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Is This A Portrait If I Say So? A Gutsy Exhibition

But enough about the Met, for the time being at least. Let’s let a little dust settle there. Can we talk about art for a day?

ThisIsAPortraitSpecifically, I want to commend the Bowdoin College Museum of Art for its current exhibition, This Is a Portrait If I Say So: Identity in American Art, 1912 to Today, which I’ve reviewed in tomorrow’s Wall Street Journal. It is billed as “more than 60 abstract, symbolic, and conceptual portraits across a wide range of media–reexamining over a century of portraiture and inspiring new ways to see ourselves and others.” The exhibition may be introduced with splashy red walls, but the labels–many of those for individual works run to more than 200 words–use words like “non-mimetic.” This is not for low-brows.

Given the push for crowd-pleasing exhibitions these days, it was a gutsy show to present. True, college museums are in better position to resist the pressure to present dumbed-down shows, but they are not immune to trends.

It was also a bit risky because, as I write in my review, much of the art in the show is not visually attractive, though it may be interesting. The intellectual content of some works is high, while others are humorous and some are even (to me) pranks. They employ symbols, everyday objects, typography and–later in the show–a lot of technology. Many, as Anne Goodyear, the co-curator who is also co-director of the Bowdoin Museum, told me, are “friendly representations, or teasing ones…done in the spirit of fun and friendship.”

Green-GreyAbstractionThe roster of artists in the show is impressive. They include Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia. Eleanor Antin, O’Keeffe, Dine, Yoko Ono, Ross Bleckner, Roni Horn–the list goes on.

Specifically, you can see Marden Hartley’s Portrait of his German lover, Karl von Freyburg, and Antin’s Carolee Schneemann, which consists of jar of honey, a velvet-draped easel and a full-length mirror, and Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Untitled 2008-2011 (the Map of the Land of Feeling I-III), a set of three mixed media scrolls that capture his movements around the world via his passport pages. Tom Friedman’s “Untitled” looks like an abstract color field painting—horizontal stripes—but is actually a rearrangement of the pixels in a digital portrait of himself. With nothing conventionally identifiable, the work mysteriously seems to be the opposite of a portrait. And is O’Keeffe’s Green-Grey Abstraction (right) a portrait, and of whom?

There is a problem for the casual visitor: To assess the success of some works, you have to know something about them and art-world networks. Or you have to be willing to learn. To get the most of out this exhibition, you have to work a little. But you will learn.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art  



  1. Jane Thompson says

    Why do people have to be so pompous when talking or writing about contemporary art? If a piece of visual art needs pages of words to make it accessible surely it has failed as visual art. 30,000 year old cave paintings can still reach us emotionally and intellectually today, but what will be the impact of today’s visual art in the distant future if all that explanation is separated from it?

    • Who said “pages of words”? Not I. Surely you can agree that art can be viewed and understood on many levels, and the more a viewer knows, the more he or she can appreciate it.

      • Jane Thompson says

        Absolutely art can and should be viewed on many levels, but appreciation comes more from exposure and desire to see as much art as possible. If the artist wishes to place explanation beside the work so be it, but assertions by others of what the artist means by the work can be misleading and detrimental, i.e. the suffering of Georgia O’Keeffe at the hands of ignorant rantings about what she really meant in her paintings. Let the artist speak and let the rest talk only of their own experience and not of what all should experience, it will always lead to influencing others rather than informing others. I appreciate you are in fact trying to encourage people to push their appeciation of contemporary art and I applaud that, but contemporary art, it seems to me, needs to be very careful to avoid explaining itself to death.

  2. Regarding the assertion “This Is a Portrait If I Say So”: Nothing is something just because someone SAYS it is, no matter the speaker or writer. So if it’s just that, the reply must be “No, it’s not.”

    The question you ask regarding the O’Keeffe painting—“[I]s O’Keeffe’s Green-Grey Abstraction a portrait, and of whom?”—implies, I think, that you don’t think it is, especially given that wonderful clincher at the end.

    Louis Torres, Co-Editor, Aristos (An Online Review of the Arts)

    • Not quite: I did not mean to imply that it’s not a portrait. I remain ready to learn and, as I understand it, some O’Keeffe scholars are researching the subject. I can only repeat what I have in another reply: some works can be read and understood on more than one level.

  3. Jane Thompson says

    Whatever an artist chooses to say about their work cannot be gainsaid by others. The artist after all is the creator and therefore the expert on what the art is purporting to be. We may find ourselves unable to comprehend the artist’s assertions and determine the artist has failed to communicate to the viewer their intent, but that does not make the artist wrong. It might make them inept, but they cannot be wrong, unless they set out to deceive. To discuss contemporary art one is forced into that can of worms discussion of ‘what is art?’ Sigh…., this will take till the end of time! Let us be content to determine our own taste as correct for us and hope that there will be enough of our taste in art to satisfy our needs as times change and that there will be others who wish to share in our personal vision. But one cannot stop the march of time, only lament that one is being left behind possibly.

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