If you spend a lot of time studying art history, as I did when I was younger, eventually earning a master’s degree from Columbia in 1978, the art of portraiture inevitably enters into the discussion. (I can still recall writing a paper on Titian’s magnificent homage to his friend and champion Pietro Aretino, now in the Frick collection.) But it was not a subject to which I gave much thought as an art journalist until the unveiling of Amy Sherald’s official portrait of Michelle Obama a little more than a year ago. I was among a small minority of critics who felt it failed on any number of levels, especially in capturing the sitter’s warm and forthright personality. The subject looked so cool, distant, and overwhelmed by her patterned dress that to my eyes the painting was almost like an album cover for some 1970s Motown production.
But it does bring up the question of what makes for a good—or even great—portrait, and so I thought it would be intriguing to put out the call to NYAC members to see what a curated portrait show might look like. Since portraiture in the last century or so has gone through as many permutations as art itself—with Cubism, Surrealism, AbEx, and even Conceptualism all making a mark on the genre—I was wide open to possibilities. Yet in the end, of the 20-some artists who responded to the call, I chose six who still pursue more traditional forms of portraiture. They introduce subtle individual interpretations, but their aims are primarily realist and their means are the time-honored mediums of oil on canvas or board.
Why did these six speak to me out of all the worthwhile submissions to this show? If the definition of a good portrait is that it tells us something about the sitter (and I’m not sure this is truly the most valid criterion), then that particular yardstick falls to pieces in the face of Fran Beallor’s enchanting cat woman or Sue Burickson’s hardy Civil War re-enactors, who are portraying not themselves but people of a completely different era. The skill and vision of those who answered the call certainly informed my decisions, but all the entrants display those qualities (or they most likely would not have chosen to be artists). Like many curators, I suspect that the final judgment was based mostly on what appealed most strongly to my gut, and the vagaries of taste, whether it belongs to the curator or the viewer, are as ephemeral as the wind. Another curator might have taken a different approach and chosen only those who went against convention.
What struck me at the end of this exercise in curating is how difficult any form of portraiture is because it raises so many questions as to why one may be better than another. If nothing else, Sherald’s interpretation of Michelle Obama opened a debate that deserves to be ongoing and proves that portraiture is still as valid today as it was when the first artist attempted a likeness of another human being, whether king, queen, or commoner. To jump-start the discussion, here’s a gallery that demonstrates the continued resonance and allure of portraiture.
Margaret Zox Brown’s series called “New York Characters” is just that: a group of sturdy individuals who will be familiar to anyone who lives in that city—from the vendor squeezing mustard on a hot dog to the woman wiping the lid of a coffee cup. “Being a native New Yorker,” she writes, “I found a kinship with all the unique individuals who also call New York their home.” Are they quintessentially New Yorkers? Hard to say, but the paper coffee cup, so familiar to anyone who’s ever frequented one of Gotham’s fast-disappearing coffee shops and the big chewy soft pretzels on the hot-dog cart seem dead giveaways. The expressionist vigor Brown brings to her subjects is perfectly in sync with the rhythms of the city.
Norma Greenwood’s subjects burst with a similar vitality, while still adhering to some of the conventions of realist portraiture. Though she claims in her artist’s statement that her works are inspired by photographs (and this seems to be borne out by her “selfie” with a cell phone), the realization is generally painterly in execution. These characters—whether it’s a moody teenager with a book or the flame-haired, smiling Moki—evoke a complicated and probably unknowable interior life.
Fran Beallor introduces an up-to-the minute surrealist spin in many of her portraits, like the above-mentioned cat-faced woman in The Date, who leafs through a book beneath a reproduction of a painting by Toulouse-Lautrec at a table mysteriously set for two, or the self-portrait containing multiple reflections in Light Years Returning. I love the elements of mystery in these, especially the inclusion of the drummer, the kimono, and the “vanishing” figure (the artist herself?) in Portrait of My Studio.
