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Art Trends 2022: Figurative Art – a return to representation

Alex Katz, Blue Umbrella 2 (1972)   -   Copyright  2020 Alex Katz, Artists Rights Society, New York
Alex Katz, Blue Umbrella 2 (1972) – Copyright 2020 Alex Katz, Artists Rights Society, New York

Buffeted by the arrival of abstract art in the 20th century and threatened with being rendered irrelevant by much of contemporary art, figurative artists have long been accustomed to having to fight their corner.

In recent years, however, the increasing prominence of new figurative work - or at least pieces that contain strong figurative elements - has been a notable feature in exhibitions at top galleries and institutions. The effect has been such that many industry players have talked about a ‘resurgence’ in figurative art.

In truth, this is a genre that has never gone away and certainly hasn’t buckled to the recurring threat that “painting is dead”. Even at times when non-representational art has dominated the limelight, new trends in figurative art such as pop art and photorealism, and prominent individual artists - from Lucien Freud and David Hockney, through to Michaël Borremans and Wilhelm Sasnal - have ensured ongoing relevance. That being said, it’s clear that figurative work is currently basking in the art world’s sunlit uplands.

High profile figurative exhibitions that have recently opened and will continue into 2022 include a major double David Hockney exhibition at the Bozar Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels (until 23 January); displays of work by Jenny Saville at Florence’s Museo Novecento and other venues around the Renaissance city (until 20 February); and Tate Modern’s large-scale show of recent work by Lubaina Himid, alongside highlights from her career (until 3 July).

In June 2022, one of Spain’s leading art museums, the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, will stage the country’s first ever retrospective for the veteran figurative maestro Alex Katz (b. 1927). Heralded as a precursor to Pop Art, Katz first emerged with his bold figurative style at the height of Abstract Expressionism and is well versed in how the reception for new figurative art has waxed and waned over the past half-century or more.

Cocktail Party by Alex KatzCopyright 2020 Alex Katz/ARS New York-8c46-55e2-b6b7-9032690d59ec-6266318
Cocktail Party by Alex Katz – Copyright 2020 Alex Katz/ARS New York

In an interview with the UK’s Apollo Magazine in 2014, Katz noted that for much of his career people in Europe had rejected him as either a bad Pop artist or a bad photorealist. “My work: he told interviewer Matthew Sperling, “fell right in between the cracks of those two.”

Having seen that perception begin to shift from the late 1990s onwards, Katz has now become used to seeing his work regularly exhibited at galleries across the continent. The Thyssen-Bornemisza exhibition, though, will undoubtedly mark a particular highpoint, with the artist securely elevated out of the cracks to be celebrated at the pinnacle of Europe’s art world. It will also likely come as a relief when it finally opens, with the original summer 2020 opening postponed due to COVID-19.

Summarising Katz’s place within art history, Leticia de Cos, the exhibition’s technical curator, notes that “Katz is a figurative artist and this is a continuation through all the history of art that does not seem to end shortly. There will always be artists who follow this path. His subjects are the traditional ones: landscapes, single and group portraits, flowers. Katz’s approach to these subjects matches very well with the language of visual culture today - advertisements, bright colours, plain areas of colour.”

Alex Katz, 'Sunset #6' 2008Copyright Alex Katz/ARS New York
Alex Katz, 'Sunset #6' 2008 – Copyright Alex Katz/ARS New York