Drawn entirely from the Museum’s holdings, the more than one hundred works on view here reveal how artists have reinvented portraiture during the last sixty years. Bringing iconic works together with lesser-known examples and recent acquisitions in a range of mediums, the exhibition unfolds in five thematic sections on this floor, with additional sections opening on the seventh floor later this month. Some of these groupings concentrate on focused periods of time, while others span more broadly to forge links between the past and the present. This sense of connection is one of portraiture’s most important aims, whether memorializing famous individuals long gone or calling to mind loved ones near at hand.
Portraits are one of the richest veins of the Whitney’s collection, a result of the Museum’s longstanding commitment to the figurative tradition, which was championed by its founder, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. Yet the works included in this exhibition propose diverse and often unconventional ways of representing an individual. Many artists reconsider the pursuit of external likeness—portraiture’s usual objective—within formal or conceptual explorations or reject it altogether. Some revel in the genre’s glamorous allure, while others critique its elitist associations and instead call attention to the banal or even the grotesque.
Once a rarefied luxury good, portraits are now ubiquitous. Readily reproducible and ever-more accessible, photography has played a particularly vital role in the democratization of portraiture. Most recently, the proliferation of smartphones and the rise of social media have unleashed an unprecedented stream of portraits in the form of snapshots and selfies. Many contemporary artists confront this situation, stressing the fluidity of identity in a world where technology and the mass media are omnipresent. Through their varied takes on the portrait, the artists represented in Human Interest raise provocative questions about who we are and how we perceive and commemorate others.
A second part of the exhibition, including works from the first half of the twentieth century, will open on the seventh floor on April 27.