Contemporary Still Life brings together approximately fifty paintings, sculptures, drawings, tapestries, and photographs executed since 1960. The exhibition has been assembled with the intention of encouraging a rethinking of the traditionally narrow definition of still life.
Still life as an art form belongs to a long tradition which began in ancient times, especially flourished in the 17th century, and continues to the present. Although a popular subject with the masses before the 19th century, still life was considered as belonging to a lower category of art, less significant than history painting and inferior to landscape and portraiture. However, with the liberation of artistic opinion, still life has come to be major focus for contemporary artists.
Inspired by the “found object” mentality, Pop art iconography of the early 1960s, and even more recently by New Realism, contemporary artists have enlarged the traditonally narrow definition of still life painting through the use of new media and new subject matter. They have extended the genre beyond the fruit-and-flower paintings of earlier times into environment and assemblages. Through the acceptance of new subject matter such as Jasper John’s beer cans or Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes, the still life genre has been still further transformed. Due to its flexibility in incorporating new techniques and new subject matter and its ability to successfully span the wide stylistic changes from abstract expressionism to Pop art, still life continues to be a viable and vibrant genre.
Since the early 1960s, commercially available items of daily use have served as subjects for art as may be seen in Claes Oldenburg’s Tea Bag, Jim Dine’s Bathrobe, or Larry Rivers’ Cigar Box. Tom Wesselmanns work with its modernized subject matter adheres to conventional ideas of painted arrangements, although in its creation of flat, colorful areas its aim is basically abstract. Both Roy Lichtensteiin and John Clem Clarke parody the color reproductions of paintings by earlier masters, and thereby comment on the nature of art. An interest in scale and an interest in the sharply focused close-up view exist in the work of Ben Schonzeit. Whereas photographic methods have enabled him to create such tour-de-force realsim as his canvas Peppered, still life affords some artists the means of expressing the nature of their medium, such as the lusciousness of paint suggested by Wayne Thiebaud’s painting Lemon Pie, Painting still life subjects from a traditional vantage point, Botero enlarges objects to appear over life-size while Peter Holbrook’s work is involved primarily with the close-up image.
The Renaissance Society exhibiton is assembled under the old concept of still life as genre, and its unifying principle is each work’s concern with common and familiar objects and the representation of these objects as they serve different artistic ends. As stated in the catalogue’s Introduction by Anne Rorimer of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Department of 20th Century Painting and Sculpture,: “In its older and newer, narrower and broader sense, the still life thrives in the art of today, not as a lower class of genre painting, but central to artistic statements of recent years.”