Joe Fig: Contemplation

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Joe Fig: Contemplation

ISBN: 978-1-7355856-0-4

Joe Fig: Contemplation September 1– October 17, 2020


The paintings in Contemplation present different versions of the same scene: people looking at art. Some are in galleries, others in museums. Settings run the gamut from crowded blockbuster shows to quiet and intimate portraits of individuals completely absorbed in an artwork. Begun in 2016, the series illustrates numerous exhibitions from the past few years, and chronicles Joe Fig’s travels across the country. When we contemplate an artwork, we break it down to its elements, evaluate what we see, and form opinions. We consider what is being communicated. When making something, artists frequently pause to take a step back, look, and reflect. Far from passive, contemplation is a busy action. It’s as intrinsic to the creative process as the actual physical work of making an object. As Fig says, “It’s in this moment of seeming inactivity where the artist is working the hardest.” These paintings are all the more poignant in the era of COVID-19. A visit to an exhibition was an experience that once provided a moment of escape and reflection. Now that same experience is restricted or altogether denied to us. This series of works began as an exploration of an ongoing, routine activity for members of the art-loving public. It has taken on a sense of melancholy and nostalgia, pitted against the backdrop of a pandemic. Images that once communicated open-ended moments of rumination are now charged with a sense of loss. In Fig’s words, “It will never be the same again.”

Hilma af Klint: The Ten Largest, Adulthood #6, 7 & 8/ Guggenheim, 2019. oil on linen mounted on MDF board. 18 1/4 x 22 inches (46.4 x 55.9 cm). Collection J & J Martin, Baltimore, MD.

Lucas Cranach the Elder plus Mermaid and Others/ Ringling Museum, 2020. oil on linen mounted on MDF board. 17 x 15 inches (43.2 x 38.1 cm).

Donald Judd/MoMA (Pandemic), 2020. oil on linen mounted on MDF board. 12 x 14 1/2 inches (30.5 x 36.8 cm). Collection J & J Martin, Baltimore, MD.

Amy Sherald: the heart of the matter‌/Hauser & Wirth, 2020. oil on linen mounted on MDF board. 14 x 17 inches (35.6 x 43.2 cm). Private collection.

Kota Ezawa: National Anthem/Whitney Biennial, 2020. oil on linen mounted on MDF board. 12 3/4 x 10 inches (32.4 x 25.4 cm).

Max Beckmann: 3 Self-Portraits/Met, 2019. oil on linen mounted on MDF board. 15 1/8 x 18 inches (38.4 x 45.7 cm). Private collection.

Kerry James Marshall: The Studio/Met Breuer, 2020. oil on linen mounted on MDF board. 15 3/4 x 17 1/4 inches (40 x 43.8 cm). Collection Randy Shull and Hedy Fischer.

Richard Serra: Reverse Curve/Gagosian, 2019. oil on linen mounted on MDF board. 16 x 16 inches (40.6 x 40.6 cm). Private collection, New York.

Honoré Daumier, Well, if you look very closely, you might end up finding some quality! The color seems to be good, from “Sketches from the Salon,” published in Le Charivari, June 16, 1865. lithograph and pen and brown ink on newsprint; first state of two (proof). image: 9 x 8 inches (22.8 x 20.3 cm). Collection The Metropolitan Museum of Art / The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1956.

Charles Willson Peale, The Artist in His Museum, 1822. oil on canvas. 103 3/4 x 79 7/8 inches (263.5 x 202.9 cm). Collection Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts / Gift of Mrs. Sarah Harrison (The Joseph Harrison, Jr. Collection).

