Faith Ringgolds in 1967 American People Series # 20: Die with Pablo Picassos Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.

“We didn’t have the same versatility of context when this work was done in the 1960s,” said art consultant Allan Schwartzman. “The figure was considered obsolete.”

Installation view, "A sublime thought." With the kind permission of Galerie Marianne Boesky.

Installation view, “A Thought Sublime”. With the kind permission of Galerie Marianne Boesky.

While pure abstraction is a bit out of fashion these days, the landscape, which hasn’t been a hot genre for decades, appears in several shows, including “A Thought Sublime” by Marianne Boesky and “Ridiculous Sublime” organized by consultant Lisa Schiff.

“It’s kind of a relief from all of this figuration,” said art consultant Wendy Cromwell. “For some artists and collectors it could be a bridge back to abstraction.”

Some artists fuse figure and landscape. Matthew Marks Gallery has sold out its current exhibition of 31-year-old Julien Nguyen, who does haunting portraits and jewel-like allegorical scenes inspired by the Bible, Renaissance painting, and anime. (The waiting list for his work is growing.) Prices ranged from $ 30,000 to $ 50,000.

One block north, in the Cheim and Read Gallery, the late Matthew Wong’s ink drawings show his characteristic lonely figures in exquisitely rendered mystical rooms. Several sold, priced between $ 275,000 and $ 450,000.

Julien Nguyen, Ave Maria (2019).  © Julien Nguyen, courtesy of the Matthew Marks Gallery.

Julien Nguyen, Ave Maria (2019). © Julien Nguyen, courtesy of the Matthew Marks Gallery.

Many see the fatigue of the figuration in connection with the pure volume of material, some of which is of inferior quality. “Bad figurative painting is everywhere,” wrote critic Dean Kissick in an essay last year about a wave of painting he called zombie figuration. “It creeps into every room, from museums and galleries to cool young project rooms, all the way to the world.”

Others simply long for a more nuanced and critical discourse than a social media post that says, “Hey, I just got this work of art. I bought it online. What do you think?”

“And there are 400 likes or kisses,” said Parrasch. “It is never deep to create an argument. What we have are clicks and underdeveloped thoughts. ”

But weaning the character won’t happen overnight, said Ron Segev, the co-founder of Thierry Goldberg Gallery on the Lower East Side.

“Collectors who come to me want figurative work,” he said. “I can’t convince people to buy abstract paintings right now. But you can see that there are some artists who are working against the trend. One of these artists will found a new one. ”

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