“Tête-à-Tête”: Portraits at Allan Stone Projects
Portraiture is an ancient and durable genre. The vanity of patrons and the circumstances of official image-making play important roles in the tradition, of course, and much first-rate work—from the Roman Empire, Diego Velázquez, Anthony Van Dyck, James McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent, et al.—emerged from that system. But artists find the human face endlessly interesting, even without the prod of commissions. “Tête-à-Tête: Portraits in Dialogue,” at Allan Stone Projects in New York City (February 25–April 23, 2016), investigates these intimate encounters between artist and subject. Going further, the exhibition juxtaposes works by twentieth-century and contemporary artists, and the dialogue is illuminating. The French term Tete-à-Tête is both clever and apt, alluding to the fact that many of the works are essentially headshots and emphasizing the intimacy of artists working within a tradition.
One thing that stands out: works by Modernists we usually associate with abstraction come across as successfully convincing exercises in representation. The mimetic requirements of the genre are, no doubt, part of the equation. But these works also remind that the best modernism rested on a firm foundation of traditional skills. Willem de Kooning’s (1904–97) pencil Self-Portrait (1942–43) captures the structure of his face with economical panache, albeit with exaggerated eyes that suggest otherworldly intensity. The eyes mimic those of de Kooning’s mentor, the marvelous John Graham (1886–1961), the Ukrainian-born artist best known for his portraits of sibylline women. He is represented here by the pink-toned Sophie and Study for Marya (both 1943). Franz Kline (1910–62), identified with black-and-white abstractions that combine formal boldness with calligraphy refinement, began his career as an illustrator. His Self-Portrait (1945–47), a thickly painted oil, confronts the viewer with smoldering intensity. This group of works also demonstrates the allure of self-portraiture: the model always handy and cheap, the opportunity for introspection and image-making endlessly energizing.
Self-portraiture continues to find favor among contemporary artists, especially those associated with the revival of realism. Bo Bartlett (b. 1955) adds a literary dimension to his Self-Portrait as Ismael (2000). Bartlett considers himself an American Wyeth, as the reference in the title of his self-portrait to Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick underscores. Bartlett appears, bust-length, in the foreground, wearing a dark coat and turtleneck, with the wind blowing his hair. The archetypal backdrop is the ocean, with green waves.
Bo Bartlett confines his allusion to the title of Self-Portrait as Ismael; the image itself stands alone as straightforward representation, with a certain timeless man-of-the-sea quality. George Deem (1932–2008) could be considered a postmodern artist, playing around with art history by replicating old master works but combining elements in new ways. A famous interior, for example, appears with figures borrowed from another artist. His favorite subjects were taken from Vermeer, and he titled one of his books How to Paint a Vermeer: A Painter’s History of Art (2004). The strategy is evident in Deem’s Portrait of an American Priest (1971), in which a two-tiered backdrop replicates Jean-François Millet’s The Gleaners (1857) and abstract oriental-rug pattern in a somewhat washed-out palette. The focus of the composition, however, stays on the portrait subject, sitting with crossed legs and regarding us warily through eyeglasses. Deem shows us something about an individual here, as well as demonstrating solid technique.
Susan Hauptman (1947–2015), too, combines traditional skills and thoughtful curiosity about an individual in her charcoal Portrait of Leonard (1986). The subject, the artist’s husband, is meticulously observed: attention to detail in this profile headshot reaches a climax in the fine-textured depiction of his mustache and eyelashes. He is a strong physical presence. At the same time, the artist’s signature pale monochrome has a ghastly poignancy.
Full-figure portraits have their own dynamic. Guy Pène du Bois (1884–1958) favored flappers and other good-time moderns as subjects. His Portrait of Yvonne in Camp Choir (1931–32) follows a basic portrait formula, but the girl’s bobbed hair and rumpled collar add insouciance to a conventionally demure pose. The tilted line that divides floor from wall also telegraphs a modernist message.
William Beckman (b. 1942) communicates a certain unease in his Portrait of Diana II (Pink Dress), from 1972. The girl stands, somewhat awkwardly, barefoot on the wood floor, with a strip of oriental rug limiting her space. The grey walls and window (with flower pot) further define her space. Gesture and posture are equally telling in Study for Diana and Deirdre (1979), a charcoal in which two young women, one sitting, one standing uneasily, coexist.
Allan Stone Projects, 535 West 22nd Street, New York, NY 10011 allanstoneprojects.com