April 13, 2021 Taos, New Mexico

The Harwood Museum of Art

Masthead image Menu
Saturday, June 3 - Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Errant Eye: Portraits in a Landscape

Galleries: Joyce and Sherman Scott Gallery, Peter & Madeleine Martin Gallery, Ellis-Clark Taos Moderns Gallery, Dorothy and Jack Brandenburg Gallery, Mandelman-Ribak Gallery, and Caroline Lee and Bob Ellis Gallery
Portrait of Agnes Martin, 1999, photograph by Elinor CarucciSarah Stolar, Guard Dogs, 2016-17 Oscar E. Berninghaus Santiago, The War Chief, c.1930, Oil painting, 30 x 34 1/16 in
Click an image to enlarge or view slideshow

Portrait denotes a “likeness,” an image of someone real, an existence it captures for us, an essence it proffers for discernment. This primary sense of portraiture, as a vital link to a natural order outside the mind—to reality—is arguably the most constant trait in the long and winding course of Western visual representation, whether in its pictorial manifestations as painting or drawing, its plastic embodiment as sculpture, or its disclosure in the camera’s eye.

While often done in a studio, portraits are never created in vitro. The human subjects they portray occupy a place, one in which they reside and interact: an environment. In his insightful study of landscape, art historian Max J. Friedlander observed that “The land is the earth’s surface… [while] landscape is the physiognomy of the land, land in its effect on us… Land is the ‘thing-in-itself’, landscape the phenomenon.” And just as the portrait probes the physiognomy—countenance and character—of the sitter/subject, it is the landscape—the physiognomy of environment—that informs the subject’s character, and by extension, both its portrait and maker.

A portrait, then, is not simply a likeness. It is a figure in space. A portrait unfolds in a landscape. It is a narrative. And the narrative import of landscape for portrait is especially telling for Taos and northern New Mexico. The recent exhibition Continuum described the region’s high desert aesthetic, the locus of its enduring appeal to émigré and native artist alike: “a landscape of vast imaginative force—sublime, humbling, and transformative—with its abiding local cultures: a unique sense of place and peoples that would profoundly affect their art, beliefs, and aspirations.”

The portrait’s vital role in the representation of reality in Western art is seen in its twofold power to reveal the legacy of colonization in American art— émigré artist portraits reveal the Anglo’s admiration of the indigenous Pueblo and local Hispano cultures, yet one that, to quote from a recent study on that legacy, was often “mired… in racial bias and condescension” typical of the period— and at the same time to address that legacy in the artist’s very act of choosing the subject.

That compelling sense of place is at the root of the high desert aesthetic, an overarching narrative embracing the wide range of artists—emigres and indigenous alike—who shaped it over the course of centuries. That aesthetic is the continuum of artistic styles and cultural currents that have evolved in Taos and northern New Mexico. It sustains the continuity of the wide and diverse range of works in the Harwood collections.

Whether they came as Anglo émigrés or were born here as Pueblo or Hispano artists, all Taos artists encountered, in varied guise, the region’s unique sense of place and peoples. It was an encounter with Taos transcendence, and it would transform their work. The result in each instance was a highly personal response in which the artist’s own style and trajectory adjusts—at times radically—to the region’s inherent aesthetic, or—in the case of the Pueblo or Hispano artist—the regional aesthetic absorbs new influences from the outside.

This reciprocal exchange between the mainstream currents and the region’s abiding aesthetic marks more than a century of Taos art represented by the Harwood’s collections. It has produced regional work with a national import. This fusion of sublime and humble, of high and low styles, of mainstream and local, is the paradox of Taos as place— as locus, or landscape. And a curious yet key vantage from which to view the narrative that subtends this landscape is the Taos artist’s highly personal approach to the portrait.

The Errant Eye
For an artist, portraiture presents a dilemma—literally. Friedlander observed that “we may distinguish as follows: portraitists who make use of the medium of painting, and painters who make portraits.” Long before the advent of modernism and its ‘art-for-art’s-sake’ mantra, artists since the Renaissance, tasked with a portrait, had to confront the sitter’s likeness and the patron’s vanity. Neither factor favors the full use of an artist’s imagination. Nor did the Italian painters' embrace of classical ideal form, which suppressed the artist’s harnessing of the sitter’s individual traits to convey the humanist notion of self-consciousness. So that in all these instances “the job of painting a portrait entails something akin to obsequiousness, against which creative power puts up a fight" (Friedlander).

