Picasso asked: “Who sees the human face correctly: the photographer, the mirror or the painter?” With all due respect to Mr. Picasso, none of the above-necessarily. With its revolutionary new show Eye to I…3,000 Years of Portraits (October 27, 2013-February 16, 2014), which includes Picasso’s 1964 Cubist crayon drawing Tete d’homme barbu à la cigarette, the Katonah Museum of Art stirs the debate and re-defines art appreciation with a provocative and interactive approach to portraiture. The conceptual framework for this exhibition is based on the premise that in art, as in life, there is no single piece with an objective meaning and no two people respond to a work the same way.
Neuroscientist and Nobel laureate Dr. Eric Kandel, who wrote the essay for the exhibition catalogue, explains: “The brain is a creativity machine; it really makes up the reality of the outside world. It doesn’t reproduce like a camera; it decomposes [an image] and then restructures it.” Last year Kandel published his seminal The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present. The “importance” assigned to an art object corresponds to the viewer’s perception, Kandel maintains, which varies according to culture and education. The ’eye of the beholder,’ quite frankly, rules.
Eye to I was co-organized by Ellen Keiter, the Museum’s Director of Exhibitions. “There’s an unprecedented breadth of experience behind Eye to I,” says Keiter. “From day one, it’s been a tremendous collaborative effort, not only with museum colleagues, but also with gallerists, private collectors, and over 120 members of the local community who’ve written personal responses to the individual artworks.”
The show’s sixty exceptional portraits in a variety of media were selected to represent the greatest range of time periods and cultures. They also explore the countless ways people look at, process, and experience imagery. Portraits from antiquity and the Renaissance look across the gallery at-or do they stare down? -conceptual portraits by contemporary artists. Expect myriad interpretations of such varied and outstanding artworks as an Egyptian bust of Amenhotep III from 1,300 BC, a marble sculpture of a Roman priest from 120 AD, a 16th-century oil painting by Lucas Cranach of a German aristocrat posing as Mary Magdalen, and Louis-Leopold Boilly’s shockingly contemporary 1823 self-portrait titled Grimacing Man in which the artist clearly “mugs” for the viewer, prophesying the ubiquitous iPhone “selfies” of today.
Does anyone detect mischief in the face of Jo, the brazen red-headed beauty painted in 1865 by Gustave Courbet? And if you thought da Vinci’s Mona Lisa enigmatic, wait until you see Yasumasa Morimura’s 2008 portrait of himself-as the Mona Lisa. A contemporary chromogenic study in drag.
“My idea of a good picture is one that’s in focus and of a famous person,” quipped Andy Warhol, and included in the show is his own silkscreen of “Annie Oakley” from his celebrated Cowboys and Indians series of the 1980s. Warhol, no doubt, would have approved of Lincoln Schatz’s video-based Cube Portrait of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos as well as Cindy Sherman’s portrayal in retro wig and mink stole. Edward Curtis’s 19th-century portraits of Native Americans brought fame and dignity to this marginalized group (here represented by the handsome young Nalin, Apache). Representing the tradition of family portraits are the delightful Emma, Chuck Close’s vibrant print of his niece and Felix Gonzales Torres’s Portrait of Dad, composed of 175 pounds of candy pieces.
Exhibited with each artwork is interpretive copy from a range of contributors-from a U.S. poet laureate to a local policeman. Scholars, poets, politicians, actors, doctors, filmmakers, and recording artists all offer their personal responses to particular works. Meanwhile, through interactive video touch screens, visitors can contribute their own critique to compare and contrast. In a social-media-saturated era, what’s an art event without the community having the option to share and comment? Each voice is validated and, in turn, adds value to the conversation.
“This unique exhibition combines the time-honored and rewarding tradition of looking at great art first hand with today's emphasis on the voice of the individual,” says Belinda Roth, the Museum’s Interim Executive Director. “We invite our community and visitors to become part of a network of art interpreters. It is very exciting to be at the center of a project that will truly take on an unpredictable, organic, and, hopefully, playful life of its own.”
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- Eric Fischl, The Krakoffs, 2006, Oil on linen, 78.25 x 58.5 inches, © Eric Fischl, Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery, New York, Photo: Ellen Page Wilson
- Robert Henri, Portrait of Marcia Ann M. Tucker, 1926, Oil on canvas, 60 x 40.5 inches, Driscoll Babcock
- Oliver Herring, Gloria, 2004, Digital C-print photographs, museum board, foam core, and polystyrene, 72 x 40 inches, Courtesy of the artist and Max Protetch