I am a member of the second group of artists who were brought up as abstract paintes and became figurative ones. There are differences between the generations. The first generation, made up of the Jane Street group in New York, and the Bay Area painters in San Francisco, were profoundly influenced by Hans Hofmann, who taught both in the village, and on Cape Cod, and at Berkeley. In their figuration, they continued a good deal of their earlier practice as abstract painters. The Jane Street group, was also directly influenced by Jean Helion, whom they met in New York, just as he was turning from abstraction to figuration. The California painters, tried to remain as close to their procedures as abstract painters when they painted from the motif, as possible. In fact they had the problem of sky hooks!. In abstract painting, anywhere you need a shape you can put one. In figurative painting you need to get your shapes out of the motif. Diebenkorn had a hard time with that, and several of his early, major figurative paintings have sky-hooks in them. Shapes which have no meaning, except that, for pictorial reasons, the painting needed them.
Ultimately, James Weeks was the Bay area artist who was most fond of the motif and capable with working from it. One major difference between the bay area painters and the Jane Street group was that they were all, at one time Abstract expressionists. The Jane Street group as articulated by Leland Bell were always against AE.
Like the Jane Street painters I also studied with Hofmann, and I found his influence as a teacher wholly helpful, supportive and inspiring. However, when I studied with him, a few years after Nell Blaine, Hyde Solomon, Leland Bell, Louisa Matthisdottir did, he was already a full fledged AE himself. Another difference was that my teachers at Brooklyn College,as a group, were a more powerful influence on me than Hofmann, himnself. The painting faculty at Brooklyn, when I went there consisted of Ad Reinhardt, Burgoyne Diller, Jimmy Ernst, Alfred Russell, Stanley William Hayter, Mark Rothko, and the chairman of the department, Robert J. Wolff. At the time they were all abstract pasinters, and all but Jimmy, AE. The two policies I became aware of were that they would be gentle with students in class, and pile on the ones who self identified by doing a lot more work than absolutely nrecessary. The "piling on" was not mean but helpful, encouraging, and inspiring. It amounted to a group crit. from the batch of them, whenever you brought in a batch of work from outside. They would disagree, but not argue. They would present different viewpoints of what you had brought in. It was inspiring, The one , sometimes mean character, Alfred Russell was also the most inspiring teacher. He might say some mean things, but he offered the most interesting and useful criticisms, and was very well liked by the students despiter his occasional nastiness. I remember him as the very best.
I think I have mentioned "The idea level" as being a phrase which was bruited about. It implied something else which I had not mentioned. Any and every kind of forming was open to us. We were not historically bound to a specific style nor period. Once we were on the "idea level" any style was OK. If we were thinking about meaning, as we worked, or as part of the process of work, we were on the highest level. AE had devalued the specific formal means of our predecessors, not only AE itself, but earlier abstraction. So when we worked from the motif, while we might use the logic which we first saw in Matisse and the Cubists, we did not have to use their means. There were later and more informal ways of structuring a canvas, but there also were earlier ways. Gris, for example did synthetic cubist analyses of Cezanne and Corot portraits before he began his synthetic cubist work. When we worked, we might just as easily try working with undiluted Corot as with Gris. This was a major difference between us and the Jane Street and Bay area artists. We did not necessarily use cubist devices, fauve methods, or abstract 20th century construction in our pictorial process. To me, it made no difference. I loved the work of many of the Jane Street group [Kresch, Bell, Matthiasdottir], and got along with them easily. But I also did not need Derain as a forerunner, so I loved those paintings of his which spoke to me, and overlooked the ones that didn't.
We agreed on Balthus, whom I had discovered in 1956 [with Alfred Russell's help] and had enjoyed ever since. But I did not find his work a blueprint for mine. I remained most taken with Paul Klee of all modernists, even though I could not figure out what I could use of his. I was simultaneously very enthusiastic about American folk arft and Japanese art. Eventually Balthus helped show me what I might do with them both. But I still have not done much with Japanese art.
But my work, and the work of my friends and students who did not have Leland as a teacher, tends to be done in styles which do not necessarily conform to modern masters' styles. None of us have any idea that specific styles are better or worse. The content of the work is most important. How the style relates to the subject and how it hits the viewer. What conceptual complexity is presented by the work is very important. Interestingly, Bell fulfills all of these requirements himself, in one way. The late figures have a wonderful quality which seems to me to connect them with Romanesque pictorial conventions, as well as with the precise human anatomy, in a shape or on a brushstroke. But his way is only one of many possible ways of working.