August 2005

The National Portrait Gallery

Captive to Postmodernism

by Louis Torres

News of the first portrait competition ever sponsored by the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D. C. (see Notes & Comments), rekindled my awareness of this affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution and prompted a visit to its website. Sadly, I was reminded of what I had long known but had put out of mind--that the NPG (like every other federal and state arts agency) is captive to the artworld's postmodernist, antitraditional mentality concerning the visual arts of the past half century.

The gallery was established by an Act of Congress in 1962 (three years before the National Endowment for the Arts), and opened to the public in 1968. It is charged with collecting and displaying images of "men and women who have made significant contributions to the history, development and culture of the people of the United States." Among its estimable holdings, as might therefore be expected, is one of the iconic portraits of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart. Also in the permanent collection, however, are such latter-day works of dubious value as Andy Warhol's Michael Jackson--which, ironically, does not even qualify as a portrait, according to one of the entry criteria for the present competition: "[The work] must be based on the artist's direct contact with [a] living individual." More on that below.

In its "Call for Entries," the NPG declares:

Face it. Portraiture is back. Cavemen did it. Rembrandt did it. Andy Warhol did it. Now the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery is inviting artists all over America to do it.

Cute, but wrong on more than one count. First, prehistoric artists did not make portraits of their fellow cave dwellers. Neither, as I further argue below, did Warhol make portraits of his contemporaries.

The NPG also observes that "since the beginning of time artists have expressed their thoughts, feelings, hopes, and ideals, by depicting something we all possess--the human form." True, but Warhol, as anyone familiar with the works attributed to him knows, did not "depict" people, if by that term is meant "to form a likeness of; to represent." Instead, he borrowed images from other sources. The likeness of Jackson (which Time magazine featured on its cover on March 19, 1984) is typical of this practice--it had already been formed in a photograph taken by someone else.

Here is how the NPG itself characterizes Warhol's methodology:

Like other Pop artists, he often chose to use objects appropriated from popular culture as imagery for fine art. These were often photographs, which were then reproduced onto a canvas through a silkscreen process by assistants. Warhol then retouched them. As he put it, "I sort of half paint them just to give it a style."

I beg to differ with the NPG curators, but "sort of half paint[ing]" something reproduced by someone else from a photograph by yet another person does not constitute art. Surely they should know that. Yet it appears that those in charge at the NPG have neither the good sense nor the courage to say so, or to at least refrain from citing Warhol in the gallery's promotional material.

According to the NPG's competition's entry rules, portraits submitted may be of the "traditional [and] representational" kind, or "more experimental" in nature. Everything on the website suggests a clear bias in favor of the experimental, however--a term that is, I should note, conveniently left undefined. The images selected to accompany the NPG's "Call for Entries," for example, are of decidedly antitraditional paintings. One is of Self-Portrait (in the nude) by Alice Neel (1900-1984), painted near the end of her life. The gallery characterizes it as "a striking challenge [emphasis mine] to the centuries-old convention of idealized femininity . . . wonderfully suggestive of the artist's bohemian, bawdy character." (For other examples of Neel's style, see her portraits of Andy Warhol and art historian Linda Nochlin, which were part of a Neel exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2001.) The other work in question is John Updike (1982) by "Pop artist" Alex Katz (b. 1927), whose bland, cartoonlike "portraits" [more] (copied from or heavily influenced by photographs) are so devoid of personality and character that they do not qualify as portraiture, much less as art.

Given these representative works, it is little surprise that the NPG fails to mention a single artist working in a classical or academic style, among the painters and sculptors it cites as active in the last few decades of the twentieth century. Instead, the list includes the following (as well as Neel and Katz): Duane Hanson (1925-1996), whose pieces are neither sculpture nor portraiture; Chuck Close (b. 1940) [Self-Portrait] [more ], who creates his "portraits" from giant polaroid photographs, not from life; Lucian Freud (b. 1922) [Self-Portrait [more ] [more] [I spare you his nudes]; and Philip Pearlstein (b. 1924) [more]--all of whom, it is said, made "innovative and compelling" portraits. In addition to the marked departure from tradition evident in most of their work, what is striking about these artists is their relentlessly dismal sensibility.

The NPG declares that its portrait competition--and the related exhibition that will mark the gallery's re-opening on July 4, 2006--will emphasize "innovation and excellence." Innovation, of course, is the criterion the avant-garde has always used. It is fundamentally incompatible with that of excellence, however, which implies a standard of judgment developed over time in relation to precedents. Not one of the individuals mentioned above--neither the artists (Neel, Freud, and Pearlstein) nor the others (Warhol, Katz, Hanson, and Close)--exemplifies "excellence" by such a standard, I would argue. And none of them possesses talent even approaching that of the Old Masters. Among the classically trained artists now working in traditional styles, however, there are certainly those who do.

Though the NPG acknowledges that some artists today are experiencing success through "a renewed attention to classical training in representational art," it also emphasizes that "many of today's emerging artists are using portraiture or self-portraiture to explore complex issues of identity" and are also "testing the boundaries of the genre of figurative art." Postmodernists love to explore issues--especially complex ones--and to test, push, blur, or ignore "boundaries." What all this means is that they fancy themselves as philosophers, psychologists, and sociologists, and prefer not to have to define concepts like art, or portrait. No pesky rules of logic or outmoded art-historical categories for them!

So what chance do academically trained painters and sculptors have of winning the portrait competition? Virtually none, I would say. Consider the backgrounds of the jurors. Of the seven, two are NPG staff members specializing in modern or contemporary (i.e., postmodernist, avant-garde) art and portraiture; one is an independent scholar and curator who published an interview with Warhol in Arts Magazine in 1987 and organized the exhibition "Beuys and Warhol: The Artist as Shaman and Star" for the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 1991; another is a former curator at the avant-garde Whitney Museum of American Art who has organized exhibitions for such postmodernist luminaries as Martin Puryear; and yet another is a professor of art history and criticism whose book on Abstract Expressionism is scheduled to be published next year.

The only hope perhaps is the one artist on the jury, Sidney Goodman (b. 1936)--a realist painter of some power, albeit an often dark sensibility and an uneven, eclectic style. See his Self-Portrait (Black) (1985), Two Self Portraits (2003-2004), and other paintings. One of Goodman's works, Baby Rising (1995)--not quite a Rubens cherub , but appealing nonetheless--suggests that he might be receptive to work in a traditional vein. Most, however, do not.

Though the odds are against them, I hope that at least a few of today's best classically trained painters and sculptors will enter the competition, if only to remind jurors that they are indeed active--and perhaps to hasten the day when one of their number may emerge a winner.

Further Reading and Viewing:

Eye Contact: Modern American Portrait Drawings from the National Portrait Gallery. This informative overview of an exhibition at the Naples (Florida) Museum of Art in 2003 and at the International Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution in 2004 is worth perusing, not least for its images of more than forty portraits in varying styles. The text contains much of interest but should be read critically. To view the images alone, be sure to click on the link "Portrait Index," which can then be sorted according to either sitters or artists. For me, the most pleasurable discovery was a portrait by Georgia O'Keefe, though she is generally a painter of limited talent in my estimation, and an overrated figure in American art. It is a far more accomplished and engaging work than her signature still-lifes of bones, rocks, and flowers. -- L. T.