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If you visit a new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery here in Washington, the first thing you see is a painting of a tall woman, a big fish and a black cat. Joan Brown's images are part of the show, "Face Value: Portraiture In The Age Of Abstraction." NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg says the painting, like so many in this Smithsonian show, is powerful and funny.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Walk softly and carry a big fish was one curator's take on Joan Brown's picture. It's a self-portrait. The artist holds the fish as well as a paintbrush. The black cat lurks below - it may be hungry.

In a nearby sculpture, Hugh Hefner - the Playboy poo-bah - holds a pipe in one hand and there's another pipe - a real one, poking three-dimensionally out of his painted head. This is a 1966 work by Marisol Escobar.

WENDY WICK REAVES: She's always using humor and wit to unsettle us, to take all of our expectations about what a sculpture should be and what a portrait should be and messing with them.

STAMBERG: Curator Wendy Wick Reeves.

REAVES: So, when she's asked why there are two pipes she says, well, Hugh Hefner has too much of everything.

STAMBERG: Hugh Hefner claimed his life's work was to overthrow American prudery and Puritanism and so, his bosomy bunnies and his skimpily-clad centerfold cuties. Marisol sculpts him in a comfy red cardigan - a kind of Mr. Rogers sweater. The homey outfit upends our expectations of what a sex merchant would sport. The flipside of Hugh Hefner is Sylvia Sleigh's 1973 painting, The Turkish Bath - six pretty stoned-looking men, naked and very anatomically correct.

BRANDON FORTUNE: She is turning the idea of the male artist and the male gaze, which was often trained on women in an objectified way in the past, on its ear.

STAMBERG: This is Brandon Fortune, chief curator at The National Portrait Gallery.

FORTUNE: She's flipping everything around in a feminist way, and I think this is one of the strongest feminist paintings I've ever seen.

STAMBERG: Think of all the female nudes you've seen on museum walls. Sylvia Sleigh's turkish bath puts men in similar poses - not worshipping them the way male artists adore the women they paint, but poking fun at the men pretty shamelessly. Sleigh was a rebel, as are many of the artists in the show. Curator, Wendy Wick Reaves, says there was an art revolution underway in the 1950s and '60s. Abstract was the word du jour, to which these painters replied, foo-wee.

REAVES: Well, they were so self-conscious about painting the figure or the face because critics like Clement Greenberg basically said, you can't be a progressive artist and paint the figure. And so they decided that was exactly what they were going to do, but they're doing it in a completely different way. And I think that the fact that it was so unfashionable at the time really pushed them to reinvent - to reinvigorate the whole concept of how you portray the individual.

STAMBERG: The result - some really knockout portraits at this face-value show. Pictures that make you smile or peer or puzzle over. There's Philip Pearlstein's 1968 portrait of two artists - painter, Al Held, and sculptor, Sylvia Stone. Curator, Brandon Fortune, says they were friends of Pearlstein's. In those decades lots of artists painted one another. Pearlstein's artist-model friends are husband and wife.

FORTUNE: He was doing a series of portraits of married couples, and he's focusing on the act of sitting for so long for an artist who's looking at you and really sucking all the humanity out of you. He poses his people like objects.

STAMBERG: The big canvas has a washed out look - mostly beige.

FORTUNE: Those bright, harsh lights are wiping out most of the color. You still see the blue of her sweater and her stockings.

STAMBERG: And he's got - I think it's a beige turtleneck. It's hard to see 'cause his head is sort of covering his neck.

FORTUNE: Exactly - chinos.

STAMBERG: And chinos, but you see, if you hadn't said he was really painting the act of modeling or the experience of modeling, I would have said that this was about the boredom and tedium that marriage can be.

FORTUNE: I think it's about the boredom and tedium of sitting for a portrait.

STAMBERG: See what I mean? You puzzle over these pictures. You wonder, for instance, what Andy Warhol and Jamie Wyeth could possibly have in common. Warhol, who made easels pop with his art and Wyeth, with his careful realistic paintings. But there they are, side-by-side in this show, painted by one another in 1976.

REAVES: They were considered polar opposites.

STAMBERG: Again, curator Wendy Wick Reaves.

REAVES: Andy was called the patriarch of pop and Jamie was called the prince of realism. But actually, both of them had become enormously famous but also had endured extraordinary critical censure for the way their art was done. And they had a lot of interests in common. They collected Americana. They were interested in death and morbidity. They really got along splendidly.

STAMBERG: Warhol gives Wyeth the Elizabeth Taylor treatment - makes him movie-star-handsome with flat, little rainbow colored stripes outlining his cheek and neck. Wyeth, on the other hand, paints Warhol pale and pockmarked.

REAVES: Right, this is really one of the scariest portraits I've ever seen. He's given you the entire landscape of the face in excruciating detail and he's added this kind of florid color to make it all even more intense.

STAMBERG: It is scary - unsettling.

REAVES: The theme that runs through a lot of the portraits in this show is how do you reinvent portraiture after abstraction? How do you reinvigorate these traditions so they are exciting, knock-your-socks-off kinds of portrayals?

STAMBERG: This one is knock-your-socks-off. And Andy Warhol's reaction to the Wyeth painting?

REAVES: He said he loved it. When can you trust what Warhol says?

STAMBERG: Well, you could take it at Face Value. That's the title of this show at the National Portrait Gallery. It runs through early January - subtitled, "Portraiture In The Age Of Abstraction." It shows how portraiture holds its own in the face of the shifting dribs and drabbles of art tastes and appreciation. In Washington, I'm Susan Stamberg - NPR News.

GREENE: And you can see Andy Warhol, Jamie Wyeth, the big fish and plenty more images at NPR.org. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR news. I'm David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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