In the world of television’s much-loved drama series, “Mad Men,” we enter the age of abstract expressionism. The artwork on the walls in Pete Campbell’s office, hanging in Don Draper’s dining room and dramatically staged behind Roger Sterling’s sofa all drive home the long-held conceit that at the height of the mid-century era, figurative painting, representational art and realism in all of its varieties was in steep decline.
The drips and sprays of a Jackson Pollack are born in an era defined by the Cold War, the uniformity of Levittowns, and the cropped militaristic hairstyles and gray flannel suits of the “Organization Man.” And every week as the opening credits roll beneath that ominous melody, "Mad Men" viewers are treated to that chill tension of those times as they watch their favorite degenerates, the advertising pitch men of Madison Avenue, toss back their mid-day bourbons.
In the light of the fascination that TV audiences now have for that period, curators David C. Ward, Brandon Brame Fortune and Wendy Wick Reaves of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery have assembled a collection of artworks, depicting the human form and dating from 1945 to 1975, when the New York art world had declared, amidst the ascendency of expressionism, the death of portraiture.
Thumbing their noses at Norman Rockwell as middle class kitsch, the critics of that period, enamored of abstraction, declared that to make “a human image” was simply “absurd,” and old fashioned. To make a portrait, painter Chuck Close said in 1968, was the “dumbest, most moribund, out-of-date, and shopworn of possible things you could do.” And pounding the final nail in the coffin, critic Clement Greenberg said: “It is impossible to paint a face.”
But the Portrait Gallery’s three scholars argue that portraiture did not vanish. Nor was it later revived or resuscitated, instead it thrived. And the 50 paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures that are featured in the museum’s exhibition and catalog, both entitled: “Face Value: Portraiture in the age of Abstraction” tell a far more subtle and nuanced story of the artists and how they depicted a generation of mid-century influencers, philosophers, activists, artists and celebrities. Disciplines came together, merged and broke away, the curators say, and regional artists, outliers and minorities were all still passionately depicting the human form and face.
For portraiture, the scholars argue, the traditional became revolutionary. The artists, who were told they couldn’t paint figures, says curator Wendy Wick Reaves, did so anyway in defiance. “Everything receives an intensity—an extra punch,” she says.
The exhibition portrays a host of what would be Don Draper’s real life contemporaries—Marilyn Monroe as depicted by Willem de Kooning, poet John Ashbery as portrayed by Fairfield Porter and Jack Kerouac as sketched by Larry Rivers. Others like Stokely Carmichael with his working man overalls, Jackie Kennedy with her pill box hat and Hugh Hefner with his ubiquitous pipe retain their characteristic traits, but are portrayed as if in response, or more certainly in spite of the critics.
Visitors to this show are treated to a rare and splendid display of portraits pulled from the museum’s collections, as well as borrowed works, including Andy Warhol, Elaine de Kooning and Jamie Wyeth. This show might certainly be the opportunity to immerse oneself in the new scholarship of the exhibition's organizers, but also it presents the chance to step back into the time of "Mad Men" and to better understand that anxiety-ridden era of atomic bombs, Vietnam War protests, the struggle for Civil Rights and the Cold War.