F iguration and portraiture have stood as artistic touchstones throughout the history of artistic expression, forming a foundation and outlet for introspection and the questioning of one’s identity. Sotheby’s East Hampton is pleased to present “Figuration: Now and Then,” on view through July 17, 2022. A carefully curated selection of works that brings together pieces from differing cultures and artistic movements, from Fang Betsi reliquary figures to canvases from today’s most sought-after contemporary artists, the exhibition opens a dialogue about the many lenses through which we perceive and interpret the world.
Joseph Cornell, Untitled (Medici Prince), 1952
Joseph Cornell began his career as a textile salesman in New York between 1921 and 1931, using his time away from work to explore the city and find artistic materials. Inspired by the penny arcades he visited in his youth and his reverence for Marcel Duchamp’s “readymades,” Cornell began assembling idiosyncratic box constructions. The romantic, poetic, lyrical and Surrealist themes that distinguish the artist’s work may also characterize New York, punctuating the city’s immense influence on the artist until his death in 1972.
Untitled (Medici Prince) exemplifies Cornell’s yearning to reconnect with a childish sense of delight. The artist wrote in a 1948 exhibition catalog that “shadow boxes become poetic theatres or settings wherein are metamorphosed the elements of a childhood pastime.” The work depicts a young Medici Prince (reproduced from a Renaissance portrait), which could also be interpreted as a self-portrait.
As viewers gaze into the box, they are transported into a theater, emphasizing Cornell’s interests in manipulating audience participation and the nature of the gaze. Together, the barrier of the softly colored glass and the box-like construction symbolize the protected, singular interiority of the artist’s mind and imagined world where the nostalgia of childhood is forever enshrined.
Joan Miró, Collage-peinture, 1934
In his Manifeste du surréalisme of 1924, André Breton defined Surrealism as “a state of pure psychic automatism,” and expressed its central tenants as the experimental use of the written word along with bizarre combinations of mixed media. He and his followers sought to reveal what lay beneath the surface of everyday perception, and each employed diverse methods consistent with the movement’s international scope. Yet even before the publication of the manifesto, Joan Miró was independently engaging with these same ideas. In a letter from 1920, he wrote: “I am working hard; going towards an art of concept, using reality as a point of departure, never as a stopping place.”
Miró’s Surrealist “art of concept” was deeply rooted in figuration, which he saw as a vehicle through which to express both his Catalan identity as well as his position within multiple European avant-gardes. 1934’s Collage-peinture underscores the artist’s invention of a new kind of pictorial space, one in which Surrealist dreamscapes are infused with figurative forms to dismantle traditional canons of representation. His limited palette brings depth and intensity to the present work, as the viewer’s eye rhythmically traces shapes and finds points of tension where oil and collage meet the sandpaper base. Though his vibrant palette is today one of Miró's most celebrated artistic attributes, the muted tones of Collage-peinture offered the artist the opportunity to focus more closely on forms themselves, and by extension, his own sensory relationship with his materials.
William Kentridge, Give us our Sun back II, 2011
William Kentridge’s work often confronts the sociopolitical conditions of post-Apartheid South Africa through an Expressionist lens. Taking inspiration from his parents, who were lawyers defending victims of Apartheid, Kentridge reconfigures historical narratives to include an inclusive set of voices and perspectives. Believing that “the hand should lead the brain,” the artist takes a multidisciplinary approach to his art and academia, often taking influence from and collaborating with actors, philosophers, writers, filmmakers and scientists.
Kentridge’s conceptual phrase “Give us our Sun back” stands as a denunciation of colonialist ideals and a resistance to the European clock. The artist’s rejection of the European standard of time is a metaphor for the rejection of authoritarian control over individual freedom. Elsewhere in Kentridge’s work, the phrase became a prompt for a conversation and extended collaboration with the science historian Peter Galison in 2012 — an example of the blurred lines between the artist’s physical output, his performances and his pedagogy.
Pablo Picasso, Femme endormie, 1933
One the most influential artists of the twentieth century, Pablo Picasso documented his intimate relationships — like all aspects of his life — through artistic production. Picasso’s work throughout the 1930s was dominated by the theme of a sleeping Marie-Thérèse, mother to his daughter Maya Widmaier-Picasso and arguably his most important early muse.
A departure from the Cubist work that preoccupied him throughout the preceding decades, Femme endormie marks a lyrical pinnacle in the artist’s oeuvre. The sensuality of this work, articulated through the curvature of the figure and the plumpness of its form, speaks to the way Picasso celebrated the lithe femininity of a woman 28 years his junior. Discussing her predecessor in Picasso’s affections, Françoise Gilot has noted that, “I could see that she was certainly the woman who had inspired Pablo plastically more than any other. … Marie-Thérèse brought a great deal to Pablo in the sense that her physical form demanded recognition.”
Picasso presented this picture as a gift to Bibi Dudensing — the co-owner, along with her husband Valentine Dudensing — of the Valentine Gallery in New York. In partnership with Pierre Matisse, the Dudensings sponsored some of the first exhibitions of the twentieth-century Parisian avant-garde in the United States. Matisse connected them with these artists through his famous father, Henri, and among those receptive to their charm was Picasso, who exhibited Guernica for the first time in America at their gallery in 1939. Bibi Dudensing seemed to attract particular attention among the artists of the day, and modeled for Man Ray, Jules Pascin and Carl Van Vechten. Picasso dedicated this painting to her in the summer in 1933, while at his country château in Boisgeloup.
Nicolas Party, Untitled, 2014
Nicolas Party has reached international acclaim through his playful figuration, which challenges conventions of representational painting. The artist’s signature Rococo-influenced palette of soft pastels allows for a whimsical fluidity of form.
Untitled is a fantastic example of Party’s contemporary reimagination of traditional genre portraiture. Party smooths three-dimensional facial features and abstracts naturalistic forms, taking cues from masters such as Ingres and building upon the canon of quasi-Surrealist representation. There is an inherent paradox in the tension between the bright palette of aquamarine, pink and radiant fleshy tones, and the androgynous figure’s unfaltering, confrontational gaze.
The artist’s upbringing in Switzerland instilled in him an early love for people and community-building. Party has translated those values throughout his artistic career, bringing his work out of the gallery space into public environments through his monumental murals at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, and the Dallas Museum of Art, as well as his sculptures at The Modern Institute, Glasgow.
Amoako Boafo, Nadinenglm, 2019
Amoako Boafo’s rapid rise in the art market began with a serendipitous act of generosity from fellow artist Kehinde Wiley. Shortly after revealing his presidential portrait of Barack Obama, Wiley found Boafo on Instagram. Appreciating Boafo’s unique figurative style and budding talent, he sent his galleries an email to draw their attention to Boafo’s work. Boafo’s first solo show with Roberts Projects in 2019 sold out by its second opening day, and thus secured his reputation as one of the most in-demand contemporary artists of the current moment.
Originally from Accra, Ghana, and now based in Vienna, Austria, Boafo studies how art reflects and perpetuates the power of representation. His bold use of color and texture brings deep emotion into his portraits, which celebrate personalities from the Diaspora and beyond. As Boafo put it, “The primary idea of my practice is representation, documenting, celebrating and showing new ways to approach Blackness.”
Nadinenglm is exemplary of the artist’s signature painterly style. Framed and isolated against a gray background, the figure’s tender gaze pulls audience inward, where they notice the charged gestural brushwork. The piece connects with foundational themes of the artist’s work: community, socioeconomic and political struggles, and the intimacy of relationships.