Essays

Figure It Out

On the Possibilities of Political Figuration

Julia Bryan-Wilson

One of the problems with much recent political art is that artists seem to be trying to achieve a fixed style for political work.
—Douglas Crimp

When Douglas Crimp noted in a roundtable discussion in 1984 that some artists invested in political work were adopting a "fixed style," he was referring to what he perceived as a troublesome consolida­tion of formal elements that "tends to reduce the work to a general­ized politicized statement, rather than one of real specificity."1 Crimp's point is well taken, and we might extend his critique to institutions and to art history; museums and critics often do their own "fixing" of styles by categorizing artists within movements in order to produce manageable taxonomies, even as artists themselves pursue unruly, multivalent practices that span a range of apparently contradictory genres. This problem is especially acute when artists who are considered "radical" or progressive also pursue stylistic modes that have fallen out of political favor or have been cast as outdated—in particular, representational forms.

Since the 1980s, many aspects of figuration have been viewed with suspicion; this is due in part to the rise of highly valued neo-expressionist painting in those years, which was widely under­stood as one facet of a conservative backlash against more obdurate and potentially more difficult-to-sell minimalist and conceptualist works. The concomitant art-critical swerve sharply against referen­tial legibility was encapsulated in Benjamin H. D. Buchloh's seminal article from 1981 on the upsurge of figuration in European painting starting in the early twentieth century, "Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression: Notes on the Return of Representation in European Painting."2 Buchloh's historically specific discussion regarding the waning of abstraction and the implementation of "outright authori­tarian styles of representation" from World War I to neo-expressionism has been taken as a global condemnation of any kind of mimetic reference as pandering to the market.3 Yet many artists who have been deeply involved in the development of the dovetailing discourses of appropriation and institutional critique have employed figura­tion, reshaping its ideological contours in the process.

In what follows, I track the use of figuration by Adrian Piper, Robert Gober, Sue Williams, and David Wojnarowicz to contend that these vocally feminist and queer artists have utilized drawn and painted representation as a specifically polemical resource. I focus on a small number of images, moving episodically via an associative logic rather than following chronology in order to ask a series of open questions that, following Crimp, aims not to "fix" any one political style: What is at stake when figuration is deployed by artists ostensibly categorized as "conceptual"? What happens when the material specificity of line, tone, and composition—often caricatured as regressively formalist—reemerge as significant terms for feminist and queer artists? And how have contemporary dis­courses on "the body" in the past few decades (as diseased, disci­plined by power, under siege, or anxious) informed the changing reception of figuration?4

It has been difficult for art history to assimilate the figurative work of an avowedly conceptual artist such as Adrian Piper, who has painted since the mid-1960s. Her Multichrome Mom and Dad (1966), an acrylic-on-canvas portrait of her parents, reminds us that the "monochrome"—a major catchphrase for modernism5—is also loaded with racial connotations. In this work she used both a black-and-white palette (around the edges of the image) and col­ored pigments (in a rectangular window in the center of the image) to depict, in multichrome, a mixed-race couple. Such a painting flies in the face of evaluations of Piper that focus mainly on her work in performance. Kobena Mercer has stated, "Piper's art has been fiercely antioptical from the start."6 But there is nothing "antiopti­cal" about Piper's careful attention to framing, visual balance, and hue here—rather, she cannily mobilizes the opticality of modernist painting to highlight the ocular elements of racialized recognition.7

To be fair to Mercer, Multichrome Mom and Dad is an early work, yet Piper has consistently continued to display her skills as a student of the human form, including in Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Negroid Features (1981) and, most notably, in the Vanilla Night­mares series, begun in 1986.8 In these works, charcoal and oil crayon drawings of bodies and faces cover pages of the New York Times, their expressions and body parts responding to both the form of the newspaper and its content, with its stories of white farmers in Zimbabwe and updates about interest rates. In Vanilla Nightmares #20 (1989), Piper's black faces with white eyes echo the photo­graph of South African miners on the cover of the newspaper's Week in Review section from July 27, 1986. Hands appear to cradle or support the boxed-off lead article about US sanctions against apartheid, complete with photos of Ronald Reagan and Desmond Tutu, as graphic depictions of male and female sexual organs teem in the lower third of the image.

Combining the techniques of mass-media appropriation with her lushly hand-drawn figures, Piper resists any attempts to box her in to a firmly "antioptical" regime. In Vanilla Nightmares #20, medium matters: charcoal (with its own racialized connotations) is a nimble vehicle for her almost iconic forms, gathered together with mouths open as if in a chorus of protest. It may seem an obvious point, but drawing and painting allow for invention, including the opportunity to signify "bodies" en masse in a nonspecific manner, rather than tethering the figure indexically, as can be the case with a photograph, to "these particular bodies." Other artists since the 1960s, like Leon Golub and Ida Applebroog, have turned to figura­tion because of its ability to blur the lines between the recognizable and the fantastical. As they depict characters that move in and out of the known world and present figures whose very blankness becomes a screen for the viewer's projection, their canvases have the potency of dreams so vivid they feel real. They are also distinctly politically oriented, as works like Golub's Mercenaries IV (1980) lay bare the interpenetration of violence, domination, and masculinity. Apple­broog's gridded Couple I (1983) repeats a pair of schematic figures—a man and a woman seen in profile—whose gestures take on different affective valences as their bodies shift from the vertical to the horizontal and as they are given a variety of formal treat­ments: outlined, inked in, silhouetted. The generality of their faces opens up interpretative space: is this an embrace or an assault? 

Vanilla Nightmares #20, by Adrian Piper, 1989
Adrian Piper, 
Vanilla Nightmares #20, 
1989

Critics have castigated Piper's Vanilla Nightmares series, how­ever, for precisely the way it portrays bodies with a mythic nondifferentiation. Wrote Michael Brenson: "Her images are phantoms, often larger than the white people in the advertisements, indeed often larger than life, with no individuality. They are little more than forces of lubriciousness, potency, envelopment and night."9 Brenson misses the point. Piper's drawings respond to the purportedly objec­tive reporting of the Times, surfacing repressed collective imaginings; they are meant to articulate unspoken fears about blackness, con­trol, and sex. As the artist has commented: "Many of these drawings utilize the iconography of outlaw sexuality in order to call attention to the distinction between force and power (thus the term 'vanilla' originally refers to 'vanilla sex')."10 Perhaps one of the phobias about figuration is that it is not "vanilla" but dives into the realm of messy carnality, including a close association with the artist's own touch, an association that must be, like a fetish, disavowed. 

Excerpted from Take It or Leave It: Institution, Image, Ideology. Copyright © 2014 by the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center, Inc. Published by DelMonico Books, an imprint of Prestel. The full essay can be found in the exhibition catalogue, available here.


  • Douglas Crimp, in Yve-Alain Bois, Douglas Crimp, and Rosalind Krauss, "A Conversation with Hans Haacke" (1984), reprinted in October: The First Decade, ed. Annette Michelson et al. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987), 199.
  • Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, "Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression: Notes on the Return of Representation in European Painting," October, no. 16 (Spring 1981): 39–68.
  • Ibid., 40. Recent scholarship has reexamined figurative impulses in the twentieth century and come to different conclusions; for instance, Devin Fore's look at interwar representation claims that it was far from regressive and potentially laid the ground for later postmodern practices. Devin Fore, Realism after Modernism: The Rehumanization of Art and Literature (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012).
  • Susan Sontag wrote an early text regarding the anxiety surrounding bodies in the time of AIDS, AIDS and Its Metaphors (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1989). Since the early 1990s, thinkers within queer theory and feminism have been at the forefront of contesting the ostensibly "naturalized" body; one influential example is Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex" (New York: Routledge, 1993).
  • See Thierry de Duve, "The Monochrome and the Blank Canvas," in Kant after Duchamp (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), 199–279.
  • Kobena Mercer, "Decentering and Recentering: Adrian Piper's Spheres of Influence," in Adrian Piper: A Retrospective, ed. Maurice Berger (Baltimore: Fine Arts Gallery, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, 1999), 48.
  • Like Piper, the artist Byron Kim deals simultaneously with the visual and racial registers of color in his monochrome paintings based on skin tones.
  • Glenn Ligon riffed on Piper's work in his diptych Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Black Features / Self-Portrait Exaggerating My White Features (1998).
  • Michael Brenson, "Adrian Piper's Head-On Confrontation of Racism," New York Times, October 26, 1990.
  • Adrian Piper, "Vanilla Nightmares, 1986–1990," in Out of Order, Out of Sight, vol. 1, Selected Writings in Meta-Art, 1968–1992 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), 253.
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Douglas Crimp, in Yve-Alain Bois, Douglas Crimp, and Rosalind Krauss, "A Conversation with Hans Haacke" (1984), reprinted in October: The First Decade, ed. Annette Michelson et al. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987), 199.

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Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, "Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression: Notes on the Return of Representation in European Painting," October, no. 16 (Spring 1981): 39–68.

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Ibid., 40. Recent scholarship has reexamined figurative impulses in the twentieth century and come to different conclusions; for instance, Devin Fore's look at interwar representation claims that it was far from regressive and potentially laid the ground for later postmodern practices. Devin Fore, Realism after Modernism: The Rehumanization of Art and Literature (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012).

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Susan Sontag wrote an early text regarding the anxiety surrounding bodies in the time of AIDS, AIDS and Its Metaphors (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1989). Since the early 1990s, thinkers within queer theory and feminism have been at the forefront of contesting the ostensibly "naturalized" body; one influential example is Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex" (New York: Routledge, 1993).

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See Thierry de Duve, "The Monochrome and the Blank Canvas," in Kant after Duchamp (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), 199–279.

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Kobena Mercer, "Decentering and Recentering: Adrian Piper's Spheres of Influence," in Adrian Piper: A Retrospective, ed. Maurice Berger (Baltimore: Fine Arts Gallery, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, 1999), 48.

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Like Piper, the artist Byron Kim deals simultaneously with the visual and racial registers of color in his monochrome paintings based on skin tones.

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Glenn Ligon riffed on Piper's work in his diptych Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Black Features / Self-Portrait Exaggerating My White Features (1998).

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Michael Brenson, "Adrian Piper's Head-On Confrontation of Racism," New York Times, October 26, 1990.

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Adrian Piper, "Vanilla Nightmares, 1986–1990," in Out of Order, Out of Sight, vol. 1, Selected Writings in Meta-Art, 1968–1992 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), 253.

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Bryan-Wilson, Julia. "Figure It Out: On the Possibilities of Political Figuration." Take It or Leave It: Institution, Image, Ideology Digital Archive. Los Angeles: Hammer Museum, 2017. https://​hammer.ucla.edu/​take-it-or-leave-it/​essays/​figure-it-out/​.