Tate Liverpool’s new display of works from the Tate collection – an ambitious and large-scale show extending over two floors of the gallery – provides a welcome opportunity to reconsider the idea and experience of figuration in modern art. Though often contrasted with, or even opposed to, the concept of abstraction, the range of works suggests that it makes more sense to think of figuration as a general term for how artists have tried to represent the world. This needn’t exclude the fact that some artworks occupy opposite ends of traditions of expression. For example, Bridget Riley’s oil painting Hesitate 1964, a sumptuous optical illusion made up of dots distorted systematically to suggest a curved surface, for many will seem entirely abstract – especially when compared with Paul Cézanne’s 1898 print The Large Bathers. Used in this way, the terms abstract and figurative appear to refer to fixed and definite things. Yet it is worth remembering that Cézanne’s reputation was based on his role as a bridge between nineteenth-century academic narrative painting and twentieth-century Modernism.

Art historians work hard to present accounts of artists and their artefacts embedded within contexts of various kinds – biographical information, reviews by critics, art market valuations, etc – and these explanations also involve important forms of emphasis and comparative analysis. For instance, look at a Francis Bacon painting, such as Reclining Woman 1961, and it is difficult not to think about his biography – in particular his intimate relationships with men, at a time when gay relationships were generally unacceptable in mainstream society. But Tate Liverpool’s new displays, with work from the late nineteenth century to the present, allows the visitor a chance to experience how the physical and spatial juxtaposition of artefacts – paintings, prints, photographs, but also Modernist sculptures such as Constantin Brancusi’s oak Head c.1919–23 and more recent pieces such as Mona Hatoum’s Incommunicado 1993 – enriches what figurative and abstract may mean.

It’s sometimes assumed, for instance, that paintings are two-dimensional images and sculptures are three-dimensional things. However, all artworks have physical form. Tate Liverpool’s show emphasises this: while paintings and prints are physical entities hung on walls, and sculptures – such as Hatoum’s sinister-looking metal cot – will be placed somewhere in the room of a gallery, it’s also the case that sculptures, in being visible, present images or pictures to the viewer. So, while it’s conventional to identify what are called ‘figure’ and ‘ground’ sections within a particular picture – easy in the case of Andy Warhol’s acrylic on canvas Marilyn Diptych 1962, where repeated images of Marilyn’s iconic face are isolated against a stark background, less so with the two fields of flat colour in Mark Rothko’s 1968 Untitled – the painting of print as a physical artefact may also be read as a kind of figure itself upon the ground that is the wall of the gallery on which it is hung.

Seeing artworks in a display generates a strong sense of a given object’s phenomenal qualities (phenomenal meaning ‘view of something’, which is often opposed to the notion of the Greek noumenal, or “the thing in itself”) because of the evident contrast with – or similarity to – the others around it. In Tate Liverpool’s new show Sol LeWitt’s minimalist painted aluminium sculpture Untitled 1965 asks questions about where surface stops and object begins. Such riddles of viewpoint – conceptual and perceptual – are also posed by Rothko’s simple bands of pictorial colour combining to form an apparent horizon and Riley’s black-spots-and-white-background illusion. And they are raised by the three-dimensional bars and spaces of the cot in Hatoum’s Incommunicado, shifting as these do when one moves around the sculpture.

Figure can often mean the human body or body part, as in Warhol’s serial depictions of Marilyn Monroe’s face and hair or the misshapen contours of a nude in Bacon’s Reclining Woman. In sculpture figuration is the same as physical embodiment – though both Brancusi’s Head and Hans Bellmer’s The Doll 1936 instead suggest bodiliness and, in Bellmer’s case, a very disturbing kind of mutation. Rachel Whiteread’s Untitled (Air Bed II) 1992 made from polyurethane rubber, placed against a wall rather than flat upon the floor, upends the ideas of bed and sculpture, removing both from open space and replacing them in un unsettling manner that suggests neither can serve the conventional human or aesthetic function.

In its simplest sense, figuration denotes the presences an identifiable shape or element (such as brushstroke) within a painting or drawing. It’s common, for instance, to say that abstract paintings contain figures or figurative detail, which may refer only to coloured marks that stand out from – and apparently above – the pictorial field surrounding or below them, as in Jackson Pollock’s 1952 paintings contain figures or figurative detail, which may refer only to coloured marks that stand out from – and apparently above – the pictorial field surrounding or below them, as in Jackson Pollock’s 1952 Yellow Islands. A splatter of paint in a Pollock painting appears to sit above the background colour because of the spatial illusion the figure (mark) creates.

Figure/ground relations in this sense are intrinsically subjective-perceptual as well as objective-physical realities, and for this reason the psychology of art has made a particular study of how the human eye and brain sees and makes sense of shapes – and the shapes within shapes that form the figure/ground distinction in paintings.

Sculptures, however, also present figures of various metaphoric kinds and exist themselves in real space: put Hatoum’s unsettling institutional metal cot alongside another of her works in the Tate Liverpool display, Divan Bed 1996, and see how – though the latter is also made from steel – its phenomenal impact is completely different.

The figure/ground phenomenon is important partly because it has been interpreted as demonstrating the potential openness of all aspects of human perception: seeing and understanding. That is, seeing – literally and metaphorically (a ‘figure of speech’) – is always a matter partly of making sense of something through imposing meaning and order upon things seen. The human brain/eye works through what psychologists call the gestalt principle: the ordering of visual phenomena through the immediate identification of object and background, or figure upon ground. It is a basic biological necessity to be able – instinctively – to make sense of things in the field of vision in case they, for instance, threaten survival or offer food.

This may seem a long way from the experience of looking at artworks. But the metaphoric meanings to the terms seeing, looking and figuring out have many important implications for understanding art. Whole critical theories of meaning in modern art, for example, have been erected upon accounts of what pictorial space is and how it has been used by artists in both self-conscious and intuitive ways. Any kind of visual representation depends upon the possibility of figure/ground differentiation and so mark-making, from its simplest form to its most complex (including all methods of picturing in two and three-dimensional media) becomes symbolic of the human capacity for communication and meaning. Rothko’s famous statement that he could no longer “use the figure” (that is, represent people naturalistically in his paintings) takes on profound significance in the light of this, prompting questions about the ultimate purposes and means of communication through modern art. LeWitt’s, Whiteread’s and Hatoum’s sculptures suggest this dilemma for many artists has only intensified since Rothko’s death in 1970.