The Anonymous Image

Jean Goldman, 1974

Few contemporary American artists have considered the human form to be of central importance to artistic creation. Both Abstract Expressionism, by emphasizing gesture at the expense of form, and the pop and minimal art of the 1960s, with its impersonal aesthetic, have valued artistic considerations above the problem of creating an individualized portrayal of contemporary man. Even the New Realists are not primarily concerned with individuality of form or feeling, although man has become a central subject in their art. Thus the human figure, in these styles, has been relegated to a small and insignificant part of the larger artistic context.

This tradition is implicit in the works of the artists represented in this exhibition. They are more responsive to the human image than their direct predecessors, but the human form in their work is subsumed by decorative pattern, expressive distortion or anonymous imagery.

Recent images of man, regardless of stylistic bias, share the qualities of generalization, distortion and depersonalization of form. The individuality of the human form is de-emphasized to create a generic man. Philip Pearlstein, Jim Lange, and Horacio Torres frequently crop their paintings to omit the heads of their figures, thus eliminating the most individualizing features of the body. Their images are purposefully faceless and their torsos stylized. In the work of Torres, the drapery has its own animation and vitality, independent of the form it describes. Although his classically inspired torso and drapery are stylistically different from Jim Lange’s jean-clad figures, both focus their interest on the torso at the expense of the head.

Other artists have different techniques for creating anonymity. Ben Mahmoud paints faces in shadow and depicts his figures from the back in murky light. Red Grooms uses caricature, populating his works with cartoon-inspired figures that represent no specific individual. Maggie McCurdy uses repetition to create anonymity. She endows each of her soft sculpture people with the same facial features, and even the same names. This repetition ultimately depersonalizes these otherwise unique people since the individuality of the person is lost in the multiplication of the image. The repetition of the image, or the image in series, of Pop artists creates an anonymity found also in the unrecognizable images of the Abstract Expressionist or the cropped and distorted figures of the New Realists.

Even though the individuality of the image is negated, the expressive force and personality of the artist are not necessarily lost. Expressive content is created by transforming, distorting and fragmenting the image. An emotional factor is fused into the representation. Paul Lamantia’s segmented and surrealist body parts identify no-one, but they convey a powerful expressive force.

Other artists also transform and fragment their images, if less violently and expressively as Lamantia. William Otton constructs him images with geometric forms. Walter Thompson recomposes his image in staccato rhythms. But this extreme stylization of the forms suppresses their expressive potential. Ray Yoshida places fragmented organic parts together with inorganic forms in a chart-like arrangement. Sexual aberrations are involved in many of these artists’ depictions of the human form, as in Juditgh Citrin’s boxes. And witticisms are often an aspect of the transformations, as in Stephanie Levy Howell’s sculpture.

Many contemporary artists are concerned with the external form of man only in so far as it reveals something about the interior life of the image, or only to the extent that it contributes to the expressive force of the image. Emotional factors take precedence over external realities. Solitude, anxiety, despair become the pervasive emotional tones of the majority of these images. This is true, above all, of Robert Lostutter’s tortured humanity, his anonymous, anguished figures in contorted poses. Many images in the exhibition stand in solitude or are intentionally isolated when in groups.

There is a significant undercurrent of fantasy, magic, and the imaginary in the exhibition as well, again, very significantly in Losttuter. Some artists share a mystical belief in the power of the image and speak of their creations as totems and icons. Their source of inspiration has frequently been the totemic images of primitive cultures. Some of the artists create an imaginary world through their distortions of the human body. In Elwood Smith’s and Gladys Nilsson’s work, people are endowed with animal-like attributes to create fantastic images.

Often the world of fantasy created by these distorted human forms becomes decorative pattern. The human figure is submerged in the overall decorative framework in the drawings of Krys Hendren. Or the figures are so reduced in scale that they become lost in the surface of the dense paintings of Robert Donley. In the works of other artists, the decorative use of the human form takes precedence over any expressive or archetypal interest, as in the boxes of Judith Citrin, where the human form is twisted around a box.

Whether the intent is decorative or expressive, the form remains anonymous. It is rarely heroic, reflecting man and his role in contemporary culture.