What Is a Portrait?

I used to think that I knew what a portrait was: an image of a person, ideally offering a view into that person’s unique essence.

But after seeing a big exhibit — “Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney’s Collection” — I’m not sure what to think.

The exhibit is at the new Whitney Museum in New York, a fine space designed by Renzo Piano. The Whitney’s focus is American art from 1900 on, and the current show unfolds over two full floors.

I saw the exhibit about six weeks ago. There are many truly great works on display. I recommend a visit if you will be in New York between now and February.

But if you go, be prepared to find that the definition of portraiture has been stretched beyond recognition.

In his review, The New York Times critic Holland Cotter called the Whitney event “a show that’s big on weird and basically all about ego. . . .” That pretty well sums it up.

The first room of the exhibit features traditional portraiture, including Edward Hopper’s painting of himself, done in the traditional style.

But then it’s off to the races.

Soon comes a room of images called “Portraits without People” that perhaps takes its inspiration from the poet’s question, “How can we tell the dancer from the dance?”

The room includes a Georgia O’Keeffe painting, a Joseph Cornell box and a photograph of architect Philip Johnson’s glass house in New Canaan, Conn. All the works are easily identified with their artists, but none qualifies as a portrait.

On the other hand, an abstract painting by Marsden Hartley does seem like a portrait. It is a symbolic representation of a German officer whom Hartley loved and who died early in World War I.

Much of the rest of the two-floor show has to do with photography.

There is a Henry Taylor painting of Black Panther founder Huey Newton, based on a famous photograph of the man.






There is a 1929 Toyo Miyatake photograph of the Japanese dancer-choreographer Michio Ito. Every reference to the photograph notes that Ito, who worked in the U.S., was arrested for espionage early in World War II and was sent back to Japan after two years in an internment camp.


This information is interesting, but I wonder: Does the photo stand on its own or does it require a backstory to rise to the level of art?


Here’s a self-portrait, a great big self-portrait, rendered in paint from a photograph taken by a friend of the artist. Mostly it gives the impression that the artist takes himself pretty darn seriously.



This is another interesting piece, a series of photographs of raised fists, including protests and victory salutes. One fist is apparently that of Richard Nixon. The photos are mounted on wooden poles, suggesting marching banners or demonstrations. Does this qualify as a portrait?



There are other odd pieces: a series of large photographs of teenagers who committed mass shootings, a colored-pencil drawing of Amy Winehouse, a Richard Avedon fashion shot of 1950s super-model Dovima and two elephants, a 3-D wooden rendering of every school its artist attended, a very realistic-looking statue of a tired old anonymous woman sitting in a chair, an Andy Warhol diptych of Elvis Presley, Diane Arbus photographs taken on the streets of New York and two Robert Mapplethorpe photographs (one of which of course is not appropriate for small children.)

In addition to leaning more toward photography, the newer pieces in the display lean more toward political statements. I am not schooled in art history and do not know if politics-as-art always has been as big a theme as it is today, but I wonder whether the flowering of contemporary political art will resonate with people several generations from now.

The biggest draw in the show is a wax statue, seven or eight feet tall, of artist Julian Schnabel. It was made by a younger artist, Urs Fischer.



What is unusual about the statue is that it is also a candle. Every morning, the museum staff light the statue, which is melting down over time.

What are we to make of this? Hippocrates said “Ars longa, vita brevis,” but this art is more brevis than most vita.

Is the melting down a comment on the short shelf life of most human endeavors? Of the output of an artist?

My guess is the melting statue is there to attract attention. It is a theme of mine that people want to participate in things — they take selfies at crime scenes, they chase around cities playing Pokemon Go, they put bouquets in front of the homes of dead celebrities. This giant candle allows people to watch the deliberate immolation of a statue. It allows people to say, “I was there then.”

Like much else in the museum show, it is not really a portrait. Call it a process. Or a novelty.



1. It is understandable that the Whitney’s curators would wish to present some of the museum’s best works for the opening of the new location and also that they would like to have an organizing theme for the show. The problem is that the theme chosen doesn’t make sense given the content on display.

Words have meanings. To call the Whitney show “Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney’s Collection” is sloppy. What is not “human interest?” — human interest is the point of art. And portraits are portraits, not images that involve humans in any conceivable or tangential way.

We are generally sloppy with words these days. On June 30, I discussed how the word “interrogate” has come to be defined as “to examine a thing or an idea with hostility.” Politicians and activists now misuse words with great abandon and little concern for the consequences. If different groups adopt their own vocabularies with their own meanings, broad public conversation is going to become even more difficult than it already is.

2. In publicity for the show, the Whitney staff noted often that what is on display is just a sampling of the “thousands” of pieces of art in its inventory. Other major museums also have vaults full of material that is rarely, if ever, displayed. I find this unfortunate. If museums function as gatekeepers, deciding what people can see and when, they might as well be anonymous rich hoarders. The effect is the same.

One hundred years ago, Albert C. Barnes, a Philadelphia art collector with a great trove of fine Impressionist paintings, set up his own museum to make the work available to the public. It is a wacky conglomeration of objects that no curator would tolerate, but you can see the stuff, as he wanted.

More recently, contemporary collector Eli Broad found that many museums were interested in acquiring part or all of his collection, but that none would guarantee to put it on display. So he built his own museum in downtown Los Angeles.

So here we are: Art experts or rich people control public access, or lack thereof, to important art. Strange situation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s