ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — For most of the 20th century, a Grand Canyon of a divide loomed between representationalism and abstraction.
Artists were expected to choose one side or the other; some professors at prestigious art schools even discouraged their students from creating figurative work. Many artists abandoned anything resembling realism for a formalist exploration of color, line and shape devoid of stories or feelings.
From the late 1960s to the early 1980s, a group of California artists – several of them with New Mexico connections – rebelled, refusing to take sides. The trend paralleled the anti-establishment Beatnik lifestyle developing in San Francisco.
Open at the Albuquerque Museum, “Cartoon Formalism” examines Funk Art, a combination of both styles transformed into intensely personal imagery. Curated from the permanent collection, the exhibition of prints contrasts the light-heartedness of a cartoon with sometimes serious subjects.
The show boasts some big names: Andy Warhol, Fritz Scholder, Richard Diebenkorn and more.
Artists borrowed the term “funk” from New Orleans jazz of the 1920s. Its soulful blues combined joy and sorrow within the same song.
The funk aesthetic found its roots in northern California amid Bay Area figurative painters like Joan Brown and Diebenkorn, and in Los Angeles with John Altoon and Warhol. Their work is both ironic and playful, contrasted with the abstract expressionism then triumphing in New York through artists such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.
The subject matter ranges from pets to cowboys to social satire.
Scholder’s 1978 lithograph “Happy Skies to You” stands in ironic contrast to his more famous paintings of Native Americans.
“He started in California and then he came here to participate in the program at IAIA,” (Santa Fe’s Institute of American Indian Arts, where he taught), curator Josie Lopez said. “It’s not titled Roy Rogers, but that’s what it feels like to me.”
The flatness of the image is almost cartoon-like.
“When you think of the conversations around what is Native American art, this is very different,” Lopez continued. “He’s not just stuck in one thing he’s known for. I think he’s making fun of that kind of imagery that celebrates the mythology of the West.”
Roy DeForest’s untitled 1980 lithograph shows an angry dog against a backdrop of confusion – you can spot rabbits, faces and birds amid the chaos.
“The dog has an expression; he has a personality,” Lopez said. “He’s confronting the viewer. It’s up to the viewer to decide what the confusion is about.”
Altoon’s anthropomorphic shapes defy interpretation, with forms that might resemble an arm, a leg and a tail.
“They make you think they are creatures, but they’re completely abstract forms,” Lopez said. “It’s kind of an iconic piece for what the exhibit’s about.”
Warhol added what appears to be a knotted rope to a bucolic image of a lily in a vase.
“He infuses that kind of a still life with color and line in the same way an abstract painter would,” Lopez said.
Carol Summers’ “Burning Mountain” may or may not refer to an Australian mountain, she added. Summers was a world-wide traveler. His technique of soaking wood block in ink produced bold shapes with saturated color.
Diebenkorn’s “Untitled (Nude, Legs Crossed)” offers a wink of humor with its representational portrait of a reclining woman. The abstract expressionist nearly lost his University of New Mexico master’s in fine arts degree for refusing to produce anything “realistic,” until the modernist painter and UNM professor Raymond Jonson intervened.
“To include him in a way that shows an actual figure is really fun,” Lopez said.”Some of them were able to say not everything has to be abstract.”