The Whitney Museum has done a complete reinstallation across two floors of the museum for “Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney’s Collection.” The exhibition was designed as a continuation of “America is Hard to See,” the show that inaugurated the new Gansevoort Street building. This time, the collection is viewed through a narrower lens, focusing on portraiture. Whitney chief curator, Scott Rothkopf, and Dana Miller, director of the permanent collection, sought not just to present portraits, but to question notions of what portraiture is and can be. “There are a couple of places where we twisted or pulled the definition a little bit. We didn’t want to have 250 faces in the show,” Miller explained.
From over 1,000 portraits, they culled a collection that proves that more than just the faces of people can constitute portraits. Eras, states of mind, political climates, landscapes and emotions also come alive through artists’ eyes. The curators have broken the exhibition into twelve sections, each of which frames a different vision and tells a story. Together, they paint their own portraits, including one of the Whitney, itself. “There’s a kind of voicey-ness that feels very Whitney,” said Rothkopf.
The exhibition starts on the seventh floor, where we face a wall of portraits in mostly black and white, hung salon-style, providing a visual scavenger hunt for those we recognize either as the subject, the maker, or both. There are photographs of a brooding Willem de Kooning and a carefree, laughing Jasper Johns hanging just below a contemplative Cy Twombly captured by the provocative Robert Rauschenberg. There’s a photograph of Edward Hopper that looks directly across at Hopper’s own self portrait in a soft, brown hat.
Peggy Bacon’s caricature of Georgia O’Keeffe hangs near O’Keeffe’s “Summer Days,” an iconic skull painting that evokes O’Keeffe’s presence more than a likeness of her could ever do. Alice Neel’s haunting portrait of Andy Warhol presents his damaged human form (scarred from surgery, half naked and vulnerable) imparting an innocence in gentle pastels and heavenly blue, and in doing so makes him more monumental than any blown up six-foot head shot he did of himself.
While there are artists for whom only one work is presented, there are others like Cindy Sherman who we watch progress over decades. Sherman portrays herself in the guise of some of the roles women accept, play, or are put into. It’s fascinating to watch her morph from a cheerful, if ditzy, secretary to a glaring society matron, her condescending gaze nailing the viewer, like Eliot’s Prufrock, “sprawling on a pin.”
Different galleries present portraits of artists, portraits of the street and New York, portraits achieved by what they omit (where objects or personal spaces define a persona), depictions of the famous, and of the alienating cost of fame. On the sixth floor, later and larger works dominate the space with a huge Chuck Close, and an Alex Katz group portrait. Nearby, Warhol’s “Nine Jackies” and “Ethel Scull 36 Times” face Deborah Kass’s riff on them, “Six Red Barbaras.”
Perhaps the most powerful grouping is the gallery that presents “Institutional Complex.” Here we’re confronted, more than anywhere else in the exhibition, with ourselves. This is a group of works that explore how images are used to control, codify and regulate individuals. Robert Beck’s “School Shooters” series, Glen Ligon’s self portrait that echoes the poses of mug shots, Annette Lemieux’s protest signs, and Gary Simmons’ “Lineup” of gold plated basketball shoes in front of a police lineup platform invite us to consider how we respond or contribute to our complex and often unkind society. Mike Kelley’s “Educational Complex” (not often on view) is a perplexing and fascinating conglomeration of architectural models. In a way, it questions how accurately we can portray anyone, including ourselves. Kelley made models of every school he’d ever attended and the house he grew up in, leaving out any part he couldn’t recall. He combined them into one superschool, then whitewashed them all. It was made as a response to a fad - the infatuation with the idea that repressed memories are the result of emotional trauma. Rejecting that premise, he documented that not only couldn’t he remember large parts of his life, but he said, “Nobody can.” What society doesn’t whitewash, our porous memories do.
The exhibition closes with a light note in the form of a giant candle – a portrait of the artist Julian Schnabel sculpted in wax by Urs Fischer. It’s lit each day, and it will gradually melt, being unmade over the course of time, a fate shared by all those portrayed in the exhibition. “Human Interest” will be on view through February, 12, 2017. Several of the works will be rotated, providing chances to catch some face time with additional artists.