Sue Burickson’s series of “Civil War Reenactors” might be thought of as portraits that bridge a divide between the historical and the contemporary. “A good friend of mine, a Civil War Reenactor, invited me to a Civil War Reenaction in Monroe, NY,” she writes “I became fascinated. Reenactors often span several generations and are very dedicated…. Why do they do it? I had to get to know them. As I painted their portraits, we became friends. They confided in me that they didn’t feel like they were acting at all but that they actually became the people they were playing.” Without that back story, one could swear these characters are of the time their costumes signify, but even as actors, Burickson captures a certain nobility in their poses and expressions.
Barbara Griffiths claims she approaches portraiture as though the human face were a challenge not much different from Cezanne’s famous dictate to “treat nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere, the cone.” She writes: “When I paint a face, personality and emotional relationship are irrelevant. It’s the landscape, the canyons, hills and plains which interest me; for instance, in a profile the face may lose precedence to a craggy cliffscape of neck and ear.” And yet for all the stated dispassion of her approach, her subjects manifest a quiet humanity and even humor, especially when one (presumably the artist) is forking a mound of peas and potatoes into her mouth.
Audrey Anastasi sent in submissions in both a kind of fractured style that incorporates collage and a more conventional realist approach, and those the ones shown here. “Whether painting in a traditional oil medium or developing an image from a mosaic of torn paper, my focus is the inner emotional life that the human face suggests,” she says. “I prefer painting my sitters with a returned gaze to interact with and challenge the viewer. In order to concentrate on what is essential, the drawing or painting element is created in one session with a live subject, with my non-dominant left hand.” They’re all compelling, and all involved with the arts, but the portrait of Cindy Nemser, a feminist critic, really grabbed me for the deft juxtaposition of its elegant subject seated in front of an Alice Neel double portrait of the critic and her husband.
One last point about this group of wonderful works. We will probably never know how much input Michelle Obama had into her final likeness, but it was not unusual in earlier eras for sitters to weigh in on how they looked as a portrait progressed. If a lord or lady did not like Mr. Gainsborough’s interpretation, for example, he or she would no doubt demand amendments from the artist.
But I’m reasonably sure that’s not the case with this group. What the artist saw and painted is the only reality we the viewers will know, and that may in part account for why these works have a freshness missing from Amy Sherald’s homage to the former First Lady.
Aside from working as a curator, gallery owner/director, educator and arts advocate, Audrey Frank Anastasi is first and foremost a prolific visual artist, working mainly in 2-dimensional mediums; painting, drawing, collage, mixed media, and printmaking. Much of Ms. Anastasi’s work focuses on the human subject, with boldly painted faces and figures, revealing unspoken and suggested psychological narratives. In these works, she prefers working rapidly from direct observation. Since 1990, as part of her quest to discover and reveal what is most essential, her figurative paintings are painted with her non-dominant left hand. Additionally, Ms. Anastasi has created large bodies of work inspired by the natural worlds of birds, animals and birch trees.
She has an extensive history of 20 solo and approximately 200 group exhibitions. Her “ref-u-gee” series of forced-migration-themed artworks is scheduled for exhibition in 2019 at VMoA, Valentine Museum of Art, Brooklyn, NY. The accompanying monograph with over 180 images will also be published at that time. Ms. Anastasi became immersed in a collage series which was exhibited at Welancora Gallery in Brooklyn, NY, in the May, 2019. In 2018, ten paintings were included in the well-received “Painting to Survive,” exhibition, curated by Yale critic Jonathan Weinberg, focused on the overlooked, angst-driven figurative paintings created between 1985 and 1995, when AIDS was first decimating broad populations of young New Yorkers.
Fran Beallor creates realistic artwork with a surrealist twist. Her humor and irony help produce portraits which evoke stories, scenes of life in NY and beyond, as well as “still lifes that are not so still.” Beallor loves to travel, collecting memories, sketches, photos and objects along the way to use in her art. A NYC native, Beallor exhibits her artwork in museums, galleries and art fairs around the US, including the Brattleboro Museum and the Butler Art Institute. She has paintings in the permanent collection of the Copelouzos Museum in Athens, Greece, and in NYC’s 9/11 Memorial Museum. NYC Galleries have included Sherry French and Grand Central. Beallor won a Greenshields Grant for Realist Art, and has been the subject of radio interviews and online videos. Reviews and articles about her work appeared in American Artist Magazine, American Arts Quarterly and other periodicals. She is represented in corporate, public and private collections, including a commission to paint several life-sized portraits and a large ceiling mural for a client on NY’s East Side. Beallor teaches art privately, and helps young artists prepare portfolios for high school and college.
