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"Face Value: Portraiture in the Age of Abstraction" opens at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington
Marilyn Monroe by Willem de Kooning, 1954. Oil on canvas, 127 x 76.2cm. Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College, State University of New York; gift of Roy R. Neuberger. Photograph by Jim Frank© The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

WASHINGTON, DC.- After World War II, as American Abstract Expressionists attained international prominence, portraiture, as one critic expressed it, came “to a dead halt.” Another declaimed authoritatively that a progressive artist could no longer paint the figure. In the late 1960s, when Chuck Close started making his large heads, he recalled that “the dumbest, most moribund, out-of-date, and shopworn of possible things you could do was to make a portrait.” While figurative art declined between 1945 and 1975 in response to this prejudice, a number of artists, after fully immersing themselves in the lessons of abstraction, self-consciously and often defiantly took up the challenge of reinventing portraiture. Women and minorities, excluded from the artistic mainstream but flexing new muscles, also invigorated traditions with powerful political or humanistic themes.

Against the background of a post–World War II cultural resurgence in music, poetry, theater, and film—as well as Cold War paranoia and the growing activism regarding civil rights, the Vietnam War, feminism, and other movements—midcentury artists challenged the stereotype of homogenous American life by reassessing the individual. Keenly aware of the disdain for tradition, these artists chose to explore figurative imagery deliberately. While never forming a single style or school, their artworks exploited the themes and aesthetics of their generation and reinvigorated portraiture as a progressive art form. The public enthusiasm for the 1976 exhibition of portraits that Andy Warhol and Jamie Wyeth made of each other signaled a rebirth in the art world of the age-old impulse for human portrayal.

“Face Value: Portraiture in the Age of Abstraction” features mid-20th century artists who were reinventing portraiture at a moment when most agreed that figuration was dead as a progressive art form. Chuck Close recalled that during this time, “the dumbest, most moribund, out-of-date, and shopworn of possible things you could do was to make a portrait.” And yet, with startling freshness and a touch of defiance, a group of young artists demonstrated the value of exploring the face and figure.

With more than 50 paintings, drawings, prints and sculpture from approximately 1945 to 1975, “Face Value” highlights the innovations of American portraiture hiding behind the vogue for abstraction. Artists such as Alice Neel, Elaine de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, Beauford Delaney, Alex Katz, Romare Bearden, Fairfield Porter, Jamie Wyeth and Andy Warhol, along with lesser-known artists, pushed the boundaries of portrait traditions. Inspired by the theories and ambitions of the Abstract Expressionists and keenly attuned to the themes of their own turbulent times, they reinterpreted human portrayal, reinventing portraiture for the next generation. The curators for this exhibition are senior curator of prints and drawings Wendy Wick Reaves, chief curator Brandon Fortune and senior historian David C. Ward.

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April 20, 2014

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