The National Portrait Gallery’s impressive new survey of American portraits from 1945 to 1975 is based on denying what it begins by affirming: that “in mid-twentieth century America, everyone seemed to agree that portraiture was finished as a progressive art form.”
Those are the words of Wendy Wick Reaves and Brandon Brame Fortune, who with David Ward are the curators of “Face Value: Portraiture in the Age of Abstraction.” Of course, they wouldn’t have a show if notable American artists hadn’t made portraits in the era during which the form was supposedly moribund.
The Age of Abstraction, if it truly happened, didn’t last long. As Reaves and Fortune note, Larry Rivers started painting figuratively in the early 1950s, less than a decade into the period the show covers. The pop artists he inspired were only a few years behind him, followed by Chuck Close, Alex Katz, Philip Pearlstein and many more.
Even before that, though, well-regarded artists resisted the labels — “abstract expressionist,” “action painter” — devised for them. Willem de Kooning, whose 1954 “Marilyn Monroe” reduces the actress to lips, eyes and hair, didn’t do a lot of portraits. But his expressionism was never purely abstract.
Amusingly, the work of the most famous theorists of post-war abstraction are both hanging here, painted more realistically than de Kooning’s Marilyn. Clement Greenberg is depicted, loosely but recognizably, in a 1955 piece by René Robert Bouché. In a portrait made the next year, Harold Rosenberg seems to emerge from the abstract brushwork of Elaine de Kooning. (The same artist’s self-portrait is one of the show’s earliest pieces; it was painted in 1946, three years after she married Willem.)
The de Koonings were members of one of the circles that overlap repeatedly in the show’s 1950s and ’60s works. Writers John Ashbery (who contributed a new poem to the catalogue) and Frank O’Hara are both depicted, the latter twice. An O’Hara poem features in a Jasper Johns lithograph that is only symbolically a portrait. Jack Kerouac is also the subject of two likenesses, one a smeary pencil sketch by Larry Rivers. A Beauford Delaney pastel of James Baldwin is cartoonish yet essentially accurate. Ornette Coleman appears in an Elaine de Kooning sketch, and Red Grooms and his art-world pals are in a cutout diorama, “Loft on 26th Street.”
The downtown Manhattan artists didn’t immortalize only geographic neighbors and kindred spirits. Marisol Escobar constructed a sculptural portrait of Hugh Hefner, a man whose philosophy has dated as badly as Clement Greenberg’s. Rivers depicted the diminutive Joseph Hirshhorn, who was then collecting his work, in childlike proportions on an oversize chair. Andy Warhol’s 1966 “Jackie I” gave the former first lady a silvery modern look, presaging a future of celebrity worship and brushed-metal finishes.
Less than two decades after the works in “Face Value” were made, Warhol was announcing a new comfort with graphics-arts technology and photographic imagery. Thus began an alliance of fine and commercial art, and the latter offered a reliable market for portraits. Three of the pieces in this selection were made for Time magazine covers: Roy Lichtenstein’s comic-book Robert F. Kennedy, Romare Bearden’s photo-collage of New York Mayor John Lindsay and Jacob Lawrence’s drawing of Stokely Carmichael, a panther on his shoulder. (That last one was not published.)
The curators say that “Face Value” is not a New York show, and the later work does include much by West Coast denizens. “Seated Figure With Hat” is by the Bay Area’s Richard Diebenkorn, one of those artists who shifted between abstraction and representation without apparent injury to his person or reputation. Also from the Bay Area was Joan Brown, whose “Self-Portrait with Fish and Cat” personalizes pop art’s flat, clean, colorful style. “Santa Monica Pier” inserts a self-portrait into a watercolor in the style of a ukiyo-e print by Japan-born Masami Teraoka, who relocated to Los Angeles and later Hawaii.
Teraoka’s painting exemplifies the show’s final stage, in which art history returns as both inspiration and adversary. Barkley Leonnard Hendricks’s 1972 “Sir Charles, Alias Willie Harris” depicts a superfly guy in three poses and a red trench coat, an image that might be modeled on a royal portrait by 17th-century classicist Anthony van Dyck. Feminist artist Sylvia Sleigh’s “The Turkish Bath,” from 1973, remakes Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s canvas of a century earlier, replacing idealized nude women with real naked men (including her husband).
Art-history references and sexual frankness cohabited in the 1970s, the decade when Robert Arneson made the puckish “Classical Exposure,” a bust that replicated the artist’s head, shoulders and genitals on a terra cotta column. Soon after, Joan Semmel painted the view as she looked down at her own unclad body, yielding “Me Without Mirrors,” one of the few “Face Value” entries that doesn’t include a face.
The show ends with Jamie Wyeth’s and Warhol’s 1976 portraits of each other, in which Warhol is blotchy and weathered, and Wyeth is smooth and simplified. By the time these were made, both men qualified as art-world stars, which puts these pictures in portraiture’s historical tradition. Yet they’re essentially self-portraits, even if executed by someone else, which makes them typical of “Face Value’s” later work.
Greenberg and Rosenberg might have not seen it this way, but the revival of portrait painting documented in “Face Value” doesn’t seem all that incompatible with abstract expressionism. Both seek to reveal the artist and consider depictions of the outside world secondary to that goal.
Of the later pieces, only a handful could be called celebrity portraits, and those few include such highly subjective renderings as Nam June Paik’s video of a chanting Allen Ginsberg. The others depict family, friends or the artists themselves. Fairfield Porter’s “The Mirror,” while distinctively eerie, seems characteristic. Behind the girl in the foreground lurks the painter’s reflection.
No longer a craftsman for hire, the artist is always there. Whether abstract or representational, the artwork is a mirror, reflecting its maker.
Face Value: Portraiture in the Age of Abstraction Through Jan. 11 at the National Portrait Gallery, Eighth & F sts. NW; 202-633-1000; www.npg.si.edu.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.