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In 1959, the critic Clement Greenberg wrote that “the very best painting, the major painting, of our age is almost exclusively abstract.” It was a tune Greenberg sang early and often. He said similar things throughout the 1940s, and as late as 1967 insisted that “the very best art of this time continues to be abstract.”

Let’s leave the fraught question of whether Greenberg was correct to one side. What we can say with confidence is that the focus of much artistic energy at the time was centered around abstract art.

This has obviously not been the case for some decades. What happened? Several things. On the one hand, there was a powerful upsurge of what Greenberg elsewhere called “novelty art,” the 57 varieties of pop, op, minimalism, and neo-Dada performance art that have infested the art world like a gigantic flea market. On the other hand, there was a quieter but no less powerful return to older artistic sources and traditions — a return, that is to say, to the figure.

It is a curious irony that Andy Warhol — one of the chief perpetrators of novelty art, the man who once said “art is what you can get away with” — should also have had a hand in fomenting the counter-revolution that is now returning artists to a serious concern with traditional figurative techniques. Twenty-five years ago, Warhol helped start The New York Academy of Art, an institution “dedicated to the advancement of figurative painting, sculpture and drawing.”
Who knows? Perhaps Warhol somehow sensed that an art world in which everyone would have his 15 minutes of fame would itself be subject to that 15-minute rule, eventually returning art to the more deliberate rhythms required by technical mastery.

In any event, if large precincts of the art world are still in thrall to “novelty art,” there is also a vital and increasingly prominent current of artistic practice seeking the rehabilitation of aesthetic canons and plastic techniques that were pioneered in the Renaissance and promulgated in the studios of the Beaux Arts.

“Classical Realism” is one name many of the more ambitious new figurative artists embrace. The movement has its home in institutions like The Florence Academy of Art, founded in 1991 by Daniel Graves, which seeks “to provide the highest level of instruction in classical drawing, painting and sculpture.” The Florence Academy has been a fertile source for many other initiatives, including The Harlem Studio of Art in New York, a small but vibrant atelier school presided over by the artist Judy Pond Kudlow. Founded in 2002, it offers rigorous training in modeling, one-point perspective, cast drawing, and all the other technical aspects of art that one used to assume would be part of an artist’s training.

Is technical mastery sufficient by itself to guarantee high artistic accomplishment? The art world has been shouting “No” for decades. That judgment is correct — ultimately — but it leaves out the important codicil that an artist who lacks technical command also lacks competence.

Roger Kimball
The Wall Street Journal