Joe Fig Contemplates the Art World Brian Boucher

In 2016, when Joe Fig started on a new body of paintings sited in museums, those institutions had problems enough as it was. Activists demanded that they repatriate objects misappropriated from their home countries. Critics pointed out that their boards were populated by unsavory characters who earned their wealth through objectionable companies or used it to support hateful politicians. They occasionally wandered into red-hot racial conflicts. And a huge influx of visitors had so overcrowded the galleries that they occasionally broke the art, when they weren’t just making it impossible to actually see. But all that is prologue. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit American museums, the threats became existential. The International Council on Museums has predicted that one in eight worldwide might never reopen. So Fig’s paintings, which show museumgoers in seemingly hushed galleries, present art lovers with a vision at once of the Before Times and of a devoutly-to-be-wished-for future, in which we might enjoy art cheek by jowl without endangering our lives. Many of Fig’s paintings show the most acclaimed shows of recent years, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s beloved Kerry James Marshall retrospective, or the sleeper Hilma af Klint blockbuster at the Guggenheim. Putting the finest point on the new reality is a painting of a sculpture in the Donald Judd exhibition that opened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York just days before the museum closed; as in the now-darkened museum, there are no viewers. Museums’ collections figure into these canvases too, like the quietly wonderful Alice Neel painting of Andy Warhol at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the equally understated 1660 Rembrandt self-portrait at the Met. They also reach further back, to a reflexive tradition of renditions of the public’s encounter with art. In their incisive caricatures of various Parisian socioeconomic classes visiting the Salon exhibitions, for example, nineteenth-century artists like Honoré Daumier poked

fun at the crowds, on the lookout for aesthetic scandal just as much as they were seeking edification. In the U.S., meanwhile, artist Charles Willson Peale threw open the doors of the nation’s first museum in 1805— fully sixty-five years before the Metropolitan Museum’s founding—with a mission to educate the populace of the new republic. His 1822 self-portrait The Artist in His Museum shows him beckoning the viewer-as-public to enter his museum, complete with a mastodon skeleton that sends one viewer into a rapture. Jumping ahead to the 1980s, Thomas Struth began photographing tourists at some of the world’s most popular museums, aiming “to retrieve masterpieces from the fate of fame, to recover them from their status as iconic paintings.” Why have artists continued to interrogate this subject? There may be as many reasons as there are artists, but at least the given examples suggest a dissatisfaction with the habits of the viewing public, combined with a hope in the viewer’s ability to summon forth a true engagement with artworks, rather than, as we so often see museum visitors doing, reading the label, glancing at the art, reading the label again, and moving on. In this context, Fig’s paintings are kind to their subjects. Barely anyone holds a phone; no one here is going to, for example, accidentally smash a Yayoi Kusama pumpkin while lining up a selfie, as happened at the Hirshhorn in 2017. These people are actually given to, as in the show’s title, contemplation. The peaceful scenes hark back to the late eighties, when Fig started art school in New York (where he earned a BFA and an MFA at the School of Visual Arts). Having come from a family that wasn’t full of art lovers, he got swept up in the romance of museums and galleries at a time when, on the whole, they were quieter places. Two of the people studying the Rembrandt self-portrait actually lean in, literally viewing the work from their tip-toes. Fig told me about seeing a woman transfixed by the self-portrait, then wandering off, only to return a half-hour later to find her still staring at the Dutchman’s unmistakable face. Talk about contemplation.

But it’s worthwhile, when considering these canvases, to think about art lovers who are a bit more skeptical about museums, too. Fred Wilson, Andrea Fraser and Hans Haacke might be in sympathy with the Futurist Manifesto (1909), which called upon artists to “Set fire to the library shelves! Turn aside the canals to flood the museums!” In fact, sometimes vocal critics of the institution in general, and even of the very ones Fig has painted, are just off-camera, as it were. In 2019, precisely when Fig painted a woman viewing Ben Shahn’s The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti at the Whitney Museum, protesters would get the museum’s vice chairman, Warren Kanders, to resign over his ownership of a company that makes tear gas that had been used on, among others, asylum-seekers at the U.S. border. A century before, death sentences for the anarchist duo inspired protests from Dubai to Johannesburg. While history here may not be repeating itself exactly, it certainly reverberates. In the same year, just a few miles away at the Metropolitan Museum, protestors staged die-ins in the museum’s Sackler wing over the museum’s acceptance of the family that gained its wealth from Oxycontin. At the same time, Fig painted a pair of viewers studying a Vija Celmins seascape a few blocks away at the Met Breuer. For Fig, museums are spaces where there is room for dialogue, dispute and reflection, the last being the most interesting for him. One sees parallels with the work of Louise Lawler, who shares Fig’s interest in showing artworks as they exist in the world. While Fig isn’t thinking primarily of these critiques, they are the unavoidable context.