Margaret Zox Brown, like much of her family, is a lifelong Manhattanite. She attended the Chapin School in New York City and Trinity College in Hartford, CT. and then as an adult, studied oil painting at New York City’s culturally rich 92nd Street Y for 29 years until 2016. Brown is at a point now where connection is what she seeks and what drives her. With her current series as well as all that led up to this, she is discovering the soul of her subjects and then expressing their magnificence as she knows it really is.
Painting larger and larger pieces with confidence has allowed her to go from private collectors to public space acquisitions including Danny Meyer’s restaurant Maialino in the Gramercy Park Hotel, the Cafe at Fairway Market, and the lobby of the commercial building 462/470 7th Ave, to name a few. And with a steady attention to her craft and the business of exposing it publicly, Margaret has secured several notable interviews that highlight her artistic talents and unique artistic expressions.
Sue Burickson is a conceptual new media sculptor/painter and video artist. Born in Brooklyn. she attended college at Radcliffe, UCLA and UC/Berkeley. She studied with Paul Reynard, a pupil of Fernand Leger, for 10 years and also at the Art Students League, SVA, Manhattan Graphics and the National Academy. Her studio is in Manhattan. She is currently in charge of the digital collection of the New York Gurdjieff Foundation .
Her conceptual work is focused upon the theme that human beings are ancient ideas housed in a mortal body. Central to this theme is the idea that the aim of human life is to “Know Thyself”. The Delphic maxim “Know Thyself” has occurred so frequently in the literature of every age from the fifth century B.C. to our own day that it may seem to be too well-worn an idea for fresh exploration. Despite this, in an interview in ArtVoices magazine in 2015, Burickson discussed her belief that “when the mind and body are attuned, a new dimension of perception appears”. This new perception enables us to see ourselves as a whole and gives the maxim a new dimension. You can view her work on this subject at www.sueburickson.com
Norma Greenwood was born into painting, as her grandfather’s paint store in Brooklyn was her favorite place to play; Shiny paint cans, tubes of color and the smell of linseed oil which permeated the store imprinted their calling on her at a very early age. Greenwood is a contemporary realist, and portraits and the figure have always been of keen interest to her . The paintings examine the relationship between sensuous and figurative forms. Her working method is experimental, never making preparatory sketches but taking inspiration from photographs and memorabilia. She is represented in public collections, including a permanent public art installation in the Jacksonville Fl. Airport, The 9/11 Memorial Museum, The Unity Canvas, Columbia Pictures, Ltd., The AT&T Corporate Collection, Jacksonville, Fl. International Airport, The Children’s Hospital, Jacksonville, Fl., and The American Folk Arts Museum, NY. Her awards include three grants from the NY State Council on the Arts, The Ludwig Vogelstein grant, a George Sugarman award and a NYFA award; she was also awarded a grant for the Artist Documentation Project from the National Center for Creative Aging; Art Cart, Saving The Legacy.
Barbara Griffiths is an English painter who studied at Maidstone College of Art and The Slade School, London. She exhibited at The Piccadilly Gallery and The Lasson Gallery in London, and wrote and illustrated two books for young adults which were published internationally. In 1995 she moved to Connecticut where she exhibited at The Silvermine Guild, New Canaan Library, Katonah Museum, Long Island Museum, The Greenwich Arts Center, The Fairfield Arts Center, and The University of Connecticut. Her project ‘Bible Stories for Children’ won praise from Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris, and was serialized in Skeptic Magazine, U.K. It can be seen in the Archive section of www.barbaragriffiths.com Griffiths now lives in Brooklyn, and this is her first showing in New York.
Ann Landi is a contributing editor of ARTnews and the founder and editor of Vasari21.com, a website that covers the 98 percent of the art world ignored by the mainstream and art press. She wrote about the New York Artists Circle in February, 2019. Her reviews and reports have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Smithsonian, The New York Times, and many other publications, and she is the author of the four-volume Schirmer Encyclopedia of Art.