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Contemporary Realism

Started: 1960

Ended: Early 1970s

Contemporary Realism Timeline

Important Art and Artists of Contemporary Realism

The below artworks are the most important in Contemporary Realism - that both overview the major ideas of the movement, and highlight the greatest achievements by each artist in Contemporary Realism. Don't forget to visit the artist overview pages of the artists that interest you.

Early New York Evening (1954)
Artwork Images

Early New York Evening (1954)

Artist: Jane Freilicher

Artwork description & Analysis: This painting shows a twilight view of the city from an apartment window. A green vase full of purple irises sits on the window ledge, and, beyond the balcony railing, the colors of the tenement buildings deepen in the violet light. Four smokestacks are visible on the horizon, their plumes darkening the sky. We can imagine the artist surveying the scene as she paints it from life, capturing the distinctive hues of sunset in a New York City moment, transporting the viewer to the artist's piece of the world at the time.

Freilicher was known for painting urban and country scenes in the Contemporary Realist style of documenting place from her own authentic perspective of home in both Lower Manhattan and Walter Mill, Long Island. She studied with Hans Hoffman and began as an Abstract Expressionist but was inspired by a show of Pierre Bonnard's 19th century Realist works and made the switch, taking into her new direction a love for a nostalgic color palette and the juxtaposition between domestic interiors and landscape.

Throughout her career, she painted primarily still life, usually flowers, placed in front of a window through which could be seen a cityscape or a landscape. As she said in her seventies, "I suppose I'll just keep doing what I'm doing, Even though I'm using ostensibly the same subject matter, I keep on trying to get some other kind of sensation from it. Every flower has its own cosmology, its own relationship to the foliage, to the air around it."

Freilicher preferred to call her style, "painterly realism," a term which emphasizes not only the representational nature of her work but her emphasis on the lyrical effects of color. Yet the grimy crowded buildings and the smokestacks' sooty plumes convey a realistic view that is without idealization. Porter reviewed her work in 1952, praising her artistic pursuit of "first principles," which is evident here in her sense of composition. The size of the canvas is the same dimensions as the window it portrays, and the color of the windowsill harmonizes with the color of the sky, in effect framing the top and bottom of the canvas with the violet of twilight, highlighted by the irises.

Oil on linen - Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York

The Black Dress (1960)
Artwork Images

The Black Dress (1960)

Artist: Alex Katz

Artwork description & Analysis: This work portrays the artist's wife and muse, Ada, in six different poses, while on the wall to the right is partially seen a portrait of the poet, James Schuyler, who was a close friend of the couple. Ada is wearing a classic black dress and heels, reflecting the Jacqueline Kennedy style of the early 1960s.

Ada, was central to Katz's portrait practice, and became a recognizable figure in his work, furthering the Contemporary Realist signature of painting those one knows. The poet Frank O'Hara was to dub her the "First Lady of the Art World." The large scale of the canvas itself contributes to the iconic effect, as the art critic Kramer said of both Katz and Pearlstein, they "took the scale of their work from Abstract Expressionism. They wanted that big scale, but they wanted to keep that scale free for representational painting."

Katz has said that everything is about style, and his unique version can be seen here in his use of flat planes of color that create a two dimensional flatness. He also pioneered the representation of the human form as a cutout, which can also be seen in his Frank O'Hara (1959-1960), a full body portrait of the poet, cut out of wood.

Here, the sequence of different poses creates an effect like that of a classical Greek frieze, but while Ada is seen from multiple perspectives, there are only the slight variations in facial expression, primarily in the two poses on the right. The painting is so representational, that it can take a while to realize that it also departs from a purely naturalistic treatment. The figure standing behind the chair ends at the shoulders of the seated Ada, and the figures seem to be of varying heights creating an uncertainty about the space that they occupy.

Katz's individual interpretation of Contemporary Realism was toward stylization and creation of the iconic. In his billboard size portraits, the individual becomes a kind of 'sign', recognizable but reduced to essential elements, and this aspect of his work and its cool contemporaneity has had a significant influence upon other artists from the 1970s on.

Oil on linen - Brandhurst Collection, Berlin

Croquet Party (1965)
Artwork Images

Croquet Party (1965)

Artist: Leland Bell

Artwork description & Analysis: This work depicts a moment in a weekend spent with family and friends, and is illustrative of the movement's devotion toward depicting everyday domestic scenes.

