Sunday, April 27, 2014

Face Value: Portraiture in the Age of Abstraction

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through January 11, 2015

This show is a bit tucked away; it's behind the "American Cool" exhibit on the 2nd floor.  The show has an interesting premise: after the Second World War, abstract expressionism became the dominant (dare I say "cool") artistic movement.  Critics decried portraiture as old fashioned, nothing that new artists would wish to try.  Portraiture was dead, abstraction was everything.

Turns out that people are attractive subjects for artists, and even some expressionists turned to portraiture in the course of their careers.  In 1976, Andy Warhol and Jamie Wyeth (son of Andrew Wyeth, grandson of N. C. Wyeth) exhibited portraits of each other and drew lots of attention.  Portraiture was back!  Shows you should never trust the opinions of art critics when they declare something dead.

I didn't find lots of things that really grabbed my attention in this show.  It wasn't awful, by any stretch of the imagination, but when I think back on some of the spectacular shows I've seen here, this just isn't one of them.  I did notice a portrait of Joseph Hirshhorn, surely the donor of the money behind the Hirshhorn Museum?  It was nice to be able to put a face to the name, although I can't say the artist, Larry Rivers, painted a very flattering portrait.  Perhaps he was just not a terribly handsome man?

Happily, the Warhol/Wyeth portraits were on display - there must be some word for that, when a display's wall notes mention a piece, and then it's in the display itself?  If not, there should be.  It was nice to see them, after reading about the important role they played in bringing portraiture back to the art world.

Verdict: Not my favorite show at the Portrait Gallery, but I suppose it's a big much to expect every exhibit to be a home run.

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