By Sandra Schulman
Artists make art in a search for self.
Eye to I: Self-Portraits from the National Portrait Gallery, a stunning show at the Boca Museum of Art, now being exhibited through June 14 on online and digital programs, brings solo works together of major artists of the 20th and 21st centuries and dating from 1901 to 2015. There are treasures large and small here; the sheer delight of seeing the artist’s aesthetic applied to their own visage is revelatory.
The exhibit was created to commemorate the National Portrait Gallery’s 50th anniversary. The premiere in Boca Raton of this traveling exhibition is different from the Smithsonian Museum show previously on view in Washington, as all of the works on paper are new and were chosen especially for the national tour, as are several of the paintings.
Self-portraits include work from Native American artist Fritz Scholder, whose powerful large painting Self Portrait with Grey Cat (2003) was the last self-portrait he made before his passing in 2005, painted when he was battling complications brought on by diabetes.
The black background and dark, moody canvas has Scholder boldly facing the viewer sitting back in a chair as he leans on his cane. His eyes are covered by tinted sunglasses, as they are in most of his portraits. The tubes from his oxygen tank are visibly snaking from his nose to the shadowy floor, which can be seen as a reference to the “shadow of death.” His ghostly cat looks on as his sketchbook sits forlornly on the ground.
Roger Shimomura has one of the largest works, Shimomura Crossing the Delaware, which takes up the whole of the entry wall. The artist and his family were imprisoned during World War II at an internment camp, face to face with the anti-Japanese sentiment at the time. His response is to replace George Washington with himself and have the soldiers be Samurai warriors – a role reversal played out in his wildest art history dreams.
Thomas Hart Benton, known for his sweeping WPA-era murals, is in his more intimate Self Portrait with Rita assuming a movie star-like pose seaside with the fetching Rita, who holds a violet flower. Benton was known to admire dashing actor Douglas Fairbanks and is perhaps seeing himself in his image here.
A rare drawing from rocker Patti Smith is intense in its dedication and mystery. All the Things He Gave Me, from 1974, is dedicated to Allen Lanier of Blue Oyster Cult, who was Smith’s boyfriend at the time. She holds a figurine of a camel, wearing a color and striped blocked shirt. Around her neck is a cross, while an odd creased hat is pulled down low over her eyes. Her penetrating blue eyes pierce the viewer with a hard stare, daring them to doubt her love.
Other portraits include a moody Elaine de Kooning, a serious, sketchy Alexander Calder, a blocky Louise Nevelson, and Robert Rauschenberg embedded in a narrative collage with a parachute strapped to his back.
“These artists looked inward in ways we can connect with in our modern time. They created a lasting mirror effect for future audiences that most of them could not have foreseen,” said Irvin Lippman, the executive director of the Boca Raton Museum of Art. “These artists steered self-portraiture away from the traditional poses of the past into new realms of self-reflection. Their self-depictions cut across time through multiple pathways of creating art that ring true today.”
The show was organized by the chief curator of the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian, Dr. Brandon Brame Fortune, and features a richly illustrated companion volume with 150 insightful entries on key self-portraits in the museum’s collection.
Eye to I is presented concurrently with the exhibition Edward Steichen: In Exaltation of Flowers. The seven large Art Nouveau panels – 10 feet tall each – take up a full room and were painted by Steichen from 1911-1914 for the Park Avenue townhouse of Eugene Meyer and his wife Agnes but were never installed. After a number of owners, including the Museum of Modern Art, they ended up in the collection of Art Bridges.
The murals are inspired in part by Maurice Maeterlinck’s book, The Intelligence of Flowers, and depict Isadora Duncan, Mercedes de Cordoba, Katharine Rhoades, Marion Beckett and others, along with their floral counterparts. The golden works are richly adorned with real gold leaf and feature elaborate Art Deco robes and irises and lilies.
“Art, culture, and creativity have always made a difference in powerful ways, especially during challenging times,” said Lippman. “While the Museum is temporarily closed, we will continue to give back to the community. Being inspired and creative have not been canceled. These artists in ‘Eye to I’ looked inward in ways we can connect with in our modern time.”
The museum began showcasing this indelible exhibition online March 24 on Facebook and Instagram. Several innovative online initiatives have being created, especially for families who have children at home from school. See www.bocamuseum.org for details.