The Enduring Appeal of Figurative Art, from the 1940s to Today

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Salvador Dalí once mused, “We are all hungry and thirsty for concrete images. Abstract art will have been good for one thing: to restore its exact virginity to figurative art.” Though figurative modes of painting were repeatedly declared "dead" throughout the abstraction-enthused decades of the 20th century — such imagery instead found new and exciting forms in the inventive work of artists including Alice Neel and Wayne Thiebaud. In recent years, figurative art has seen a remarkable resurgence in the acclaimed practices of artists such as Kerry James Marshall and Toyin Ojih Odutola. Click ahead to see highlight from Sotheby’s upcoming Contemporary Curated auction (1 March) that showcase the powerful legacy of figuration from the 1940s to today.

The Enduring Appeal of Figurative Art, from the 1940s to Today

  • 1940s
    Alice Neel, Connie. Estimate $300,000–500,000
    Acutely focused and psychologically charged, Alice Neel’s portraiture strips its sitters of any self consciousness or posturing, instead bare their specific identities. Neel took inspiration from every facet of her life, painting subjects from a mosaic of ethnic and class origins. Executed shortly after the artist lost the support of the Works Progress Administration for her involvement with the Communist Party, Connie from 1945 reveals the artist at a point of flux and transition; Neel pulls from myriad art historical sources and visual strategies, crafting a composition that, despite its multiple references, is completely its own.
  • 1960s
    Jacob Lawrence, Menagerie. Estimate $180,000–250,000
    Jacob Lawrence was one of preeminent American painters and social chroniclers of the 20th century, bringing together narrative painting, coded symbology and layered abstraction to speak to sweeping changes in black life. The present work was painted in the year the artist and his wife traveled to Nigeria, reveling in the cultural sights and street life there, and reflects the artist’s modernist approach to addressing the nuance of history and lived experience.
  • 1960s
    Mel Ramos, Ursela. Estimate $250,000–350,000
    Rising to fame in the 1960s, during the decade of soup cans, comic books and billboard ads, Ramos swiftly emerged as a foremost practitioner of Pop Art, embracing its youthful, irreverent rebelliousness and in-depth investigation of the American cultural phenomenon. In the present work, Ramos negotiates notions of space using his trademark confidant female figure, producing a sense of projection into space, using two planes.
  • 1970s
    Wayne Thiebaud, Half Nude with Earings. Estimate $20,000–30,000
    American painter Wayne Thiebaud has uniquely synthesized Pop Art’s interest in popular mass culture; Abstract Expressionist experimentation; the aesthetics of Edward Hopper; and the American illustrative approach to painting. These influences are on full display in this evocative seated nude.
  • 1980s
    Ed Ruscha, True Lady. Estimate $120,000–180,000
    Ed Ruscha’s oeuvre is incredibly diverse in its use of media, and his highly graphic, illustrational aesthetic, and often ironic language-based content of his work has become iconic of West Coast Pop art. The present work is a highlight of the artist’s “silhouette” paintings that first began to appear in the 1980s, in which Ruscha achieved this signature grisaille effect through the use of a spray gun.
  • 1990s
    Susan Rothenberg, Accident #2. Estimate $60,000–80,000
    A key figure in the realm of painting for the past 30 years, Susan Rothenberg’s paintings immerse viewers in moments of emotive provocation and nostalgic reverie. Rothenberg’s Diagonal, produced in 1975, features an artfully cropped view of the artist’s iconic galloping horse, a recurrent motif that has occupied the artist’s painterly investigations since the 1970s.
  • 1990s
    Faith Ringgold, Two Jemimas. Estimate $150,000–200,000
    Artist and activist Faith Ringgold’s practice encompasses a diverse range of media and approaches, although she is perhaps best known for her narrative quilts, which use craft techniques to reframe notions of race and gender. In the present work, Ringgold’s depicts two Jemimas, the advertising characters which play on the racist stereotype of Mammy in American culture, in the modernist mode of Willem de Kooning’s Women, complicating straightforward readings of how these cultural figures can function in visual culture.
  • 2000s
    Henry Taylor, Neighborhood Watch. Estimate $80,000–120,000
    Henry Taylor’s practice is anchored at the point between intimate portraiture, painterly immediacy and imagined landscape, rendering compositions which act as both reflections of their sitters and larger assessments of pervading cultural structures.
  • 2000s
    George Condo, Smiling Girl with Black Hair. Estimate $1,000,000–1,500,000
    Drawing from multifarious sources, from the Modernists to the Old Masters, George Condo mines the breadth of art history, re-appropriating and re-contextualizing the works of others through the lens of his own unique style. Taking these influences and making them his own, the present work strikingly discloses Condo’s ability to effortlessly employ line, form, and color to conjure a climate that is contrastingly turbulent and calm.
  • 2000s
    Kerry James Marshall, Untitled (Painter). Estimate $1,800,000–2,500,000
    Kerry James Marshall's painting is concerned with the tenets of race and representation in art, using figuration as a vehicle to address the creative sphere and the wider course of history. In the present work, Marshall's subject is the archetypal painter, as well as the act and concept of painting, which are resolved together in one composition through the artist's singular stylistic virtuosity.
  • 2010s
    Toyin Ojih Odutola, There's No Need to Rush. Estimate $30,000–40,000
    Toyin Ojih Odutola is an artist concerned with the intersection of race, class and nationality, crafting intimate, multimedia drawings that complicate preconceived notions of those societal paradigms. The present work is an exquisite character study, rendering a portrait that delights through its sense of intimacy and carefully delineated mark-making.
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