The artists of the National Portrait Gallery’s ‘Face Value’ stood by portraiture in the age of abstract expressionism

May 1

In an art exhibition that covers the years 1945 to 1975, you’d expect to see a lot of canvases that either look like they’ve been spilled on (Jackson Pollock) or dipped in giant buckets of paint (Barnett Newman).

Not so at the National Portrait Gallery’s newest show, “Face Value: Portraiture in the Age of Abstraction.” The 44 artists represented here were the rebels of the post-World War II art world, which regarded abstract expressionism as superior to all other forms, especially portraiture.

Although “Face Value’s” artists defied the tyranny of abstraction, they were still inspired by their abstract expressionist colleagues.

“You can see the influence in the artists’ grand ambition and large, expansive canvases,” says Wendy Wick Reaves, one of the show’s curators. “The works have a cooler, more detached look to them. The artists were also trying to remove themselves from the narrative tradition in portraiture.”

Here are four examples of works that broke with tradition and helped reinvent the portraiture genre in America.

‘Jamie Wyeth with Tan Background’ by Andy Warhol, 1976


(Shannon Clark/The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Artists Rights Society)

‘Andy Warhol’ by Jamie Wyeth, 1976


(Jamie Wyeth)

“Face Value” cuts off in 1975 because portraiture stopped being the art world’s punching bag a year later, thanks to an exhibit of portraits Andy Warhol and Jamie Wyeth made of each other. The 1976 show, at New York’s Coe Kerr Gallery, brought portraiture back into fashion. Celebrities packed the gallery and the show earned extensive, adoring media coverage. The owner of Coe Kerr congratulated himself on his success, bragging, “Not since Gainsborough painted ‘The Blue Boy’ has portraiture caused such a stir.”

“After years of slowly building up the genre, the Warhol/Wyeth show was a turning point for portraiture,” says “Face Value” co-curator Wendy Wick Reaves.

As an aside, here’s a piece of random Warhol trivia: In Wyeth’s portrait, Warhol holds Archie, one of his pet dachshunds. Warhol took Archie everywhere, including gallery openings, restaurants and news conferences. When interviewers asked Warhol questions he didn’t want to answer, he would sometimes defer to Archie. (Who would say nothing, as dogs are wont to do.)

‘Hugh Hefner’ by Marisol Escobar, 1966-67


(Marisol Escobar)

Time magazine commissioned this portrait of the Playboy founder for its March 3, 1967 “Man of the Year” cover. The sculpture’s unfinished wood constrasts sharply with Hef’s swanky image and slick media empire. Marisol (she went by one name, Madonna-style) depicted her subject with two pipes — one in his mouth and one in his hand. “He has too much of everything,” she explained to Time’s editors. If only Freud were around to weigh in.

‘Self-portrait with Fish and Cat’ by Joan Brown, 1970


(Estate of Joan Brown)

Measuring four by eight feet, this is one of the few self-portraits in “Face Value.” Brown liked to use animals in her works to symbolize elements of her life, but she never fully explained them. The San Francisco artist didn’t like to be categorized either. She once said of Picasso, “He didn’t need to be an ‘abstract painter’ or a ‘still-life painter’ or a ‘portrait painter’ — he did whatever he pleased, setting his own rules and breaking them just as soon as he made them.” Note the paint splatters on Brown’s clothes and the flatness of the bright red background in this painting; both show the influence of abstract expressionism.

National Portrait Gallery, Eighth and F Streets NW; through Jan. 11, free; 202-633-8300. (Gallery Place)

 

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