A Dazzling New Realist Painter

by John Canaday
©Saturday Review
December, 1980

A recent exhibition of paintings and drawings by a newcomer, Alan Magee, at Staempfli, a leading New York gallery, is one more proof that any critics or historians who have yet to recognize the current development of realism in American art as a genuinely modern movement, not a relapse, are either blind or running scared—blind if they can't see that the best of the new realists are doing something that has never quite been done before in realism's centuries-old history, or running scared if they are so deeply committed to the proselytization of abstraction as the keystone of their reputations that they fear the whole structure will collapse on them if they admit that something new is happening.

A simplified historical outline may be necessary here to explain the emergence of an artist like Alan Magee, an unknown whose exhibition was ignored by the daily press yet sold out to perspicacious collectors within two days of its opening. During the 1950s—and that was a long while back, as contemporary art history goes—our most adventurous art critics managed to convince a generation of artists, students, and a considerable portion of the art public that realism was dead for keeps. (In the mea culpa department, let me confess that for a couple of years around 1955 I was beating those drums myself on a barnstorming lecture circuit. But I recovered soon after.) Even the late Harold Rosenberg, the most thoughtful and least missionary-minded of the band, could not bring himself during the years just before his death to accept the new realism as anything but a retrogression, even though by then it had become apparent that the kind of painting he believed in was exhausted as an innovative force.

Already moribund, abstraction (let's repeat "as an innovative force") was finally done to death in the 1960s by the kinky form of realism called pop art, which offered sensational novelty values that made good copy for art reporters who were tired of the creaky old abstract-expressionist bandwagon and jumped at the chance for a free ride—or even a remunerative ride if they played their cards right—on a new one. Then pop art in turn did its own self to death by an intensive program of self-abuse, but not before giving birth to an even more short-lived, paralytic offspring called photorealism.

Whatever the shortcomings of pop art and photorealism as anti-abstract movements (and the shortcomings were plenty, while the anti-abstraction was more opportunistic than reasoned) they did demonstrate that realism, far from being exhausted, had 20th century potentials to continue the role it had played since antiquity as the most flexible form of expression available to artists. And that is exactly what it is turning out to be. From deadpan objectivity to intensely emotional introspection, as well as offshoots in all directions, the new realism has only begun to explore its range.

The unifying characteristic of new realist painting is an acutely observed and precisely detailed representation of the visual world in its most familiar aspects. This approach is nothing new in itself. It was adopted by, among others, the genius Jan van Eyck in the 15th century, the Dutch genre painters in the 17th, and any number of proficient academic hacks. in the 19th (who gave it a bad name in the 20th). The list could be expanded by any good undergraduate art history student and would include Dürer in the early 16th century, a supreme master to whom— hold on to your hats—Magee can be compared favorably in the best of his drawings.

Before going into that, let's say quickly that the new realism is spawning battalions of painters classifiable as neo-hack, just as abstract expressionism in its heyday spawned armies of second-, third-, and fourth rate paint slingers, daubers, drippers, and splatterers in the wake of such first-rate painters as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. It may be a little more difficult, technically, to produce a recognizable likeness of the human figure than to produce a pseudo Pollock, but second-rate realism is no better than second-rate anything else. The low-grade splatterer takes refuge within the idea that painting is an emotive impulse that can be poured straight out of the can or squeezed straight out of the tube. The low-grade realist has to work harder, but his idea that imitation of nature produces a work of art that is excellent in proportion to the accuracy of that imitation is equally misled.

It is odd, but a healthy sign, that American realists have not banded themselves into a clique as the New York School did at the Cedar Bar. For one thing, there are too many of them— thousands. Where did this one, Alan Magee, come from? Geographically, Maine is his home base. According to George Staempfli, Magee walked into the gallery one day with a portfolio of drawings, and that was that. The question is, what makes him so good?

His work as represented in his exhibition is divisible into three categories: drawings in monochrome or watercolor (so exquisitely rendered that they are brutalized in reproduction), large paintings of pebbles and stones (that unfortunately look like color photographs when reduced for illustration), and paintings capitalizing on the abstract patterns of natural geological forms. In any of the three, Magee's sheer technical skill is astounding, but in the drawings this skill combined with his special perception and transmission to the observer of the miraculous quality of natural objects is not only astounding but an intensification of our experience of the world around us.

Trying to place him, some observers have called Magee a new Andrew Wyeth, which is ridiculous from either side of the comparison. Wyeth's interest in reproducing the details of nature is generated by his response to places and people he loves enough to invest with a kind of universal goodness that overrides a persistent, all-pervading loneliness. Magee is not a Wyethesque humanitarian; he is closer to a scientist whose microscopic exploration of what he sees—a stone, a braid of hair, four stalks of asparagus, a pumpkin—is an experience so absorbing that the plain visual excitement of close observation and the equal excitement of exercising his technical prowess become indissolubly blended into a kind of philosophical statement.

It is in this respect that Magee's drawings recall Dürer's. For Dürer, the exact tracing of the veins of a leaf, the reproduction of each hair in the pelt of an animal, each with its special life as it springs from the body (as in his famous watercolor drawing of a rabbit) was a form of religious experience in a world where, Dürer thought, the artist was the recipient of divine gifts. We don't feel that way today—I take it for granted that Magee is like the rest of us—but his drawings relay a sense of the miraculousness, the incredible complication yet perfect logic in the structure of the simplest everyday things.

I have neither met nor talked to Alan Magee, and have avoided reading a paragraph in the brochure of his exhibition where, presumably, he explains his ideas as to what he is doing. It is not what an artist sets out to do, but what he actually achieves that counts, and I cannot think of another living artist whose work has exactly the quality of his. The wonderfully satisfying thing about today's realism (call it neo-realism, I suppose)is that within the great sprawling uncoordinated burgeoning growth of realistic drawing and painting across this country, first-rate work by obscure or totally unknown names keeps turning up. It is a great time for discovery.

John Canaday's latest book is What Is Art?