Lately I can’t get enough of the National Portrait Gallery here in Washington, DC. Opening in mid-morning, the gallery closes at 7:00PM. Once you’ve gobbled up your fill of art, you have time to sit under the magnificent floating roof to people-watch, be mesmerized by the fountain, or have a coffee. For future reference, it’s a wonderful place to sip a glass of wine during the winter—the atrium is magical after dark.
And then—there’s the portraiture. There’s something so compelling about portraits, especially ones that show us more than a likeness, that offer a glimpse into the sitter’s inner life—his or her aspirations, fears, dreams, tragic flaws—or show us what it might have been like to live in a bygone era.
On view until January 2015, the exhibition “Face Value: Portraiture in the Age of Abstraction” offers all this and more. During the period of 1945-1975, painting a portrait was a heretical act; most artists of the day disdained figurative painting in favor of pure abstraction. A few flew in the face of this trend to rediscover and reinvent portraiture.
The first image you see as you enter this exhibition is a knockout: “Sir Charles, alias Willie Harris,” by Barkley Leonnard Hendricks, oil on canvas, 1972. The wall placard tells us that the artist borrowed the coat from a seventeenth century Anthony van Dyke portrait, but I see Sir Charles as all about seventies black awareness, fashion, and presence. Each image shows a different expression: cool, diffident, in control, seeing all, missing nothing. A man to be reckoned with.
Portraits of each other by Jamie Wyeth and Andy Warhol caused a sensation when they were first shown in 1976 at New York City’s Coe Kerr Gallery. “The patriarch of Pop paints the Prince of Realism,” chortled a critic in The New York Times. Warhol’s “Portrait of Jamie Wyeth with Tan Background,” 1976, glamorizes the artist, embellishing his image with carvings in the thick paint, and giving the artist a wistful, romantic cast, with a peach-stained set of lips hovering, ghost-like, over his own. Wyeth’s image of “Andy Warhol,” 1976, on the other hand, gilds no lilies. Mercilessly detailed, Warhol’s eyes are blank under his alarmed-looking eyebrows, as if a flash bulb had just gone off. His pet dachshund, lovingly cradled in his arms, appears more engaged in the process than his master, peering with interest at the viewer/painter.
“Hugh Hefner,” by Marisol Escobar, 1966-7, pokes sly fun at the urbane Playboy publisher, here seen as a blockhead with two pipes—bit of an oral fixation, eh, Hef? This bigger-than-life polychromed wood creation was made for a Time magazine cover, part of a trove of cover art given to the gallery by the publisher.
Star of the show may well be “Loft on 26th Street,” by pop art trickster Red Grooms (plywood, cardboard, paper and wire), 1966-7. This delightful piece shows us the studio apartment of Mimi and Red Grooms, “Home of Ruckus Films,” and its denizens partying up a storm. Grooms himself is slicing potatoes at the right of the diorama. Endless wonderful things to look at here: the art lining the walls, the detailed clothing, the contents of the fridge, even a recognizable china pattern my friend Pat had when we were living in New York’s lower East Side.
Jacob Lawrence’s 1966 portrait of Stokeley Carmichael (ink, gouache, and charcoal on paper) was commissioned to be a Time magazine cover, but the publishers, put off by Carmichael’s increasingly militant rhetoric, never printed it. A shame. It’s so raw, so powerful. At least it now can be seen in the Portrait Gallery’s collection.
Alice Neel has the knack of visually nailing the inner person, as we see here in “Ginny in a Striped Shirt,” oil on canvas, 1969. The sitter, Virginia Taylor, then the girlfriend of Neel’s son, Hartley, puts it well, saying Neel caught “…a certain passionate anxiety for life…[the artist] sees in me all the aspiration, conflict, determination … [of someone] who has seen enough to doubt, but still wanted to believe in a utopian future.”
Don’t you love the sense of play in the Larry Rivers sketch of Jack Kerouac? Made in 1960 (graphite on paper), Rivers was playing jazz sax and the musicality of this piece is evident. Fairfield Porter, an artist and leading art critic said that Rivers’ “…self-control comes from conscious spontaneity and constant awareness.” Interesting comment: control and letting go are seen as the yin and yang of the creative process.
David Park, with Richard Diebenkorn, was a California artist who returned to figuration in the fifties, saying, “Art ought to be a troublesome thing and one of my reasons for painting representationally is that this makes for much more troublesome pictures.” His portrait of San Francisco art patron, Ellen Brantsen, “Woman with Red Mouth,” 1954-55, with her garish mouth, blood red fingernails and brandished cigarette, is guaranteed to stir up
Another Bay Area artist, Joan Brown, gives us “Self Portrait with Fish and Cat,” oil enamel on Masonite, 1970. She hopes to convey “…the connection and the psychic response that the animal picks up from the person,” often dreaming exactly the scene she later paints. This work does have a dream-like quality with the figure floating,
unmoored before the brilliant red background.
As you can see, there is much to enjoy in this show of some 50 paintings, sculpture, drawings, and prints by 44 artists, including Elaine de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, Romare Beardon, and more.
Now, I think I’ll go have a coffee in the atrium. Maybe I’ll go back for more portraits later.