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Movements, Styles, and Tendencies Contemporary Realism
Contemporary Realism Collage

Contemporary Realism

Started: 1960

Ended: Early 1970s

Contemporary Realism Timeline

Quotes

"By the end of the 1950s some very bright people thought I was good too, and I said: I'm never going to have to apologize for making representational paintings again."
Alex Katz
"It was not a matter of choice. But I couldn't find a kernel in that kind of painting to split open. I have to struggle, to make something coherent...I felt I couldn't find a struggle within Abstract Expressionism."
Jane Freilicher
"One day I just looked out the window and just decided I was going to paint a window."
Alex Katz
"Realism is the only way I can do it."
Jane Freilicher
"There was a point at which I realized that if my work was to develop and evolve, and if I was to mature as an artist, these figurative ideas could not be ignored, even though following them could seem to imply that I would be turning my back on the 20th century, turning my back on my abstract achievement."
Alfred Leslie
"For me, these places are often nondescript corners, small things, not the big 19th-century vistas of the Hudson River School. I can't put their meaning in words, but I try to do it in paint."
Neil Welliver

KEY ARTISTS

Jane FreilicherJane Freilicher
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Alex KatzAlex Katz
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Leland BellLeland Bell
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Fairfield PorterFairfield Porter
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Philip PearlsteinPhilip Pearlstein
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Lois DoddLois Dodd
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More Top Artists

"From the beginning, the whole idea of making something realistic and new seemed to be an enormous challenge. But I just knew that the Abstract Expressionist path was not my route. I instinctively didn't like the rhetoric. I instinctively don't like 'macho'; I find it kind of fake."

Alex Katz Signature

Synopsis

Contemporary Realism emerged out of New York in direct defiance to the prevailing popularity of Abstract Expressionism. The movement signified a return to a straightforward representation of life via figurative artworks. A loosely connected and disparate group of initial artists borrowed heavily from roots embedded earlier by the 19th century Realist painters who aimed to depict the real rather than the ideal. Yet these new artists, proficient in modern art, employed this mission in a decidedly fresh fashion that built upon tradition while incorporating a contemporary sophistication and techniques in line with the current times. Reality suddenly became cool again swathed in the unique perspectives of artists working with, and documenting, their own experiences within a 20th century world.

Key Ideas

Many of the movement's artists came from an earlier inclusion in the Abstract Expressionist movement. Even as they eschewed its principles, they did adapt many of its techniques such as a similar use of brushwork, flatness, the use of large canvas, and innovative color and composition.
Although there were other branches of art simultaneously inspired by the 19th century philosophies of Realism, such as Social Realism and American Regionalism, Contemporary Realist painters were largely distinctive for showing both urban and rural life in a simple fashion absent of sentimentality.
Contemporary Realism was a way to express an immediate environment, most often through a glance at the people, landscapes, geography, still lifes and interiors that informed an artist's personal existence. These first glimpses originated around life in New York, Maine and Southampton, yet they were inspirational in establishing the concept of regional centers of art for other painters working in this vein.
The movement revitalized realism, dusted off the perception of it being a dated historical antiquation, and gave it a new momentum that has continued throughout today in various forms including Photorealism, Hyperrealism, and Neo-Expressionism.

Beginnings

Contemporary Realism Image

Beyond the New York School

In the 1950s, the dominant artistic movement was Abstract Expressionism, an anti-literal and anti-figuration movement that emphasized a burst of emotion, shape, and color on canvas as a visual metaphor for an artist's inner emotional state in regard to subject, circumstance or matter. The critic Russell Ferguson has written that this was the "most mythologized period in American art...the oversimplified narrative remains only too familiar: a heroic generation of Abstract Expressionist pioneers followed by a much weaker 'second generation,' and then by the explosion of Pop. In that version of history, there is little room for the strong tradition of realist and figurative painting that continued throughout the period."

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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kimberly Nichols

" Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kimberly Nichols
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