This conference addresses figuration in American art as a broad tendency that encompasses representational approaches as well as artworks that are underpinned by the human figure in a procedural sense, even where the body might appear obscure or highly mediated. The aim of this conference is to address figuration in relation to various flash points of social crisis in the United States, beginning with the impetus towards realism and its variants, including social surrealism during the Depression, and then traversing towards the mid-century moment when American abstract art gained global prominence at the onset of the Cold War. Across this 50-year period, the meaning and critical purchase of figuration became a contested ground for debate. On the one hand, it was associated with regression and the irrational, and on the other, with progress and the rational. Although such views cannot be assigned a fixed political value, figuration does not stand as a neutral category within this history. This conference seeks to explore such issues in relation to the various struggles over who counts as human during this period, and to consider how artists working with the figure engaged with this, in both reactionary and critical modes. How did figuration act as a means to humanize, or conversely de-humanize, individuals and social groups? Such debates took shape within a variety of politico-historical conjunctures, from the leftist Cultural Front to the black arts movement, from Cold War debates around humanism to artists producing work in opposition to the Vietnam War. And following on from this, how has representation of the human figure frequently been situated as a responsibility to bear, or conversely, a burden to shed, within struggles around race, class, sexuality, and gender in the United States?
The conference is organized by Dr. Larne Abse Gogarty, the Terra Foundation for American Art Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow at the Institut für Kunst- und Bildgeschichte at Humboldt-Universität, in Berlin.
- Darby English, Carl Darling Buck Professor of Art History, The University of Chicago
- Andrew Hemingway, Professor Emeritus, University College London
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