Bell is depicted at the far left with his arm around his wife, the Icelandic artist Louisa Matthiasdottir, whom he met while both were studying at the Hans Hoffman School in New York. Bell's work is distinguished by fluid brushwork, planes of color, and figural dark outlines that give his representational work a dynamic effect. Each of the people depicted here is vividly present, their personalities and relationships with each other, conveyed in an astute artistic understanding of body language. Created while working from photographs, the painting retains a photographic sense of a moment caught in time. However, the work eschews photographic accuracy and detail, as the faces are not clearly seen but only suggested, and the compositional elements are simplified.

Bell, in particular, rejoiced in the simplicity of regular life and portrayed his existence and its subjects with a unique dynamism. Hints of his past as a jazz musician can be seen in the rhythmic fluidity to his work that waffles between classical, abstract, and representational.

Oil on canvas - Center for Figurative Painting, New York

Jane and Elizabeth (1967)
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Jane and Elizabeth (1967)

Artist: Fairfield Porter

Artwork description & Analysis: This painting, placed within a Long Island summer landscape, depicts a woman sitting in a deck chair while a child in red overalls playfully tries to get her attention. Porter was well known for his portraits of friends and family, each placed within the subject's world. Here, he portrays his peer Jane Freilicher outside her Water Mill home in front of the landscape that became a primary subject of her work. The child in red overalls is Elizabeth, one of Porter's children. Porter said that Freilicher and Katz were main influences on his work, but we can also see the softened hues and true sense of place so noted in earlier works by Bonnard and Vuillard.

In true Contemporary Realist form, Porter said of his work "The truest order is what you already find there...When you arrange, you fail," and, here, a sense of capturing a spontaneous moment is conveyed. The simplicity of the pictorial elements and a sophisticated color palette create this sense of immediacy. The landscape is almost abstracted to broad planes of color, the white polka dots of the overalls are echoed in two white dots on the horizon and the color of the woman's dress harmonizes with the sky. Yet it is his understanding of gestural language that makes the picture come alive.

Oil on canvas - Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill NY

Lying Female Nude on Purple Drape (1968)
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Lying Female Nude on Purple Drape (1968)

Artist: Philip Pearlstein

Artwork description & Analysis: This painting depicts a female nude reclining on a purple drape with her head resting on a red bolster. Characteristic of Perlstein's work, the title leaves the figure anonymous and makes the attendant props, in this case a purple drape, of equivalent importance.

Pearlstein worked as an illustrator and in the 1950s was painting Abstract Expressionist landscapes. In 1958 he began attending the studio of Merecedes Matter for figure drawing sessions, and by 1961 began painting nudes from his drawings. The following year, he adopted the Contemporary Realist dictum of painting directly from the model, as in this work.

A number of Pearlstein's works feature two or more nudes, occasionally male and female, but usually two or three women, and in later works, the props - iron cast toys, African masks, kimonos, Indian rugs - become more elaborate and contrived leaning into a more Hyperrealist mode of constructed narrative or emotion. In this earlier work though, the nude is more relaxed and sensuous. Pearlstein's study of the human body as form has spanned four decades and he's been called the preeminent figure painter of the 1960s through 2000s.

Oil on canvas - Galerie Michael Haas, Berlin

Self-Portrait in Green Window (1971)
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Self-Portrait in Green Window (1971)

Artist: Lois Dodd

Artwork description & Analysis: Dodd was famous for paintings scenes from inside the vantage points of doors and windows, lending to the feeling of a viewer looking out from within or in from without. This allowed her to explore her passion for geometry and form. This work depicts a window from outside the artist's home in Maine. A single tall plant, bearing a yellow bloom, reaches up into the window where the artist, in a large yellow sunhat, and extending a paintbrush, is reflected.

Dodd has said of this work, "I was interested in the window. I saw my reflection but didn't notice the plant in front of the window until I was almost done, and considered whether I should put it in or not. I thought if I put it in, it would push the window back a bit. It gives the painting a little more space to stand."

The influence of Mondrian is reflected in this work's grid, the lines of its elements, and the contrasting primary colors of the yellow house and the blue window frame. As Dodd said, "With the window paintings, the big decision is where to put the grid...Even with plants there is a kind of geometry that helps - where are you going to situate the square, triangle or oval that underlies their growth pattern." The rectangles of the boards on the house, the framing around the window and the window itself are repeated in the larger rectangles reflected in the background behind her.

