Modern and Contemporary Realisms

August 6, 2013 through June 22, 2014
Ellen Johnson Gallery

Despite the abstract currents that have dominated much of modern and contemporary art, realism has always remained present. This exhibition, featuring works from the AMAM’s permanent collection, explores varied approaches to representational subject matter from the beginning of the 20th century until today. Most closely associated with the direct naturalism of the 19th-century French Realist movement, “realism” takes on many forms in the modern and contemporary period. In contrast to traditional interpretations of painting’s role as a window onto a believable world, most of the artists here are not concerned with creating truthful representations of actual people, places, or objects, but rather filter their subjects through their own particular style or aesthetic.

In the early 20th century, European avant-garde movements such as Fauvism, Expressionism, and Cubism diverged from naturalism while still depicting recognizable subject matter, rendering the traditional artistic genres of landscape, portraiture, and still life in an abstracted or stylized manner. The surrealists, on the other hand, looked beyond the real to the imaginary, and created implausible yet often highly illusionistic, dream-like compositions. Faithful mimesis became the goal of the later Photorealists, who sought to recreate photography’s appearance of verism through detailed, illusionistic compositions, often of mundane subject matter.

Realism’s role in modern and contemporary art has not been dictated by aesthetic motivations alone, but has often been tied directly to the political or social climate. In the years following World War I, for example, many former leaders of the avant-garde turned to classicism and naturalism as part of a “return to order” in response to the turmoil of war. Official regimes have likewise recognized the powerful potential of realism as a political tool, exemplified by the propagandistic socialist realism employed by the U.S.S.R. and China as a direct means of communication with the masses.

The many realisms of modern and contemporary art on view here reveal a plethora of techniques and styles, all united through their origin in a recognizable subject, but realized with varying degrees of naturalism.

Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Denise Birkhofer organized this exhibition, with assistance from Curator of Academic Programs Liliana Milkova.

James Rosenquist (American, b. 1933)
Nails, from the Snow Fence Series, 1973
Acrylic on canvas
Gift of Nina and Michael Sundell, 1991.38
Art © James Rosenquist/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY