A Year of Magical Figurative Art

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…

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