By now you’re probably familiar with the paintings in the museum’s famously orange Portraiture Gallery. Perhaps you’re a fan of the oft-photographed line-up of James McNeill Whistler’s Arrangement in Black No. 5: Lady Meux, Alex Katz’s Ada with Black Scarf, and John Singer Sargent’s Mrs. Thomas Lincoln Manson, Jr. Or maybe you stop in to view John Singleton Copley’s Nathaniel Allen and Gilbert Stuart’s Governor John Brooks, together on a power wall of early Americana. Many of you are no doubt drawn to George Romney’s Portrait of Lady Elizabeth Haythorne, dressed to impress and regally posed against the backdrop of her formidable estate. And still more of you can’t help but be moved by Alice Neel’s forceful rendering of the sculptor Marisol. But did you ever notice that every three months or so micro-exhibitions—like German Expressionist prints, contemporary sculpture, artists’ self-portraits, and 18th- and 19th-century portrait miniatures—pop up in the gallery’s glass cases? These mini-shows give us curators a chance to peruse our storage vaults, and put together thematic displays of artworks that also happen to be portraits.
Beginning Dec. 17, the Portraiture Gallery will be host to a group of five landmark examples of 20th-century portrait photography, all of which, in the true spirit of the genre, focus on the psychological transaction between subject, artist and viewer. Arguably the most democratic of the portraiture media, photography took off during the 20th century, not only establishing itself successfully as a fine art, but dominating the commercial front as well. As the century progressed, technological breakthroughs—portable cameras, faster exposures, accessible processing methods, digitization—transformed photography from a clunky, impractical method of mechanical reproduction to a dynamic and multifaceted agent of representation. With the advent of the snapshot, photography became readily adaptable to personal use, and portraiture became more intimate and less formal.
In their emphasis on notions of novelty and notoriety, the photographs slated for display in the Portraiture Gallery speak to today’s media-rich society. On view will be a portrait of Andy Warhol by the celebrity photographer Paul Weiss, who spent time in Warhol’s entourage, had intimate access to the artist-impresario, and as a result managed to capture him in a rare moment of informality. Echoing Weiss’s response to Warhol’s casual self-awareness will be documentary photographer Mary Ellen Mark’s poignant rendering of elephant trainer Ram Prakash Singh, whose enchanting interaction with the elephant Shyama reflects not only deep trust between animal and handler, but also easy rapport between artist and subject, for Mark traveled extensively in India and immersed herself in the circus acts she encountered there.
Joining those two works will be André Kertész’s “portrait” of the Hungarian composer Paul Arma, which, reflective of the spare and understated modernism of both artists, reduces the bespectacled pianist to his delicate hands and horn-rimmed glasses. Similarly, Marvin Israel presents a fragmented Elvis Presley through key elements of his talent and trappings, isolated to signify his persona as a pop idol. And finally, William Wegman poses his signature and ever-patient weimaraner in the spirit of a Hollywood headshot, gazing beguilingly—and sardonically—at the camera with contrived eyes of blue.
The photography display will be on view through April 3, 2016.
I would like to see a permanent section devoted to photography in the museum. Many museums have done this for many years now. Shouldn’t this museum also do this. It is like always having a spot for impressionistic painting.