After painting untamed black-and-white abstractions for years, Willem de Kooning introduced controlled figurative elements into his art. Jackson Pollock, renowned for spontaneous drip paintings, did the same. It was the 1950s during the height of Abstract Expressionism in New York. Figuration had returned, but art experts now say the new trend was more a return to the past than a break with the present.
"By using the figure, artists such as these were acknowledging a more predominant 20th-Century painting style, not making a conscious decision" to break with Abstract Expressionism, says Paul Schimmel, chief curator at the Newport Harbor Art Museum where "The Figurative Fifties: New York Figurative Expressionism" opens today.
The exhibition, through Sept. 18, presents more than 80 figurative paintings and drawings by 13 artists who lived in New York in the '50s.
The show illuminates these artists' links with such figurative artists as Alice Neal and the Sawyer brothers, but also demonstrates an independence of spirit, says Schimmel, who co-curated the exhibition with Judith Stein, associate curator at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
"It involved a willingness to take on an almost critical rhetorical issue by saying 'you don't have to paint purely abstract paintings to be in the avant-garde.' "
In addition to De Kooning, "who needed some kind of armature to control his extraordinary visceral skills," and Pollock, who showed that "you could attain the heroic scale and the gestural aspects of New York painting while maintaining a concern with iconography," artists in the exhibit include Robert Beauchamp, Elaine de Kooning, Robert Goodnough, Grace Hartigan, Jan Muller, Fairfield Porter and Bob Thompson.
"We tried to select those artists who had worked for an extended period and had made a unique contribution," Schimmel says.
Some artists in the exhibit, such as Hartigan and George McNeil, will take part in a panel discussion at the museum Monday at 7:30 p.m., to be moderated by Schimmel and Stein.
Also, the museum has scheduled 15 films of the '50s to be shown during the exhibit's run. They include "Marty," "The Apartment," "Rear Window" and "The Blackboard Jungle."
YEAR-LONG FOCUS: A photography show tracing the development of Orange County's middle class launches a series of exhibitions beginning today conceived to celebrate the county's centennial and photography's 150 birthday.
"Photography: Inside Out," starting off with "Suburban Visions, Middle-Class Dreams" at Fullerton's Muckenthaler Cultural Center, will take place in seven galleries throughout Orange County. Running through next summer, it will document the history of Orange County and the work of some of its own photographers. Historic images as well as up-to-the-minute photographic works will be on view.
NEW POST: Film producer Daniel Melnick has been elected to the Museum of Contemporary Art's board of trustees. Melnick, whose films include "All That Jazz," "Altered States" and "Footloose," collects contemporary art and has supported MOCA since its inception, say museum officials. MOCA director Richard Koshalek lauded Melnick for his "sensitivity to the work of contemporary artists, his understanding of (MOCA's) creative function and his strong interest in pursuing new ideas and possibilities."
NEW BOOKS: Paintings, diary writings and friends' memoirs paint a vivid portrait of Edgar Degas in "Degas by Himself," edited by Richard Kendall. Working studies and finished drawings and prints complement a large selection of color reproductions of paintings.
Pasadena Art Alliance has published "Canvassing L.A.," a handy paperback guide to museums, galleries and art-filled restaurants from Santa Monica to Pasadena.
Information: (818) 795-9276.
FEDERAL SUPPORT: UCLA and the Newport Harbor Art Museum have won grants from the interdisciplinary program of the National Endowment for the Arts.
The university intends to use its $35,500 award for "David Gordon's United States," to be produced in 20 cities across the country. The museum plans to apply its $6,400 to develop a new work based on Edward Albee's "Tiny Alice" by video artist Patti Podesta and writer Benjamin Weissman.
GRANTS: The Otis/Parsons Art Institute has received a $250,000 gift from the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation (no relation) for its multimillion-dollar campus expansion campaign.
The award will be memorialized through the naming of the largest of the institute's proposed fine arts studios as the Ralph M. Parsons Senior Fine Arts Studio.