generously extend that moment. Fig knows a bit about the lives of artworks in institutions, as his own works are represented in collections like the Harvard University Art Museums, New York’s New Museum, and the Toledo Museum of Art. A figurative painter himself, Fig’s tastes lean to the figurative, and many of these works show figures looking at figures, people studying people, portraits of people pondering portraits of people. Presenting straight-on views of the artworks, they mostly show gallerygoers’ backs, as if exploring how much expressiveness can come through in a rear view; posture and proximity to the paintings suggest degrees of alertness. Whether in overcoats or denim shorts and flip-flops, their clothes speak of the season. When he’s painting a coloristically downbeat Suzan Frecon abstraction, a viewer’s bright plaid shirt sets up a startling contrast.

At the Whitney, a handful of observers studies Rudolf Stingel’s self-portrait lying in a hotel bed, seemingly despondent after the opening of one of his own shows. (There is a nice bit of layering, as we stare at Fig’s small painting, created from his own small photographs of Stingel’s enormous painting, which in turn was based on a photograph by Stingel’s friend and fellow-artist Sam Samore.) Fig’s painting of Neel’s portrait of Andy Warhol is an artist’s portrait of an artist’s portrait of an artist. You might revel in the occasional art history injoke, like the title Arrangement in Grey and Black (harking back to James Abbott McNeil Whistler’s portrait of his mother) attached to the painting of two women studying a gray Vija Celmins at the Met Breuer: darkThe Contemplation paintings build upon an earlier clad, gray-haired, standing on a gray stone floor. In body of work. Well over a decade ago, facing a canvas after canvas, the figures in the paintings gaze creative block, Fig embarked on a project of interout at us, as if to wryly comment on their own fame or viewing fellow artists in their studios and documenting as if catching us spying on the museumgoers. Some their workspaces, even down to taking specific meaare self-portraits—Max Beckmann peers at us, Grant surements. He then created diminutive, diorama-like sculptures of the studios, typically including his own tiny Wood appraises us, Lucian Freud stares us down. Fig’s presentation of Marshall’s allegory of the artist’s studio, reproductions of their works in progress; these works meanwhile, slyly nods to Fig’s own study of the site of are often displayed alongside recordings of the interviews. They have been shown at galleries and museums the artist’s labors. throughout the U.S., and two books resulted, Inside The paintings end up testifying to a kind of fellowship the Painter’s Studio and Inside the Artist’s Studio, of artists, formed by Fig’s long admiration of his fellow published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2009 creators, and deepened by the extended study of the and 2015 respectively. work that is involved in representing them. The man studying Neel’s portrait of Warhol is Fig’s friend, The Contemplation canvases show artworks in fellow-artist and gallery mate Alois Kronschlaeger; later stages of their lives, at which time winding up in a seemingly absorbed in looking, he absent-mindedly museum may seem the best possible outcome. Even strokes his jaw. (An artist in an artist’s painting of an artso, since the vast majority of museums’ holdings end ist’s painting of an artist!) In one instance, that fraternity up eternally in storage, some of the paintings hanging of artists takes a literal form through a chance meeting: on museum walls in Fig’s canvases are enjoying a rare while admiring Barkley Hendricks’s 1978 painting moment of public glory; by representing them even of a duo of APB’s (Afro-Parisian Brothers) at the Yale in thumbnail version, Fig’s paintings could be said to

Tony Oursler: Contemplation, 2013. oil on canvas. 36 x 48 inches (91.4 x 121.9 cm). Private collection.

