New Images of Humankind
Following World War II, amid a rise in totalitarianism and the specter of nuclear annihilation, artists in Europe and the United States withdrew from producing art that expressly addressed social inequities, becoming increasingly introspective in their work. While some turned to pictorial investigations based in abstraction, others focused on the body, using it as a site to map the psychological anxiety wrought by political and technological developments. This approach to figurative art, pursued by a loose confederation of artists active during the 1940s and ’50s, would come to be characterized in the United States as New Images.
In the decades that followed, figurative art was often overshadowed by the scale and drama of abstract painting. Away from the spotlight, figurative painters and sculptors persisted, seeing the 20th century as an era defined by movements focused on representation. Today, ideas about figuration have been recast as scholars and the public alike contend with questions of how bodies were, and continue to be, subject to race-, gender-, and ability-based traumas. For these artists — and for their contemporary descendants like Kehinde Wiley — rather than signifying a retreat to the interior world, figuration was a declaration of existence.