We humans have been gazing at our reflections for eternity. We are fascinated by our own visage and have sought to preserve it in sculpture, painting, photography, and video. Our portraits are as individual as our fingerprints, and there are many ways to “paint” the story of a person’s life. From a handprint to a text description of hair and face, from an eye portrait to a rack of uniforms, from a Google search window to a vanishing reflection in a puddle of water, “Striking Resemblance: The Changing Art of Portraiture” at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers through Sunday, July 13, spans two centuries and the work of 80 artists from around the world.
In the age of the selfie, Zimmerli curator Donna Gustafson and Rutgers professor of art history Susan Sidlauskas sought to discover what new could be said about the portrait, to provoke new thinking on a staid genre. So they did what professors do: They co-taught an exhibition seminar for 13 graduate students and, with contributions from these students, launched the Zimmerli’s first online publication, “Not About Face: Identity and Appearance, Past and Present.”
“Portraits are used in personal and private ways and continue to elicit strong feelings that have little to do with the ability of the artist and much to do with the individual portrayed,” write Gustafson and Sidlauskas in the handsome and scholarly 176-page catalog accompanying the exhibition. “As a society, we collect images of friends and family and use these portraits to assert our place in a social world awash in photographic images.”
Portraits appear on Facebook and other social media sites, the curators point out. They exist as documentary evidence of experiences lived and as records of moments in time, such as school pictures. “In the wake of these technologies and new roles for the image of the self, the painted portraits common to the 18th and 19th centuries have lost ground to photography, the dominant image-making tool in our celebrity-driven, surveillance-focused culture,” they write.
To present a new way of looking at how people view themselves, their significant others, and tribes, the exhibition is grouped into single, double, and group portraits. Contemporary works borrowed from other institutions help to highlight works from the Zimmerli’s rich holdings of American, European, Russian, and Soviet art.
“Historically, portraiture is a popular genre, and there have been many studies of the portrait and the self-portrait: as a phenomenon of class and power, a democratized art, and an expression of personal exploration,” observes Gustafson.
“This exhibition takes a new approach to portraiture: through the lens of social engagement,” adds Sidlauskas. “We focused on the portrait as a social medium to think about how we present ourselves, our significant relationships, and our communities.”
Enter the single portrait section of the exhibition and you are surrounded by walls hung with oil paintings from the Zimmerli’s collection — “Lucretia Harris Holmes” (mid-late 1830s), attributed to Ammi Phillips, and “Portrait of Princess Ekaterina Nikolaevna Lopukhina (Portrait of a Lady)” from 1799, attributed to Russian artist Petr Levitsky, among them. These represent the traditional portrait as a means by which individuals are honored and remembered by friends and families.
But who says a portrait has to include the face, or even the figure? In one is a clothing rack outfitted with boys’ school uniforms, gradually growing into larger sizes and military uniforms. “Uni-Form/s: Self Portrait/s: All My 39 Years” (2006, fiberglass resin, stainless steel, casters) is a contemporary portrait by Do Ho Suh, the sculptor and installation artist who divides his time between Seoul and New York. In this case, the self-portrait is more about the empty space, what’s not there.
Here we also see English and American eye portrait miniatures, on loan from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which were popular in Victorian times and carried as mementoes of loved ones. Often worn as jewelry or carried in a pocket watch, these painted love tokens look eerily photorealistic, as if little eyes are watching over you, perhaps saying “don’t betray me, I’ve got an eye on you.”
Contemporary artist Tabitha Vevers updates the eye portrait miniatures with her own series of “Lover’s Eyes” (2002-2012), incorporating eyes from paintings by Bronzino, Manet, and Rosetti. Painted in oil on ivorine, it is as if the people painted by these masters so long along are still looking out at us today, a past tradition peering at how life is lived in our times. This is the very connection, between past and present, that resonates throughout “Striking Resemblance.” These eye portraits give credence to the saying that eyes are the windows to the soul.
The self-portrait goes back to the 16th century and Raphael, says Gustafson. In contemporary times artists Alex Katz, Alice Neel, and Chuck Close made self-portraits that are recognizable as the artists. By 1968, innovative American artist Robert Rauschenberg re-invented the self-portrait in his “Autobiography” lithograph in which he uses an X-ray and other images that have little to do with his physical appearance.
Among other self-portraits by contemporary artists are a palm pressed up against glass by Gary Schneider, an oil painting of black letters on white “vivid streaks of blonde and brown hair and uniquely broad visible cheekbones,” and Willie Cole’s inkjet print, “Silex Male, Ritual,” of a full frontal view and back of a male nude, scarified with the print of an iron, Cole’s signature icon.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres, whose black-and-white photo of an unmade bed was recently featured on billboards throughout the region by Princeton University Art Museum, continues to mourn the passing of his lover in “Striking Resemblance” with “Untitled (Double Portrait),” a stack of offset prints of two circles, just touching, that visitors are invited to take. By giving away his art in this manner, Gonzalez-Torres questions concepts of ownership and value while evoking the transience of art and life.