How much more of a challenge for the modernist, for whom the depicted object—here the sitter—is not really the intended subject? Picasso’s Cubist canvas Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler is as little—or as much—a portrait of Kahnweiler as Ron Cooper’s Portrait of Duchamp is a likeness of Marcel Duchamp. And yet the fractured planes and shards of the Kahnweiler composition that merge the barely discernible seated figure with its surrounding space, manage to capture the essence of this avant garde art dealer, author of a theoretical study of Cubism and tireless advocate for its artists. And the optical play of Cooper’s opposing profile silhouettes of Duchamp succeeds in capturing the wit and visual humor at the core of Duchamp’s iconoclastic approach to art.

The Kahnweiler and Duchamp portraits suggest that for the problematic nature of portraiture, the solution lies in embracing the problem. Portraiture is a hybrid art form—a fluid amalgam of the sitter’s likeness and the artist’s eye tempered by the landscape that shapes both sitter and subject. A portrait by an artist captures a contingent being, whose individuality is affirmed by the portait’s inference of a larger whole to which it belongs. It is that status, as contingent being—an intangible presence in touch with a defining place—that gives to the work a universal quality that can elude the commercial portrait.

Portraits by artists fall outside the common pursuit of “likeness” that defines conventional portraiture. They require the artist’s errant eye. The artist circles the subject erratically, like wandering planets, which the Greeks called roving celestial bodies that seemed to elude assignment to fixed positions in the firmament. Instead, each was seen to wander in space on its own curious trajectory, yet its erratic course was oddly constant, as if set by some unseen intelligence. In the case of planets, that unseen intelligence is the gravitational pull of the earth. In the case of the artist portrait, it is its contingent relation with its environment. It is the portrait in a landscape.

Selfie and Other
For all its tendency to cliché, at its best the portrait subscribes to a profoundly humanistic world-view based on the belief that our experience of the world is as an encounter of self and other, an elemental dualism articulated by the mid-20th century philosopher Martin Buber in his essay, “I and Thou,” whose title refers to the purest manifestation of this self-other relation. By definition, the portrait eschews both mystical and monistic immersions or annihilation of the self. And, at its core, the I-thou relation of the genre resists reduction to a simply rational or romantic view that subordinates sitter to artist. At its best, the portrait reveals the sitter not simply as the artist’s subject—hence an object, a likeness that is fixed—but as a presence in dialogue with the artist and their shared environment.

Photography was initially denied the status of a fine art form such as painting and acknowledged simply for the camera’s superior capacity to capture visual likeness. Yet, in an irony of art history, the photographic medium, while the undisputed choice for the conventional, commercial portrait, has established itself as a true art form in no small part by the artist’s creation of the photographic portrait. [4]

The self-other dualism at the core of the portrait is put to the test in the self-portrait, where subject and object, observer and observed, are identical. Here an objective command of the subject’s likeness vies with the subject’s unique insight into personality, an idiosyncratic view from the inside out. Like the autobiography, the self-portrait’s truth is coaxed or wrested from the gap between delusion and detachment. Yet the self-portrait’s unique narrative is often rich in revelation of the environment that shaped it. The yellow, blue, and ochre swaths of pastel and pattern of spirals of Jim Wagner’s painterly style are as much part and parcel of his Headful of Color (self-portrait) as his landscape Taos Ten Out To Lunch, where the hovering murder of magpies in the foreground evokes the floating spirals on Wagner’s shirt in the self-portrait.

Perhaps the most endearing play on the self-portrait is the selfie, a digital self-portrait taken with a hand-held digital camera or camera phone and uploaded to a social networking platform. The selfie is at one and the same time the ultimate affirmation of the self-other world view––and its negation. The utter improv and random aspects of the selfie reduce the subject to a virtual presence, fixed and fleeting, and compress environment to a flat backdrop. Given its anonymity and absence, the social network makes meaningful connection of subject with unseen observer problematic. Yet the digital simulation of I-thou aspires to the level of encounter. As such, the selfie is the portrait in search of a landscape, the self in search of the other.

Pictured: Elinor Carucci, Portrait of Agnes Martin, Cibachrome print, 1999. Collection of the Harwood Museum of Art. Gift of the Artist. ©Elinor Carucci, Courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery