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Louis Léopold Boilly (French, 1761–1845), Various Objects , c. 1785. Oil on canvas, 72.4 x 60.3 cm. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts (1981.1)

This Is a Portrait if I Say So: Abstracted Identity in American Art

April 5-6, 2013

This curatorial roundtable, convened by Kathleen Merrill Campagnolo, Independent Curator and Scholar; Anne Collins Goodyear, Curator of Prints and Drawings, National Portrait Gallery; and Jonathan Frederick Walz, Curator, Cornell Fine Arts Museum, reassessed the theoretical underpinnings of portraiture as a genre, practice, and social activity over the course of the past century.

“This is a Portrait if I Say So” posed provocative questions about what a likeness is, how non-visible aspects of a person’s identity might be effectively portrayed by another, how much a portrait is actually the expression of the artist’s self, how historical context affects concepts of identity, and how unconventional portraits are interpreted and understood by the viewing public. We confronted the following questions: Can portraiture be defined in the absence of physiognomic likeness, and what boundaries, if any, define the act of portrayal? How do shifting notions of subjectivity impact methods of portrayal? What are the social and cultural developments that have motivated non-traditional representations of identity? What are the factors that affect these periods of rapid evolution in non-mimetic portraiture? And in turn, how do these works advance notions of identity and change consciousness of self and other?

Participants included:
Paloma Alarcó, Chief Curator of Modern Painting, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza; C. Ondine Chavoya, Professor, Williams College; Byron Kim, Artist; Paul Moorhouse, Curator of Twentieth Century Portraits, National Portrait Gallery; Aurélie Verdier, Ministère de la Culture / École des hautes etudes en sciences sociales; and Joanna Woodall, Professor, Courtauld Institute of Art.

In order of discussion

“This is a Portrait if I Say So” Exhibition Overview
Jonathan Frederick Walz, Kathleen Merrill Campagnolo, Anne Collins Goodyear

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery is currently developing an exhibition that will examine the rise and evolution of symbolic, abstract, and conceptual portraiture in American art.  “This is a Portrait if I Say So” will bring together approximately fifty works that represent specific individuals through means that subvert or transcend the traditional transcription of physiognomic likeness.  The title plays on Robert Rauschenberg´s infamous 1961 portrait of Iris Clert, a telegram that states, “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so,” and reflects an approach to portraiture, common amongst the artists in the exhibition, in which established paradigms of the genre are challenged in radical and often playful ways.  Spanning one hundred years of American art, the show will focus on three historical moments in which these types of portraits flourished; 1912 to 1925, 1959 to 1974, and 1990 to the present. The exhibition is scheduled to open in 2015.

This session will look at the implications of Rauschenberg’s assertion as well as questions of the exhibition’s scope, structure, and limitations.

The Claims of Portraiture
Presenters: Joanna Woodall and Aurélie Verdier

The opening session will offer a brief historical overview of portraiture and pre-histories of non-mimetic portraiture. What are the defining characteristics of the genre?  How do we interpret what a portrait reveals about the subject, the artist, and the time in which it was created? How has portraiture reflected changing ideas about identity – how identity is represented, viewed, and understood at different historical moments?  As we explore the claims of portraiture, can we find effective means to define it through modes such as likeness, intention, interpretation, or context?

Portraiture and (American) Identity
Presenter: C. Ondine Chavoya

This session will explore how portraiture functions with respect to the performativity of identity and perhaps also as a mechanism of resistance of dominant normative tropes.

Curating Portrait Abstraction: Inclusions/Exclustions
Presenters: Paloma Alarcó and Paul Moorhouse

This session will look at the challenges, and special opportunities, of shaping new narratives of portraiture through a display of objects. Drawing on Alarcó’s observations, we hope to consider “What challenges are faced when displaying the evolution of portraiture in American Art in a period of destruction of subject matter?” And, picking up Paul Moorhouse’s interests, wish to explore “non-literal portraiture in the late 20th century in relation to information theory. I will refer to the principle that representation operates in terms of semantic, syntactic and expressive information, and will discuss alternatives to verisimilitude in terms of portraits which negotiate a complex, shifting balance between these different categories of depiction.”

How do curators explore such complex topics with a limited number of objects which inevitably demand not only specific inclusions, but also elisions?

Self and Other: Considering Artist’s Networks-Issues
Presenters: Byron Kim and Kathleen Campagnolo

In this session, we look forward to considering how artists have depicted both the self and other in the recent past. What networks of personal connections help to shape modes of portrayal, subjects of representation, and its aesthetic, philosophical, and personal goals? To what degree is every work of art by an artist, even when another individual is ostensibly its subject, also a form of self-portraiture? As Byron Kim puts it: “Synecdoche … is a collection or portraits or one gigantic portrait. Or is it a self-portrait?”  

Periodizing Theoretical Frameworks - Subjectivity, Psychology, (anti) Mimesis in (American) Art of the Past Century
Presenters: Anne Goodyear, Jonathan Walz

In this final session, we will consider how (non-mimetic) portraiture has been shaped over the past century. To what degree have particular pressures, questions, and opportunities shaped the move away from the face, and what does it mean to use new interpretive strategies to understand the past and its (potentially) competing demands?

Closing Discussion and Roundtable Summary
Moderated by Jonathan Walz and Kathleen Campagnolo