University Art Gallery, Fig found himself standing behind a pair of cousins, the poet Reginald Dwayne Betts and the artist Titus Kaphar, leading to a rich conversation about painting techniques. Fig’s paintings are set in an era when museums are aiming to remedy centuries of neglect of artists of color such as Hendricks. But those efforts have come to seem paltry as long-simmering racial conflict has erupted since Fig embarked on this group of work. Police brutality and racial injustice have sent millions to the streets after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on Memorial Day, and while museums were already taking small steps toward “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” as the mantra goes, the current tipping point has inspired many to call on them to stand for justice in much more dramatic ways.

paintings do tend to demonstrate the relative rarity of shows of artists of color and of audiences of color in the mainstream art world. And while this is not Fig’s main purpose in presenting these images, that fact does not go unnoticed by him. His painting of Gagosian Gallery focuses on a Black security guard who stands watch over an enormous Richard Serra sculpture—or perhaps he stands under it. While he may be there to protect the work, its looming mass seems to threaten him, as if it wanted to crowd him out of the frame.

Fig’s paintings and their peaceful galleries don’t go out of their way to take political positions. He’s more interested in the life of the artwork, in the enchantment and dialogue those works can create, in our responsibility to engage in that dialogue avidly. But just as the museumgoers study the artworks on the walls and arrive at their own conclusions, Fig asks us to study With welcome exceptions like the abundance of Black his paintings equally closely, to think about these viewers at the Met’s Marshall survey, at Hauser & Wirth’s institutions, and to keep in mind that someone else Amy Sherald exhibition and at Sikkema Jenkins gallery’s may, in turn, be looking over our shoulders. Leonardo Drew opening, the scenes rendered in Fig’s

Henry and Haim Steinbach, Serralves, Portugal, 2019. oil on canvas. 12 x 14 inches (30.5 x 35.6 cm).

Alice Neel: Andy Warhol/Whitney, 2020. oil on linen mounted on MDF board. 14 x 11 inches (35.6 x 27.9 cm).

Suzan Frecon: Book of Paint, Version 3/Zwirner, 2019. oil on linen mounted on MDF board. 15 x 12 inches (38.1 x 30.5 cm).

Vija Celmins/Met Breuer (Arrangement in Grey and Black), 2019. oil on linen mounted on MDF board. 13 x 10 inches (33 x 25.4 cm). Private collection, New York.

Barkley Hendricks: APB’s (Afro-Parisian Brothers) with Titus Kaphar and Reginald Dwayne Betts/Yale, 2019. oil on linen mounted on MDF board. 15 1/2 x 12 3/8 inches (39.4 x 31.4 cm). Private collection, New York.

Pal, Sargent, Carolus-Duran, Carpeaux, Alexandre Dumas/The Clark, 2019. oil on linen mounted on MDF board. 17 x 16 inches (43.2 x 40.6 cm). Private collection.

Ben Shahn: The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti/ Whitney, 2019. oil on linen mounted on MDF board. 17 x 16 inches (43.2 x 40.6 cm).

Grant Wood: Self-Portrait and Appraisal/ Whitney, 2019. oil on linen mounted on MDF board. 13 x 13 inches (33 x 33 cm). Private collection.

Vik Muniz: Double Mona Lisa (Peanut Butter & Jelly)/ Sarasota Art Museum, 2020. oil on linen mounted on MDF board. 14 1/2 x 12 1/2 inches (36.8 x 31.8 cm).

Artist’s Choice: Amy Sillman—The Shape of Shape (Frankenthaler, Bontecou, Oehlen, Müller, Duchamp, Fecteau, Hesse, Greene)/MoMA, 2020. oil on linen mounted on MDF board. 14 1/2 x 13 1/2 inches (36.8 x 34.3 cm).

Marsden Hartley: Shell/Ringling Museum, 2020. oil on linen mounted on MDF board. 12 1/2 x 10 inches (31.8 x 25.4 cm).

