“The Figure Abstracted” is the exhibition that immediately greets visitors entering the Princeton University Art Museum.
Created from a variety of loans from contemporary art collectors, it surveys a variety of innovative approaches — some shocking for their time but now tamed and others still pushing boundaries.
The art, of course, will engage viewers in quiet dialogues — quiet despite the often unsettling or bold statements.
Since an artist’s thoughts can help sharpen the viewer’s eye, the following comments — gleaned from artistic statements and interviews by several artists in the exhibition — are worth considering as part of a larger discussion:
Nick Cave, American, born 1959, is represented by his 2017 “Soundsuit,” a mixed media work including buttons, wires, bugle beads, metal, and mannequin.
“My Soundsuit series commenced in 1992, coinciding with the LAPD beating of Rodney King and the ensuing riots. My practice revolves around uplifting and reifying otherwise distressed bodies, which is the core purpose of the Soundsuit. The first Soundsuit was made of twigs found in Chicago’s Grant Park.
“‘If a Tree Falls’ continues my work around topics surrounding racism. I often think about what my work would look like if this issue subsided or was not part of my everyday existence. But, unfortunately, that is not the case and it is more present today than when I made my first Soundsuit.
“My work, it’s really sort of what it’s doing to me, as an artist. It’s honing in and being sensitive to what’s important to me, and I’m interested in finding a larger purpose as a visual artist, more than what’s happening between museums and galleries. That really doesn’t provide me much. But you know, the civic work — where’s the purpose in the way that I’m interested in working? Where does that sit? What does that mean?
“Where does it come from? You’re trying to find that link to something familiar. And yet, it’s familiar from the perspective that it’s figurative, and then that becomes where the difficulty falls in — because there’s a sort of humanness to it, but yet it’s not of this world.
“The moment you are shielded, your identity is no longer relevant. And so what does that mean? How do you step into the unknown? How do you deal with the limitations of weight, of movement? How do you accept what is about to happen? And what are you imagining is going to happen? What does that feel like? You put it on — you don’t even move. What is the weight of it? Because it’s really liberating if you know how to surrender. And you must surrender because it’s so dominating. It’s all of these conditions — it’s a process. It’s all about projection. How do you project? … It’s all internal. And if you do not know your core and … your internal being, it’s very, very hard. But when you think about it, just to be everyday — it takes everything — just to be … your authentic self.”
The late Keith Haring, American, 1958–1990, known for his playful and liberating work perfected on subway walls, is represented by his 1983 enamel paint on wood work ,“Dog.”
“My drawings are never preplanned. I never sketch a plan for a drawing, even for huge wall murals. My early drawings, which were always abstract, were filled with references to images, but never had specific images.
“The artist becomes a vessel to let the world pour through him. We only get glimpses of this art spirit in the physical results laid down in paint.
“This openness to ‘chance’ situations necessitates a level of performance in the artist. The artist, if he is a vessel, is also a performer. I find the most interesting situation for me is when there is no turning back. Many times I put myself in situations where I am drawing in public. Whatever marks I make are immediately recorded and immediately on view. There are no ‘mistakes’ because nothing can be erased. Similar to the graffiti ‘tags’ on the insides of subway cars and the brush paintings of Japanese masters, the image comes directly from the mind to the hand. The expression exists only in that moment. The artist’s performance is supreme.
“This attitude toward working seems particularly relevant in a world increasingly dominated by purely rational thought and money-motivated action. The rise of technology has necessitated a return to ritual. Computers and word processors operate only in the world of numbers and rationality. The human experience is basically irrational.
“This delicate balance between ritual and technology is applied to every aspect of my work. Whether I draw with a stick in the sand or use animated computer graphics, the same level of concentration exists. There is no difference for me between a drawing I do in the subway and a piece to be sold for thousands of dollars. There are obvious differences in context and medium, but the intention remains the same.
“The use of galleries and commercial projects has enabled me to reach millions of people whom I would not have reached by remaining an unknown artist. I assumed, after all, that the point of making art was to communicate and contribute to a culture.
“Art lives through the imaginations of the people who are seeing it. Without that contact, there is no art. I have made myself a role as an image-maker of the seventieth century and I daily try to understand the responsibilities and implications of that position.”
The photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, American, 1946–1989, known for both his elegant classical approach as well as his homoeroticism, reflects both in “Michael Reed,” a 1987 gelatin silver print.
“I went into photography because it seemed like the perfect vehicle for commenting on the madness of today’s existence. I don’t have a formula. It’s a matter of being sensitive. Often photographers aren’t.
“The whole point of being an artist is to learn about yourself. The photographs, I think, are less important than the life that one is leading. To me the most important thing is my experience, and not anything else. I care more about that than anything — I care about what I’ve gone through. I’m looking for things I’ve never seen before. But I have trouble with the word ‘shocking’ because I’m not really shocked by anything…Basically, I’m selfish. I did [those photos] for myself — because I wanted to do them, because I wanted to see them. I wasn’t trying to educate anyone. I was interested in examining my own reactions.
“I am obsessed with beauty. I want everything to be perfect, and of course it isn’t. And that’s a tough place to be because you’re never satisfied. I’m looking for perfections in form. I do that with portraits. I do it with cocks. I do it with flowers. It’s not different from one subject to the next. I am trying to capture what could be sculpture.”
Jean-Michel Basquiat, American, 1960–1988, is the celebrated New York artist who in many ways defined an era with a visual expression that combined innocence, playfulness, and raw energy, as in his 1981 acrylic and oil crayon “Poison Oasis.”
“I was more interested in attacking the gallery circuit at that time. I didn’t think about doing painting-I was thinking about making fun of the paintings that were in there, more than making paintings. The art was mostly minimal when I came up and it sort of confused me a little bit. I thought it divided people a little bit. I thought it alienated most people from art.
“The first paintings I made were on windows I found on the street. And I used the window shape as a frame, and I just put the painting on the glass part and on doors I found on the street. I was a really lousy artist as a kid. Too abstract expressionist; or I’d draw a big ram’s head, really messy. I’d never win painting contests. I really wanted to be the best artist in the class, but my work had a really ugly edge to it. There was a lot of ugly stuff going on at the time in my family. It’s about 80 percent anger.”
And Lorna Simpson, American, born 1960, is a contemporary artist of African heritage who mainly uses the photographic image as a way to explore personal and social meanings, such as in the 1991 work, “Counting,” mixing an image of woman, a building used for slaves, braids and twists of hair, and texts.
“Although I’m trained in different areas, I gravitate more toward the photographic arts. I’ve always left it open as to how I work in different mediums and try not to put too many boundaries on what I do. It’s more about experimenting or the process of making that matters.
“My earlier works from the 1980s and mid-1990s are very narrative-based. But even more recently, the work has an undercurrent of the narrative of the archive, of found photographs, implied narratives, and fictions.
“There’s some context, history, or implied narrative that exists in the things that I find, and in some of the more recent work, my own memory gets played out.
“The dogma of my own work — of what I do, what I don’t do, how I interact, how I am in the work and not in the work — can be confining and sometimes I want to open things up.
“I got a lot of attention very early on and had museum survey shows of maybe 10 or 15 years’ worth of work, but amassing all those pieces as a young artist and then standing back from them made me want to switch up my work. I realized that I’d gone down all these avenues and explored these things in such particular ways to the point that I’d leave the exhibition feeling like it was time to turn over a completely new leaf. That was unexpected. It isn’t out of not liking the work, feeling that it’s dated or old, or because of the period of time that’s elapsed but because it becomes this freer thing where I’m less attached.
“All artists have different relationships to their work. But mine is out in the world, I barely hold on to it — I don’t have an emotional attachment to it. It’s something I have to move on from and do other things. At the same time, when I look back at the work I’ve done, it becomes a language for me. There is different visual iconic imagery or things that I can reexamine in different ways. It’s quite multifaceted and beautiful.”
The Figure Abstracted, Princeton University Art Museum. With additional work by artists Daniel Guzman, Jo Spence, Sue Williams, and Martin Puryear. Through August 4. Free. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Closed Mondays. 609-258-3788 or artmuseum.princeton.edu.