Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney’s Collection Complete The Reinstallation Of The Whitney’s Collection In Its New Building
The Selfie, often seen as the height of narcissism in what is essentially an increasingly narcissistic world, is the modern version of what has long been a celebrated art form throughout history: The Portrait. Portraits are one of the richest veins of the Whitney’s collection, thanks to the Museum’s longstanding commitment to the figurative tradition, championed by its founder Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney.
The mysterious power and fascination of the portrait—and the ingenious ways in which artists have been expanding the definition of portraiture over the past 100 years—are celebrated in Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney’s Collection, to be presented at the Whitney Museum of American Art this spring. The works included in this exhibition propose diverse and often unconventional ways of representing an individual. Many artists reconsider the pursuit of external likeness—portraiture’s usual objective—within formal or conceptual explorations or reject it altogether. Some revel in the genre’s glamour and allure, while others critique its elitist associations and instead call attention to the banal or even the grotesque.
Drawn entirely from the Museum’s collection, the exhibition features more than 300 works made from 1900 to 2016 by an extraordinary range of more than 200 artists, roughly half of whom are living. The show will be organized in twelve thematic sections on two floors of the Museum, with works in all media installed side by side. Floor Six, predominantly focused on art since 1960, opens first, on April 6; Floor Seven, which includes works from the first half of the twentieth century alongside more contemporary offerings, will open on April 27. The exhibition will remain on view through February 12, 2017.
Once a rarified luxury good, portraits are now ubiquitous. Readily reproducible and ever-more accessible, photography has played a particularly vital role in the democratization of portraiture, and will be strongly represented in the exhibition. Most recently, the proliferation of smartphones and the rise of social media have unleashed an unprecedented stream of portraits in the form of selfies and other online posts. Many contemporary artists confront this situation, stressing the fluidity of identity in a world where technology and the mass-media are omnipresent. Through their varied takes on the portrait, the artists in Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney’s Collection demonstrate the vitality of this enduring genre, which serves as a compelling lens through which to view some of the most important social and artistic developments of the past century.
Barkley L. Hendricks (b. 1945). Steve, (1976). Oil, acrylic, and Magna on linen canvas, 72 × 48in. (182.9 × 121.9 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase and gift with funds from the Arthur M. Bullowa Bequest by exchange, the Jack E. Chachkes Endowed Purchase Fund, and the Wilfred P. and Rose J. Cohen Purchase Fund 2015.101. Image Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, NY.
Many iconic works from the collection will be included by such artists as Alexander Calder, Marsden Hartley, Edward Hopper, Jasper Johns, Alice Neel, Georgia O’Keeffe, Cindy Sherman, and Andy Warhol. In addition, a number of major new acquisitions will be exhibited at the Whitney for the first time, including Barkley L. Hendricks’s full-length 1976 portrait, Steve; Urs Fischer’s 2015 towering candle sculpture of Julian Schnabel (making its debut); Joan Semmel’s painting of two nude lovers, Touch (1977); Henry Taylor’s depiction of Black Panther leader Huey Newton (2007); Deana Lawson’s striking color photograph The Garden (2015); and Rosalyn Drexler’s Pop masterwork Marilyn Pursued by Death (1963). The exhibition will extend to the Museum’s outdoor galleries on Floors Seven and Six, the latter of which will feature Paul McCarthy’s monumental bronze sculpture White Snow #3 (2012), also a new acquisition.
Following is a selection of several of the sections in which the exhibition will be divided:
PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST
Edward Hopper (1882‑1967). (Self‑Portrait), (1925‑1930). Oil on canvas, Overall: 25 3/8 × 20 3/8in. (64.5 × 51.8 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Josephine N. Hopper Bequest 70.1165. © Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper, licensed by Whitney Museum of American Art
On the seventh floor, the section “Portrait of the Artist” brings together self-portraits with portraits of artists and other members of the creative community, a moving window into the way artists see themselves and their relationships with one another. On view will be Edward Hopper’s iconic self-portrait in oil in a brown hat, as well as a pair of drawings by Hopper and Guy Pène du Bois, each depicting the other and made during a single sitting. Other works depict artists with the tools of their trade—Ilse Bing is seen in a photograph holding the shutter release of her camera; Mabel Dwight uses a mirror as an aid in drawing herself; Andreas Feininger photographs himself regarding a strip of film through a magnifying glass. Other works in this section include Cy Twombly photographed by Robert Rauschenberg; Jasper Johns by Richard Avedon; Georgia O’Keeffe drawn by Peggy Bacon; Edgard Varèse sculpted in wire by Alexander Calder; Langston Hughes photographed by Roy DeCarava; Berenice Abbott by Walker Evans; Yasuo Kuniyoshi by Arnold Newman; and a double portrait of Joseph Stella and Marcel Duchamp taken by Man Ray.
Rachel Harrison (b. 1966). Untitled, (2011). Colored pencil on paper, Sheet: 19 × 24in. (48.3 × 61 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from the Drawing Committee 2012.81. © Rachel Harrison
EARLY TWENTIETH CENTURY CELEBRITY AND SPECTACLE
In the early decades of the twentieth century, a spectrum of new, popular leisure pursuits—vaudeville, theater, cabaret, sporting events, and above all, motion pictures—thrust performers and entertainers into the public eye as never before. For the crowds that flocked to see them, the stars of these entertainments became larger-than-life figures, and an array of media outlets, from tabloid newspapers to glossy magazines to radio, sprang up to broadcast their exploits to captivated audiences across the nation. Artists eagerly delved into these new phenomena, creating portraits that stoked the public’s growing fascination with celebrities. At the turn of the century, painters such as Howard Cushing and Everett Shinn investigated the changing terms of fame and glamour as flashy public spectacles eclipsed Gilded Age refinement. Following World War I many artists joined in the commercial opportunities offered by the booming entertainment industry—particularly photographers, whose easily reproducible images carried a special air of authenticity. Foremost among them, Edward Steichen pioneered the aesthetic of the “closeup” in his stylish magazine portraits of movie stars and other luminaries, such as Marlene Dietrich, Dolores Del Rio, and Paul Robeson. Other photographers such as James Van Der Zee, Toyo Miyatake, and Carl Van Vechten called attention to vanguard performers whose race or ethnicity placed them outside the mainstream, challenging the sanitized imperatives of popular culture.
Toyo Miyatake (1895‑1979). Michio Ito, (1929). Gelatin silver print, Sheet: 14 × 10 7/8in. (35.6 × 27.6 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from the Photography Committee 2014.241. © Toyo Miyatake Studio
Under the rubric of “Street Life” the exhibition presents artists who took to the pavement with their cameras, photographing subjects as they encountered them, sometimes surreptitiously. These images, which often capture fleeting, serendipitous moments, present a counterpoint to the premeditated, sedentary sitter of historical portraits. At the turn of the last century it became clear that the camera could become an apparatus for the indictment of a society’s ills and a group of socially aware photographers became activists in addition to observers of the urban environment. An early work in the exhibition, Lewis Hine’s Newsies at Skeeters Branch, St. Louis, Missouri (c. 1910), exemplifies this type of politically motivated street photography. Other works documenting the spectacle of urban life include Walker Evans’s subway photographs; Helen Levitt’s images taken on the streets of Yorktown and Spanish Harlem; and examples from Garry Winogrand’s Women Are Beautiful portfolio. Artists featured in this section also include Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, and Nan Goldin. The tradition of street photography is carried through to more recent works by Dawoud Bey and Philip-Lorca di Corcia.
PORTRAITS WITHOUT PEOPLE
Is likeness essential to portraiture? The works in this section, spanning the past one hundred years, ask this question as they pursue alternate means for capturing an individual’s personality, values, and experiences. Often, the presence of the individual or his or her character is implied through objects and symbols that resonate with hidden meaning. Gerald Murphy’s Cocktail (1927), a bold, Jazz Age still life suggests a uniquely autobiographical approach: the accoutrements of a typical 1920s bar tray were based on Murphy’s memory of his father’s bar accessories and the cigar box cover shows a robed woman surrounded by items that allude to Murphy himself, including a boat (he was an avid sailor) and an artist’s palette. Marsden Hartley’s Painting, Number 5 (1914–15), a portrait of Karl von Freyburg, uses German imperial military regalia to stand in for the presence of the officer with whom the artist had fallen in love. In Summer Days (1936), Georgia O’Keeffe adopted the animal skull and vibrant desert wildflowers as surrogates for herself, symbols of the cycles of life and death that shape the desert world she made her home. Jasper Johns’s portrait of a Savarin coffee can full of brushes stands for Johns himself; and James Welling’s portrait of Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, CT, may be viewed as a sort of portrait of the famous architect. In a number of works in this section, body parts or personal possessions may allude to the subject, such as Jay DeFeo’s teeth; Alfred Stieglitz’s hat; and Ed Ruscha’s shoes. Forgoing likeness in favor of allusion and enigma, these artists expand the possibilities of the portrait, while also acknowledging that the quest to depict others—and even ourselves—is elusive. Continue reading