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A Year of Magical Figurative Art

2017 was a strikingly strong year for all kinds of figurative representation and portraiture: contemporary, midcentury, imagined, caricatured, oil-painted, and drawn.

Robin F. Williams, “Your Good Taste is Showing” (2017); acrylic, airbrush, and oil on canvas, 72 x 72 inches (copyright Robin Williams, courtesy P.P.O.W)

The human form was a popular and generative subject in 2017, after years when it felt like enthusiasm for figurative painting and drawing was muted, at best. From Hilton Als’s intimate curation of Alice Neel’s portraits of friends and neighbors from her half-century living in Upper Manhattan to Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s utterly contemporary, imaginative, haunting conceptual portraits, figuration — old and new — was everywhere and somehow constantly fresh. Here are five of our favorites.

Nina Chanel Abney, Seized the Imagination at Jack Shainman Gallery and Safe House at Mary Boone Gallery

Nina Chanel Abney, “Penny Dreadful” (2017), acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 84 x 120 in (courtesy Jack Shainman Gallery, New York)

November 9–December 20 and November 9–December 22

The figures in Nina Chanel Abney’s concurrent shows were something like snapshot allegories of our precise cultural moment. The paintings are full of sharp edges and confusing scenes; language is abstracted or decontextualized or thrown suddenly into stark, violent relief. Race, gender, and power collide as figures are unable to escape the frames into which she’s fit them. Motifs emerge and recede and repeat. Crammed together into scenes of chaos, confusion, or conflict; holstering guns and framed by smart phones; covered by words of horror, surprise, or resignation; looking like cops and Trump and us, Abney’s figures embody and evoke all the tension of intersecting narratives that make America great and terrible. —Laila Pedro

Alice Neel, Uptown at David Zwirner

Alice Neel, “Ballet Dancer” (1950); oil on canvas, 20 1/8 x 42 1/8 in (51.1 x 107 cm); Hall Collection (© The Estate of Alice Neel, courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London and Victoria Miro, London)

February 23–April 22

Hilton Als, one of our preeminent chroniclers of faces and presences, finds something of a kindred spirit in the powerful presence of Alice Neel, who if she were still alive, would make a wonderful subject for one of Als’s Instagram portraits. Als curated a selection of Neel’s paintings from her time living in Upper Manhattan that show her striking, relentless curiosity for the people around her and make her neighbors feel as vibrant and themselves as though they’d just left her studio. Hardly sentimental, Neel’s unflinchingly direct gaze is nonetheless imbued with a deep quality of sympathy, a palpable need to get at the fleshy humanity of her subjects. Sometimes these seem so organic it’s easy to forget how ingeniously they are constructed. But take 1950’s “Ballet Dancer”: a young man’s powerful slimness belies the languor of his pose: a single forceful, pale vertical stripe emphasizes the strength of his bony shin; curvy, precisely shaded swipes of black draw his hamstring forward and out from the sharp protuberance of his ischial tuberosity. Neel’s superb color sense emerges in harmonious palettes, as in 1976’s “Benjamin,” where the cool hues in the child’s skin echo his shirt, which in turn point to the background color, yielding a stunningly balanced, utterly unified composition that nonetheless feels completely natural and alive. In Als’s curation, which foregrounds Neel’s portraits of people of color, the writer’s and the painter’s shared abiding fascination with other human beings shines and inspires. —LP

Toyin Ojih Odutolah: To Wander Determined at the Whitney Museum of American Art

Toyin Ojih Odutola, “Representatives of State” (2016-17); pastel, charcoal and pencil on paper, 75 1/2 × 50 in (191.8 × 127 cm) (©Toyin Ojih Odutola; courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery)

October 20, 2017–February 25, 2018

Ojih Odutola, a virtuoso of drawing who first came to significant recognition for her sinewy, mysterious ballpoint portraits, has a gem of an exhibition in the ground-floor gallery at the Whitney. Her luxurious, cerebral portraits of members of two fictional Nigerian aristocratic clans are rendered in uncanny palettes of charcoal, pastel, and pencil. She is an exhaustive researcher, chronicler, and writer; the fully conceived, extensively worked out backstories she’s created for her subjects give their poses of ennui, repose, or patrician melancholy a vast emotional range. She adds complex tonal layers of affective nuance to their superbly rich surroundings, which themselves are bursting with art historical references and a wealth of knowledge. —LP

Robin F. Williams, Your Good Taste is Showing at PPOW Gallery

Robin F. Williams, “Burn” (2017); acrylic, airbrush, oil, and oil stick on canvas; 50 x 48 in (copyright Robin Williams, courtesy P.P.O.W)

October 12–November 11

There’s so much to love in Robin F. Williams’s colorful, bizarre, and beautiful portraits of women, which she based largely on advertisements from the 1970s that, in turn, drew on art historical tropes and images from Cézanne and Seurat to Vermeer. The works in this show combined an impressive number of techniques, including evocatively textured oil paint, airbrush, and dyed canvas, creating surface tensions that Williams cleverly used to make her images all the more evocative. In one of the show’s many remarkable works, “Burn” (2017), a nude female figure with a popping pink-orange sunburn sits awkwardly as if shielding herself from the setting sun. Between the airbrushed gradient of the sky, the painfully rough painted surface of the figure’s glowing skin, and the lines and curves that guide your eye to the sole of her upturned, foreshortened foot, you could spend lots of time staring at this work before realizing that the figure is sitting on a tombstone. Each painting here rewarded prolonged viewing, revealing additional layers of its profound weirdness and new tricks in Williams’s arsenal. —Benjamin Sutton

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Under-song for a Cipher at the New Museum

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, “Ever The Women Watchful” (2017); oil on linen, 78 3/4 × 51 3/8 in (courtesy the artist; Corvi-Mora, London; and Jack Shainman Gallery)

May 3–September 3

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye makes haunting, sophisticated, penetrating portraits of imagined subjects. The figures she conceives are placed in situations that feel profoundly human, often as though we have found the subjects in the middle of an action that feels simultaneously quotidian and alien. They are reclining or standing, grouped or pictured alone. The vanishing depths of her backgrounds hold them suspended in a nearly supernatural relationship to the spaces they anchor. The oil paintings are rendered with supremely assured, luscious brushwork and vibrant, unimaginably deep hues. They share a transcendent, commanding, engaging presence, as though Yiadom-Boakye has willed her subjects into being, enfleshing them that they might speak to our own minds and imaginations. —LP

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