Sunday, June 14, 2015

A Pleasant Surprise

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through January 10, 2016

I flatter myself that I usually know whether I'm going to like a show or not before I step foot in a museum.  Either I'm familiar with the artist or the genre, or I'm intrigued by the historical subject, and I'm pretty sure I'll like it, or I make myself go see something out of a sense that perhaps I'll learn something, or maybe it won't be as bad as I think.  By this time (I've been going to museum exhibits regularly for almost six years now), I'm usually right.

But every once in a while, I'm wrong.  Happily wrong.  I think I'll not really care for something, or it won't be of much interest, and instead I'm quite taken with an artist or fascinated with a subject.  The current display of portraits by Elaine de Kooning at the National Portrait Gallery is just such an instance: I walked in thinking I'd not care for her work, but I left a fan.

Her portraits are unusual, in that rather than faithfully recreating someone's features, they use abstraction to express the sense of a person - how they move or the gestures they make.  They are portraits of the things about a person that makes them recognizable, even if you can't see their face.  And often, you can't see her subject's face, as she's erased it, or painted it out.

Something I really liked about this show, and it's not a technique I've seen before, is the inclusion of pencil studies for the portraits.  These are surprisingly precise, much more like a traditional portrait.  You see the starting point for the painting, and then you see the finished artwork.  And I think that shows just how artistic the portraits are.  Usually, you look at a portrait, and you evaluate it based on how much it looks like the subject.  You think, "That's a great portrait of so-and-so; it looks just like her!"  You can do that with the preliminary studies, because (I'm assuming) that's their purpose.  Once you see the paintings, however, you've moved past the point of expecting a photographic image - you can see the art as well as the subject.

There were several pieces in this exhibit that I'd seen before.  One of the Kennedy paintings was on display in 2013, and I know I've seen the Donald Barthelme and Merce Cunningham pieces before.  (But in what show?  Curse this middle-aged brain!)

I also felt quite intellectual when I read the wall notes for a pencil study she did for a self-portrait.  The writer indicated that the piece was so precise that it might have been a silverpoint.  Imagine my self-satisfaction in knowing what that meant!  Thank you very much, National Gallery of Art.

Verdict: I highly recommend this show.  It was, to me at least, surprisingly good.

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