This June issue of Texte zur Kunst undertakes a wide-ranging inquiry into the figurative in art. The human body, and the figure more generally, is no doubt among the most widely depicted subjects in the history of art. Although figurative art lost much of its relevance during the course of the historical avant-garde through the end of the Second World War, developments in the 1960s – the ascent of certain social movements, the emergence of happenings, Fluxus, and performance art – triggered a veritable hype around the human body as a point of departure for artistic explorations of subjectivity. Consider, in particular, the oeuvres of decidedly feminist artists such as Barbara Hammer, Senga Nengudi, Yoko Ono, Adrian Piper, and Yvonne Rainer, and later, Barbara Kruger, Trinh T. Minh-ha, Carrie Mae Weems, and others. In non-painterly media such as film and photography, figuration was considered a more suitable vehicle for developing performative counter-hegemonic models that defied the structures of desire in racist, patriarchal class societies, not least because of its promise of self-empowerment. While the works of women painters such as Judy Chicago, Paula Rego, Betye Saar, Nancy Spero, and Elaine Sturtevant could be read as heterotopias of alternative representations of the body, in the wake of the masculine-connotated gestures of painterly performance – above all in neo-Expressionism – painting came to be suspected of a bourgeois conservatism incompatible with the purposes of a cultural Left. The figurative painting of the 1980s, meanwhile, laid to rest the idea of artists as an autonomous social body – however, in Germany, for instance, this phenomenon was primarily apparent in the works of male artists such as Werner Büttner, Martin Kippenberger, and Albert Oehlen.
We are dealing with a protean term when we think about “figuration” in this expansive way: figurative art incorporates abstraction, and abstraction evinces figurative traits. Further underscoring this is the context-reflective art of the 1990s and 2000s, in which post-conceptual considerations were by no means blind to the artist’s own body (Andrea Fraser’s work is just one example). Browsing the exhibition programs of museums and galleries today, one cannot fail to notice that figurative art and rhetoric are experiencing a renaissance. This may in part be due to the omnipresent circulation of staged subjectivities in the digital realm, which already reverberated in the so-called Zombie Formalism of the 2010s and informs the current output of artists such as Hanne Lippard, Lil Miquela, Lili Reynaud-Dewar, and Anna Uddenberg. At the same time, artists who work figuratively today often belong to historically marginalized communities; through figuration they can claim visibility and assert their public voice, which they have been denied for centuries (also and notably in art). Emblematic of this is the growing interest in Black figuration across media, which has coincided with widespread solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Take Joy Labinjo, Tschabalala Self, or Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (painting); Kia LaBeija, Deana Lawson, or Lorna Simpson (photography and video); Amanda Gorman or Raven Leilani (writing); Ayana Evans or Okwui Okpokwasili (performance art); or Michaela Coel, Viola Davis, or Lupita Nyong’o (film and television) – artists whose work negotiated decolonial forms of embodiment before the rise of BLM and now receive greater institutional attention. Growing interest in the identity-political dimension of visual art has also raised the question of how figuration relates to representation: Do figures represent something or someone, or is figuration a strategy that enables the depicted subjects to transcend a viewer’s preconceptions? And to what extent are abstract artistic procedures part and parcel of figurative operations?
The old specter of an absolute dichotomy between figuration and abstraction, a notion indebted to the linear thinking in the West’s conception of modernism, is taken up here in a roundtable discussion among Bani Abidi, Silke Otto-Knapp, and Anta Helena Recke moderated by Mahret Ifeoma Kupka. The artists reflect on the various modes of figuration they deploy in their respective artistic practices – filmmaking (Abidi), painting (Otto-Knapp), and directing and dramaturgy (Recke). Robert Slifkin, meanwhile, demonstrates that a kind of “animism,” a specific relationship to the object world, was already at work in Abstract Expressionism: corporeal representation was supplanted by the physical effect of a pictorial experience that tied a painting’s cool abstraction back to the bodily presence of the artist. By contrast, literal physicality is central to the performances of Skip Arnold, Rafa Esparza, and Paul Donald, with precedent in the work of VALIE EXPORT and Ana Mendieta. As Amelia Jones argues, such performances invariably raise questions about the political import of the particular “figure” in relation to its “ground” (be it a milieu, site, setting, or community). In an analysis of the documentary Framing Britney Spears, Ekkehard Knörer examines the social production of the celebrity, a characteristic confection of an entertainment industry that grooms female stars to perform identificatory potential, agency, and control.
The economic aspect of the manufacture of figures in and as art is the subject of a conversation between Isabelle Graw and Kerry James Marshall, in which they probe the value-reflexive dimension of Marshall’s paintings: some of his best-known works depict humans; others employ writing in a deft rhetorical operation that creates the impression that they accost the beholder the way a figure might. Such immediacy of address, the allure that figures radiate, is also a defining concern in Jutta Koether’s meditation on the figurative processes in her own painting. Amy Sillman and Annette Weisser take similarly personal yet critically distant approaches in their respective essays: Sillman on the work of Elizabeth Murray, who was her teacher in the 1970s, and Weisser on Alina Szapocznikow’s sculptural practice and its relation to the artist’s thoughts on death. Finally, the history of coerced labor, death, and expropriation – in this instance, as an integral element of the United States’ foundation myth – is mapped by Beatriz E. Balanta, Rachel L. Price, and Irene V. Small. The authors reconstruct the US colonial history around the figure of George Washington, who, when delivering his inaugural address, wore dentures made from teeth extracted from enslaved people. That history, they write, now manifests in a fear that US representative democracy no longer represents white speech at the expense of other speech.
Figuration is so much richer and more varied than the mere appearance of a figure: in a more comprehensive conception, it can be understood as the reification of social phenomena. This is a sentiment that all contributions to the present issue share. It follows that an essential responsibility of art criticism is to give figure to its objects.