Whitney Museum exhibit reinvents well-known genre of art

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Currently on display at the Whitney Museum is Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney’s Collection. It focuses on artists’ interpretations of portraits, one of the oldest genres of art. The Whitney is no stranger to portraits, and is proud to display a variety of interpretations from the last century. The artists tackle the genre in their own unique ways. Some of the portraits are not even of people, but of objects, colors and shapes that act as metaphors. The exhibition’s overarching spectrum marks it as overwhelming, striking and bold.

Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney’s Collection is the Whitney Museum’s newest overwhelming and striking exhibit.

Advised by staff to go from top to bottom, viewers spot unconventionality as soon as they exit the museum’s seventh floor. Venturing off conformity for more creative pursuits, Portraits Without People attempts to capture the essence of an individual through objects instead of traditional portraits. Though vague, one can decipher these ambiguous portraits with enough patience and an eye for detail.

At the center of the gallery hangs a piece titled Racing Thoughts by Jasper Johns, a U.S. artist. The portrait represents what Johns saw whenever he laid down in his bathtub. Interposed into the piece are his artistic muses—a photo of Leo Castelli, his art dealer, a pot by ceramicist George Ohr, a lithograph by Barnett Newman and a reproduction of the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci. Alongside these objects is a pair of trousers Johns hung from a hook, and the faucet and nozzle of the bathtub. Johns said that the images ran “through my head without any connectedness that I could see,” while he was in the tub. What can be seen in the portrait is up for debate and interpretation; however, some say faces can be seen in the background.

Public interest in celebrities skyrocketed at the start of the 20th century. New forms of entertainment such as vaudeville, theater, cabaret, sports games and motion pictures spearheaded the movement. Artists of the time delved into these new forms and began to incorporate scenes of popular events into their work. Boxing, legalized in New York City in 1920, soon became a very popular and profitable sport.

Dempsey and Firpo, by George Bellows, captures the exact moment Luis Angel Firpo knocked Jack Dempsey out of the ring with a blowing left-hook, during their championship boxing match in 1923, considered the most dramatic sports moment of that time. Instead of giving the portrait an aerial view of the fight, Bellows provided perspective of someone sitting ringside, immediately behind the press pit. Dempsey, fallen from the ring, lands on an unfortunate sports journalist. Fripo stands over him like a god.

Geometry is also incorporated into the portrait. Hidden in plain sight throughout the portrait is the letter V. The V, symbolic for victory, bears irony considering that the image shows Fripo knocking Dempsey out of the ring although Dempsey ultimately won the fight. Bellows had attended the event as a sports journalist and included himself in the portrait—he stands in the lower left corner of the frame.

New York City has provided artists with inspiration for hundreds of years. Portraits of the city either capture it as the destination for self-invention or as a backdrop that acts as a metaphor for the fears and dreams of those who call it home. New Yorkers I, simply titled by Howard Kanovitz, stands as a prime example. The portrait, taken from a newspaper photo, shows Richard Rogers, a famed Broadway composer, speaking in front of a group of men. Their coats and ties embody New York City as much as the skyline in the background does—a  professional place where serious work is done.

In the middle of the 20th century, artists like Andy Warhol brought the deep thematic elements of modern art together with the bright colors and bold statements of advertisement. The result was a highly stylistic critique on modern society, celebrity worship and shallowness. Provocatively titled Madonna and Child, by Allan D’Arcangelo, depicts the portraits of Jacqueline Kennedy with her young daughter Caroline that illustrate the style well. What is most striking about the painting is that subjects do not have faces but still remain recognizable. Though the portrait’s title compares them to holy figures, the duo is reduced to figures made for public consumption that are only identifiable by their hairstyles and material possessions.

Human Interest is a captivating exhibition. It takes a well-known genre of art, something that is as common as it is traditional, and reinvents it into something new. Bold interpretations are enough to provide one with many hours of head tilting and chin scratching. The exhibition is currently on display. Admission to the Whitney Museum of American Art is free with a valid CUNY ID.