"Face Value: Portraiture in the Age of Abstraction" is open through January 11, 2015
The mid-twentieth century was a ground-breaking period in the genre of portraiture. Prior to 1945, portraiture was generally small scale, focused on a realistically painted, recognizable likeness that probed personality. After 1945, portraiture took on the unrest of the world; two global wars and the development of the atomic bomb gave writers, musicians, and artists a modern set of lenses through which to view their environments. In addition Abstract Expressionism offered new tools for making a picture. The old traditions were eschewed and a less formal, more exploratory dynamic took their place.
With the opening of "Face Value: Portraiture in the Age of Abstraction," the National Portrait Gallery celebrates that new expression of portraiture by American artists from 1945 to 1975. National Portrait Gallery director Kim Sajet commented, “It’s a fabulous, brilliant show; it’s wonderful for the Portrait Gallery. It shows our continuing commitment to modern art and biography.”
"Face Value" was team-curated by National Portrait Gallery senior curator of prints and drawings Wendy Wick Reaves, chief curator Brandon Fortune and senior historian David Ward. The show contains fifty-five works by forty-five artists, including portraits from the Portrait Gallery’s collection as well as other major American museums and private collections. “These artists,” notes Reaves, “are all learning about abstraction; they are learning those lessons and applying them to portraiture.”
Works like Elaine de Kooning’s Self Portrait (1946) and David Parks’ Woman with Red Mouth (1954-55) reflect a stripping-away of the fixed and rigid styles of older works and a much looser composition. Jane Freilicher’s Frank O’Hara portrays a mostly featureless sitter, though the work captures the complex nature of its subject. Ward states in his catalog essay of the piece, “Frank O’Hara was the charismatic figure in New York City’s culture . . . His friend Freilicher painted an especially sensitive series of sketches and paintings of him, including the one shown here.” Other works such as Red Grooms’ Loft on 26th Street are more figurative, but contain sitters portrayed in a carnivalesque, high animation.
"Face Value" captures those decades in which portraiture fought to remain relevant. As the curatorial team comments in the catalog preface, the purpose of the exhibition is “to gather the disparate threads of midcentury portraiture to weave together a vital but overlooked chapter in the history of this enduring art form.”
--Warren Perry, Catalog of American Portraits, National Portrait Gallery