Author(s): Wendy Wick Reaves; Bernard F. Reilly Jr.
Conventional wisdom suggests that portraiture lost its relevance in the twentieth century, that it was too tied to representation and biographical narrative to compete. Why then, the vitality of the the National Portrait Gallery's twentieth-century images in "Eye Contact?" Far from confirming a moribund tradition, these pictures are variously adventurous, assertive, witty, monumental, or confrontational, and all reflect modern aesthetic concerns. Fifty graphic masterpieces representing the American artistic tradition from the 1880s to the 1980s are showcased in this volume, including the work of such renowned artists as Mary Cassatt, Edward Hopper, Stuart Davis, Jacob Lawrence, Andy Warhol, and Roy Lichtenstein. Life portraits of well-known Americans, from politicians and inventors to writers, artists, and musicians are represented. Theodore Roosevelt, W.C. Fields, Alice B. Toklas, Igor Stravinsky, Stokely Carmichael, Truman Capote, and Robert F. Kennedy number among them.In her introductory essay for "Eye Contact" Wendy Wick Reaves analyzes the history of twentieth-century portraiture in America and the changing role of drawing within it. Bernard F. Reilly Jr follows with an essay about the intellectual developments that influenced artists' conceptualization of the figure. The volume also contains in-depth essays by Reaves and twelve other art historians on each of the highlighted National Portrait Gallery treasures. What emerges are rich wonderful stories; Gaston Lachaise capturing the exuberant Hart Crane dancing nude with his hands clapping over his head; William Zorach drawing Edna St. Vincent Millay for "Century" magazine just after the young poet won the Pulitzer Prize; Beauford Delaney remembering James Baldwin after an intense, decades-long, mentoring friendship; Andy Warhol and Jamie Wyeth portraying each other, relishing their supposedly antithetical roles as the "Patriarch of Pop" and the "Prince of Realism."The National Portrait Gallery's drawings prove that twentieth-century artists refused to abandon the figure. Despite critics' preoccupation with abstract and nonfigural art, artists continued to produce innovative portraiture, updating old traditions for the modern era. The term "Eye Contact" implies a bold, contemporary engagement between one person and another, but also a different, often challenging relationship between a work of art and its audience. Modern themes, in other words, as much as modern styles underlay the nontraditional look of these pictures. Monumental or intimate, confrontational or serenely detached, the drawings featured here demonstrate the uninterrupted vitality and inventiveness of the twentieth-century portrait.Wendy Wick Reaves is curator of prints and drawings at the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.
Some wear to jacket, esp. corners.