Rembrandt/Met, 2019. oil on linen mounted on MDF board. 13 1/2 x 11 inches (34.3 x 27.9 cm).

Monroe and Bob y Madrazo/The Clark, 2020. oil on linen mounted on MDF board. 12 1/4 x 14 3/4 inches (31.1 x 37.5 cm). Private collection.

Jacob Lawrence: Migration Series/MoMA, 2020. oil on linen mounted on MDF board. 13 x 15 1/2 inches (33 x 39.4 cm).

Susan Hall: New York Portrait/Whitney, 2016. oil on linen mounted on MDF board. 12 x 9 inches (30.5 x 22.9 cm). Collection Bush Helzberg.

Turrell: MASS MoCA, 2018. oil on canvas. 20 x 22 inches (50.8 x 55.9 cm). Private collection.

Opening: Leonardo Drew, Sikkema Jenkins, 2016-17. oil on linen. 14 1/2 x 28 inches (36.8 x 71.1 cm).

Rudolf Stingel: Untitled (After Sam)/Whitney, 2016-19. oil on linen mounted on MDF board. 17 3/4 x 17 1/4 inches (45.1 x 43.8 cm). Collection Jeff and Nancy Baumann.

Unfinished: Federico Barocci/Met Breuer, 2016-17. oil on linen mounted on MDF board. 12 3/4 x 15 inches (32.4 x 38.1 cm). Collection Bush Helzberg.

Eric Fischl: RiftRaft/Skarstedt, 2016. oil on linen mounted on MDF board. 17 x 22 inches (43.2 x 55.9 cm). Private collection.

Hilma af Klint/Guggenheim (Overview), 2019. oil on linen mounted on MDF board. 19 x 24 inches (48.3 x 61 cm). Private collection.

Howard Kanovitz: New Yorkers/The Whitney, 2016. oil on linen mounted on MDF board. 17 1/4 x 18 1/8 inches (43.8 x 46 cm). Collection Bush Helzberg.

Three Portraits: Freud, Freud, Peyton/Met Breuer, 2016. oil on linen mounted on MDF board. 9 x 12 inches (22.9 x 30.5 cm). Private collection.

New Britain Museum of American Art (Charlie and Henry), 2019. oil on linen. 14 x 14 inches (35.6 x 35.6 cm). Collection Rosie Walker.

Opening: Donald Moffett, any fallow field, 2016-17. oil on linen. 15 x 21 inches (38.1 x 53.3 cm).

Ahearn, Muniz, Louis: Orlando Museum of Art, 2019. oil on linen mounted on MDF board. 14 1/2 x 11 1/2 inches (36.8 x 29.2 cm). Collection Bush Helzberg.

Fairfield Porter: The Screen Porch/Whitney, 2016. oil on linen mounted on MDF board. 16 x 15 1/2 inches (40.6 x 39.4 cm). Private collection.

Joe Fig (b. 1968, Seaford, NY) has produced a diverse body of work encompassing painting, sculpture, photography, and drawing, in which he examines the role of the artist, the creative process, and the self-made universe of the artist’s studio. His work has been exhibited at the Orlando Museum of Art, Chazen Museum of Art, Fleming Museum, Bass Museum of Art, Parrish Art Museum, Toledo Museum of Art, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and New Britain Museum of American Art. He is the author of two critically acclaimed books, Inside the Artist’s Studio (2015) and Inside the Painter’s Studio (2009). Fig received his BFA and MFA from the School of Visual Arts, New York. He is the Department Head of Fine Arts and Visual Studies at Ringling College of Art + Design. Fig currently works and lives in Sarasota, Florida.

Photography credits: Sarah Comegno: 47 Joe Fig: 4, 37, 79 John Muggenborg: 9-11, 15, 18-19, 24-25, 29-31, 34-35, 41, 52-53, 75

Cristin Tierney Gallery 219 Bowery, Floor 2 New York, NY 10002 212.594.0550