For those (and they are legion) who know that a lot of good figurative painting went on in this country in the Fifties, the show called “The Figurative Fifties: New York Figurative Expressionism,” mounted in October at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, came as no revelation. And the academic boxing of the subject—it stuck arbitrarily to one decade, and predictably excluded non-New York painters like Richard Diebenkorn—was hardly very compelling either. But the selection was rather a good one, and it also served as a welcome reminder of the halcyon days when New York had not yet been invaded by the art-sociopaths—those people who mouth the lingo of aesthetics the way hardened criminals talk of justice and remorse.

Among the artists represented were Willem de Kooning and Elaine de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Lester Johnson, Robert Goodnough, and Robert Beauchamp. Grace Hartigan’s...


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