Dodd's realist subjects are often presented with a formal sophistication that becomes a meditation on space. The viewer looks into the window, then realizes that the window is looking out of the house, and that the painter must be standing in the space that viewer occupies. The sophistication of approach also lends a cool atmosphere of playful wit as the artist at work becomes a quixotic figure.

Oil on linen - Portland Museum of Art, Maine

Still Life with Rose Wall and Compote (1973)
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Still Life with Rose Wall and Compote (1973)

Artist: William Bailey

Artwork description & Analysis: This signature work depicts a still life with five pottery vessels and seven eggs arranged on a small table against a rose wall. A strong sense of composition is reflected in the rectangles of the table, contrasting with the curves of the eggs and the vessels, and in the color scheme that uses only soft muted colors. A kind of serene containment is conveyed as a result of this quiet composition. The viewer is invited to sit in the silence with the artist and experience a sense of timelessness.

Bailey began making representational art around 1960 when he felt, "There's so much noise in contemporary art. So much gesture. I realized it wasn't my natural bent." He began making still lifes of mostly eggs often without other objects. In 1970 his work changed to include pottery vessels when he started going to Italy. Perhaps he found inspiration in the work of artists like Giorgio Morandi who also painted simple subjects such as vases, bowls, and bottles - albeit with visible brushstrokes whereas Bailey's have none. Bailey often used the same objects repeatedly in his work, viewing them as "characters." By presenting them to us in all their plainness, he asks of us, a complicity to appreciate the subtle beauty in ordinary objects presented truthfully and without adornment.

Oil on canvas - Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC

Lower Duck Trap (1978)
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Lower Duck Trap (1978)

Artist: Neil Welliver

Artwork description & Analysis: Lower Duck Trap is an exceptional model of how Contemporary Realists transformed a dated movement into one that was exciting and renewed. In this piece, we see an almost illustrative rendition of an ordinary nature scene in the deep woods near Welliver's home in Maine. The light strikes the stones, water, and trees with an illuminated kiss. Each object in the frame is distinctly rendered in heavy lines and shading. The viewer dangles on the question of whether this piece is painted or a photograph, resembling the sort of filter anyone might alter a picture with today in one of many photo manipulation apps.

Welliver was known for his large landscapes, which he would traipse hours outdoors to find in just the right light. His good friend Lois Dodd had introduced him to the country and he swiftly became one with the land: rocky hills, beaver dams, tree stumps, the forests and its rushing waters, his intimate friends. He was uninterested in finding the precise color as much as he was interested in experimenting with a limited set of oil paints to concoct a hue that would "make it look like it is."

Oil on canvas - Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri

Icelandic Landscape with Sheep, Man and Red_Roof (c.1983)
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Icelandic Landscape with Sheep, Man and Red_Roof (c.1983)

Artist: Louisa Matthiasdottir

Artwork description & Analysis: This painting depicts an Icelandic landscape where, in front of the ocean with mountains in the background, a man watches two sheep. It is a typical scene from Louisa Matthiasdottir's homeland of Iceland and, though she subsequently moved to New York in 1942 to study art with Hans Hoffman, her native landscape remained a primary subject. She met and married the painter, Leland Bell, and both of them were noted realists together in the 1950s.

This piece is a great example of the way Contemporary Realist's updated from the historical Realism movement through post-war techniques. The broad areas of color in her work are dynamic, creating a sense of depth in the green of the pasture and in the blue of the water moving toward the blue of the mountains. Color also creates a kind of counterpoint, conveying vibrancy with the pure red roof of the single building, the stark light of the sun reflected off its left side wall, and the elemental forms of the sheep in black and white. The painting is simplified, conveying the isolation of the Icelandic landscape, but remarkably composed, as the various diagonals of the mound of grass, the shape of the mountains or of the outcrops create a sense of movement.

Oil on canvas - Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York

Gloucester Harbor from Banner Hill (1986)
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Gloucester Harbor from Banner Hill (1986)

Artist: Nell Blaine

Artwork description & Analysis: Depicting Gloucestor Harbor from Banner Hill, this work exemplifies Neil Blaine's mature landscape work. In it we find a vibrant and lively scene of the harbor with its docks and boats, the city visible in the background, and in the foreground a lush proliferation of plants and trees. The brushstrokes here create a sense of vitality, suggesting the movement of the water, and her use of color punctuates the scene, as the bright spot of a single yellow house harmonizes the yellow hull of a sailboat, and patches of yellow in the foliage and on the horizon.