Rineke Dijkstra — her work was recently seen in Princeton University Art Museum’s “Shared Vision” exhibition — likes to photograph adolescent girls, barely clad, struggling to find comfort in their own skin. Here we see a girl perhaps 12, in that awkward stage between childhood and teenager, wearing a camisole and short shorts, looking lost in a forest. Are Dinkstra’s subjects exposed, or exposing themselves?
A double portrait may be a portrait of a couple — twins, siblings, parent and child, partners — but it can also be a portrait doubled, a single individual who has been copied or split in two selves, according to Gustafson. From the 1890s we see “Child and Doll,” a gelatin silver print of a little girl and her life-sized doll. You really have to look closely to see that one is human and one is a doll, for the doll is so lifelike and the girl a “living doll.” Each wears the same white frilly dress, the same black boots, and leggings. Who’s calling the shots? Gustafson wants to know.
“The double portrait can project a special connection between two individuals, a disruption of identity when two look like one, or an interior schism in the essential makeup of an individual,” writes Gustafson.
Narcissus looking at his reflection was a double, as is a girl looking in a mirror. Another kind of double is the double exposure of the notorious femme fatale Luisa Casati in a 1925 photograph by American avant-garde artist Man Ray. And yet another is influential French artist Marcel Duchamp’s alter ego as a woman, Rose Selavy, as photographed by Man Ray.
In another work, contemporary artist Tabitha Vevers intersects with Man Ray, painting the photographer’s eye along with Lee Miller’s — Miller, a photographer, was assistant and lover to Man Ray. Vevers puts the lovers’ eyes on two metronomes so they bend and click toward and away from each other. In addition to this sculpture she has made a video of the metronomic lovers.
Celebrated American photographer Diane Arbus’ 1967 photograph of identical twins in Roselle, New Jersey, wearing black dresses with white collars and cuffs, white headbands holding back all but the bangs of their flip hairdos, is a classic. In 1979, respected New Jersey-based photographer Donald Lokuta photographed the same pair, now young women wearing plaid skirts and jackets and makeup over their pimpled faces. Photojournalist and street photographer Mary Ellen Mark, too, photographs Shane and Shawn, 29-year-old dark-skinned twins in identical patterned shirts, forming a heart shape with their clasped hands.
Yet another double is innovative conceptual and installation artist Fred Wilson’s “X from the Exit Art portfolio Trantra,” in which Malcolm X is juxtaposed with American painter John Singer Sargent’s scandalous 1884 painting “Portrait of Madame X.
It’s fun in groups. Contemporary filmmaker and photographer Nikki S. Lee assumes the identity of a drag queen, a skateboarder, a Hispanic teenager (she is South Korean), and a hip-hop fan in photographic tableaus. “She fits in and stands out simultaneously, adopting the rituals, habits, dress, and mannerisms of the group that no one outside would guess that she is not one of them,” says Sidlauskas. “It’s about how pliant identity can be.”
“All of us perform our identity all the time,” says Gustafson. “I come to work dressed as a museum curator.”
Multi-media sculptor Red Grooms’ “Cedar Bar,” on loan from Princeton University Art Museum, a large mixed-media diorama of the watering hole for abstract expressionist artists and critics, uses exaggerated features and outlandish colors for subjects that reveal their identities: Jackson Pollock in trademark striped shirt squirting ketchup and mustard all over the table, with Lee Krasner, Barnett Newman, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and others.
“445 Portraits of a Man,” made between 1930 and 1950 by an unidentified artist, was discovered by Gustafson among the works in a private collections. The images of one man, at different ages and variously dressed with a necktie or bowtie, suit jacket, or white shirt, were all made in a photo booth.
We also see Andy Warhol’s moving portraits of celebrities Lou Reed, Baby Jane Holzer, Dennis Hopper, “Woman in the Dunes” actress Kyoko Kishida, and others from the screen tests Warhol shot as “living portraits” in his Factory. The subjects sat for Warhol and his 16 mm Bolex camera a wall away.
What will portraits be like in the future? With so many billions of online portraits out there, what is the value of a single one? Which will be remembered? Or will we all be lost to history? DNA “portraits” have already become thoughtful gifts for our loved ones.
Before exiting “Striking Resemblance,” visitors have the opportunity to make selfies in the photo booth — the Zimmerli plans to post these on Facebook and Instagram.
Striking Resemblance: The Changing Art of Portraiture, Zimmerli Art Museum, 71 Hamilton Street, Rutgers University, New Brunswick. Through Sunday, July 13, Tuesdays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays, noon to 5 p.m.,first Wednesdays of the month, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. $ 5 to $6, free on the first Sunday of each month. 848-932-7237 or www.zimmerlimuseum.rutgers.edu.
Special Offer: The Zimmerli Art Museum will offer free admission from Friday, May 16, through Sunday, May 18, as part of Rutgers University’s Alumni Weekend and Association of Art Museum Directors’ annual Art Museum Day, which coincides with International Museum Day.