Portraiture in the Time of Mad Men

The Portrait Gallery takes a look at portraiture as it faces Abstract Expressionism in the era of Don Draper’s mid-century modernism

Artist Philip Pearlstein moved away from abstraction in the 1960s, but his portrait style rejected tradition, painting his sitters as still-life objects, such as this 1968 double portrait of painter Al Held and sculptor Sylvia Stone. Photograph courtesy of the artist and Betty Cuningham Gallery, Photography by Philip Ennik
"The triptych view of a single man—rather like the effect of standing in front of a tailor's tri-mirror—depicts a fashionable young black man in his spectators and casually draped overcoat," writes curator David C. Ward of Barkley Hendricks' Sir Charles, Alias Willy Harris . National Gallery of Art, William C. Whitney Foundation
Animals populate the paintings of California artist Joan Brown. Her 1970 Self Portrait of Fish and Cat, she said, depicts what she had described as an "exchange of the animal nature and the human nature." Courtesy of George Adams Gallery, New York
Andy Warhol posed his subject, Jamie Wyeth, in a dreamy, contemplative pose in 1976 and People magazine reported that Wyeth loved the portrait. Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum of Art, Nashville, TN
In 1976, Jamie Wyeth painted Andy Warhol holding his dachshund, using a strobe light to reveal excruciating detail. Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum of Art, Nashville, TN
African American artist Benny Andrews paid homage to his mother in his 1974 Mrs. Viola Andrews—My Mother. ©Estate of Benny Andrews/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY, Photograph by Joshua Nefsky
Feminist Sylvia Sleigh's gender reversing recast of Auguste-Dominiqe Ingres' 1862 The Turkish Bath depicts naked men in her version of the same title. The reclining man is her husband. The David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago; Purchase, Paul and Miriam Kirkley Fund for Acquisitions
In 1964, Andy Warhol began a series of paintings of Jackie Kennedy, shortly after the assassination of her husband John F. Kennedy. The image was a cropped and flipped version of a photograph taken during the Dallas motorcade. Smithsonian American Art Museum
Feminist artist Alice Neel painted this portrait in 1969 of her son's girlfriend Ginny Taylor, who said the painting caught "a young idealistic and earnest member of the sixties generation who had seen just enough to doubt but still wanted to believe in a utopian future." Estate of Alice Neel
Chuck Close had declared portraiture "dead," but for his 1968 large, monumental, portrait of his friend artist Nancy Graves he saw the "fresh potential" of painting the figure. ©Chuck Close/Courtesy Pace Gallery, Photography by Larry Sanders
Artist Louisa Matthíasdóttir, who was born in Iceland, said she always liked "strong color," because in the North, "they paint bright paintings to overcome the dark." This 1945-46 work, entitled Interior with Leland depicts her husband, fellow artist, Leland Bell. Private collection
Will Barnet painted his friend, art historian and educator Ruth Bowman in 1967 after a period of painting abstractly. The Metropolitan Museum of Art; gift of Ruth and R. Wallace Bowman, 1998 Art © Will Barnet/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY and Alexandre Gallery, New York, NY.
The loft of artist Nell Blaine, who painted this portrait of artist Jane Freilicher in 1953, was a gathering place for a host of a painters and poets. Private collection
Artist Marisol Escobar portrayed Hugh Hefner with his trademark pipe, both smoking and holding it in this 1966-67 oversized wood sculpture. National Portrait Gallery, gift of Time Magazine Art © Marisol/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Artist Alfred Leslie turned to figure painting, including his wife in this 1964-66 work entitled, Lisa Bigelow, after creating abstract painting for a decade. He saw figuration as an "equal partner, without negating the value or power of abstraction." Indiana University Art Museum, Bloomington, 10.107. Purchased with the aid of funds from the National Endowment for the Arts (c) Alfred Leslie, Photograph by Michael Cavanagh and Kevin Montague
In portraying his patron Joseph H. Hirshhorn in 1963, the founder of the Smithsonian's contemporary art museum, artist Larry Rivers "produced a composition that deftly commented on and deconstructed the history of official portraiture," writes curator Brandon Brame Fortune Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Gift of Joseph Hirshhorn, 1966 Art © Estate of Larry Rivers/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Alex Katz's silhouette, says curator David C. Ward, catches the poet Frank O'Hara both present and absent. "He is the outline of a figure, not the figure itself—as always, O'Hara was in the world of his own imagination even in the midst of life." Courtesy Robert Miller Gallery, New York, Art © Alex Katz/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
In the early 1950s, Willem de Kooning had moved steadily away from figurative painting but was still representational, like his 1954 portrait of Marilyn Monroe. 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
Elaine de Kooning's 1956 portrait of critic Harold Rosenberg blends abstraction with a figurative touch. National Portrait Gallery, courtesy of Elaine de Kooning Trust
Artist Fairfield Porter, who portrayed poet John Ashbery in 1952, was a determined counterpoint to Abstract Expressionism, concentrating on landscape and the figure. "I want to do everything that avant-garde theoreticians say you can't do," he said. Collection The Flow Chart Foundation. Courtesy Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York

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.

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