Blaine became the youngest member of the American Abstract Artists group in 1944, after studying with Hans Hoffman. Subsequently she was to encounter the works of Bonnard compelling her move toward a representational style. She often created still lifes of floral arrangements or table settings. Her rhythmic brushwork reflects both the influence of Abstract Expressionism and of Bonnard and Matisse. After contracting polio, Blaine was confined to a wheelchair and turned to primarily painting landscapes that she could view from her window. This lends an extra poignancy to her place as a Contemporary Realist committed to painting the trueness of life, especially as her participation in it had become limited.

Oil on canvas - Tibor di Nagy Gallery, New York



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Contemporary Realism Image

Related Art and Artists

City Building (Part of American Today Mural) (1930)
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City Building (Part of American Today Mural) (1930)

Artist: Thomas Hart Benton

Artwork description & Analysis: Commissioned by New York City's innovative and progressive New School for Social Research, Benton's America Today murals joyfully celebrate an America before the full impact of the Great Depression had been realized. Here, a multi-racial labor force - this in itself is modern and utopian image because of heavily segregated labor in America - busily build the city. Emphasis is placed on the producer, rather than on material consumption. Benton pictures high skyscrapers, which were markers of the new modern city, urbanism, and industrialism. The presence of a ship recalls Benton's earlier work for the US Navy, and reminds us of New York's prominence as a port city. Benton applied wood molding to the canvas to separate one vignette from the other, which gives a modern, cinematic quality to the overall composition. (Benton had earlier worked in the film industry as well.) His rapid compositional shifts in depth between the foreground and deep background recall cinematic effects. In addition to Benton's murals, the New School also commissioned the great Mexican muralist Jose Clemente Orozco to paint a suite of frescoes which complement Benton's tribute to the national by focusing on the international. Standing in front of this monumental and brightly colored image, one senses the city humming and pulsating with new energy.

Distemper, egg tempera, and oil glaze on linen - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, NY

The Migration of the Negro (One of the Largest Race Riots occurred in East St. Louis), #52 (1940-41)
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The Migration of the Negro (One of the Largest Race Riots occurred in East St. Louis), #52 (1940-41)

Movement: Social Realism

Artist: Jacob Lawrence

Artwork description & Analysis: Created when the artist was in his early 20s, Jacob Lawrence's epic series is comprised of 60 panels, which are evenly split between New York's Museum of Modern Art and Washington, DC's Phillips Collection. Lawrence's subject matter is the Great Migration of African Americans from the deep, rural South to the urban North during the 1910s. Promises of industrial jobs and greater freedom propelled the migrants to leave the South, and they were met with overt racism, leading to virulent race riots in St. Louis, substandard housing, grueling, subhuman industrial work, and exclusion from labor unions due to race. Lawrence was the son of migrants and so was drawing both from his family's and community's history.

Lawrence primarily drew his stylistic innovation from his immediate community in New York's Harlem. As he did in much of his early work, Lawrence has flattened the picture plane and any sense of perspective rendering the silhouetted figures as if they were two-dimensional. The works are enlivened through Lawrence's distinct use of vibrant and bright colors, which are not modulated.

Casein tempera on hardboard - Museum of Modern Art, New York

McDonalds Pickup (1970)
Artwork Images

McDonalds Pickup (1970)

Movement: Photorealism

Artist: Ralph Goings

Artwork description & Analysis: Here, the artist Ralph Goings has selected a rather pedestrian view as his subject - a jeep, McDonald's, and the American flag. Goings paints these icons of the American highways with great attention to detail, aided in large part by using photographs. The artist has chosen to remove such extraneous details as people and detritus that would detract from the canvas's subject matter. In this manner, Goings along with other Photorealists has diversified the traditional artistic genres maintained since the seventeenth century. He paints such banal subjects with great care so that together with the artist we consider what in fact comprises American culture. In lieu of the great cathedrals of Europe with their vaulted arches, America - he seems to suggest - has these "golden" arches to herald its cultural heritage.

Oil on canvas

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised by Kimberly Nichols

" Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised by Kimberly Nichols
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