'Looking History in the Eye' at Portrait Gallery Portraits are more than paint and canvas. They're a chance to look history in the eye. Marc Pachter is the director of the newly refurbished National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. He joins a conversation about how we picture the people who have shaped our society.
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'Looking History in the Eye' at Portrait Gallery

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'Looking History in the Eye' at Portrait Gallery

'Looking History in the Eye' at Portrait Gallery

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Joining us now here in Studio 3A is Marc Pachter, director of the National Portrait Gallery. So good to have you with us.

MARC PACHTER: Oh, it's great to be here.

NEARY: How do portraits tell the story of America? So how do they tell our story?

PACHTER: But those who feel that a face-to-face encounter with history by looking at the people who made those differences is the way to understand our common human heritage.

NEARY: Do you think to some degree portraiture might have gotten something of a bad name in some circles because it is this form of art where painters were hired to do a portrait of a society person or royalty or...

PACHTER: So, yes, if it's all about artists totally choosing the nature of what it is they present on canvas, in this case, then there is something somewhat awkward in the fact that they're in a negotiation with another human being about it. But if you think that actually that negotiation is one of the most interesting things about portraiture, then you become fascinated. It's a collaboration. No question about it.

NEARY: Well, I went over to the Portrait Gallery yesterday and was fascinated by the variety that is there under this rubric of the portrait.


NEARY: You have the Hall of the Presidents, you have the Stuart amazing portrait of Washington, to photographs of kids in the street in New York City.


NEARY: All of them fantastic.

PACHTER: Right. And, by the way, the thing that defines them, all those portraits, because you can go to any art museum or history museum, but mostly art museum, and see lots of pictures of people.

NEARY: Right.

PACHTER: So are they all portraits? No. They're only portraits when it's about a particular person, one that actually existed to which the artist - to whom the artist is responding. Does that distinction make a difference?

NEARY: No, explain that a little bit more for me when you say...

PACHTER: Some cultures even, not just individuals, feel that looking at the individuality of people is their least important part. What is general about them, what they represent broadly, is the most important. But portraitists care about the wart on the nose. They care about the clothing worn. They care about that person's place in life at that moment, so it's particular, particular, particular.

NEARY: How would you say portraits have changed over the years?

PACHTER: And our heroes, and I suppose I should say heroine, although I think both words now should be one, our heroes now are people like Alice Neel, who is sitting in New York and sort of cursing a community that despises the portrait and is actually being much more radical by painting them and being realistic and being figurative and saying this matters. One of my favorite portraits - it may even be on your Web site - is Alice Neel painting herself naked at age 80 and really confronting you directly and saying this is who I am.

NEARY: Yeah, that is on our Web site, by the way.

PACHTER: Oh, great.

NEARY: And I forget the word that was used to describe it, but whatever that word was, it's appropriate.


NEARY: I think it was an unflinching view of herself, an unflinching self- portrait, which it is indeed.

PACHTER: Sergeant basically flattered, and God those dresses look great, and boy those people look bigger than life - and Hollywood portraits, really photographs, flatter.

NEARY: Right.

PACHTER: So there's a room for that, but we really - we moderns like it when it's unflinching. And actually in our portrait competition what strikes me as how modern it really is.

NEARY: All right, we're going to get to that portrait competition in a moment. I'd like to take a call right now. We've got Paul in Santa Clara, California on the line. Go ahead, Paul.

PAUL: Hi, you know you talk about portraits that lie, one of things that I wanted to talk about was - my favorite portrait artist is Cindy Sherman.

PACHTER: Oh, yes.

PAUL: And, you know, she took the (unintelligible) off of the portrait as a lie and really built the whole career out of doing portraits of herself in so many different persona.

PACHTER: You're so right. And she's dazzling, because, first of all, she takes the form seriously.

NEARY: Describe it if you could - one of you describe...

PACHTER: Oh, I think your listener should describe.

NEARY: Paul, perhaps you can describe it for those people who may not know - be familiar with Cindy Sherman's work.

PACHTER: Yes, what moves you about her?

PAUL: Well, she's a photographer, and she works in relatively large format, and that - first of all, just the technical achievement of her photos is really quite beautiful; the color's deeply saturated, and she takes pictures of herself in various costumes and in various styles of photography to sort of mimic archetypes of photography of woman in different environments.

PACHTER: Exactly.

PAUL: And sort of takes on these different roles.


PAUL: It makes you look at the picture as - you know question both what you're looking at and the way you look at other pictures.

PACHTER: And the artists that play with it or challenge it are paying their own tribute to this form.

NEARY: Thanks so much for your call, Paul.

PAUL: Hey, you're welcome. Thanks.

NEARY: And Paul also mentioned I think Diane Arbus, and she's a photographer. But one of the things that I noticed about contemporary portraits yesterday, when I was at the portrait gallery, was a kind of hyperrealism.


NEARY: You were talking earlier about the fact that modern in this day and contemporary life we like to see the warts and all - and people really do show the warts and all in the contemporary portraits, they're so realistic. I found myself going up to some and them and saying, is this a photograph or is it a painting? And I had to look very closely and see that it was really paint.

PACHTER: Not always in aversion, sometimes in fascination and embrace. The winner of the portrait competition is a perfect example of what you're talking about.

NEARY: We're talking portraits and what they show about our history and our identity, and we are talking your calls at 800-989-TALK. Send us an email to talk@npr.org. I'm Lynn Neary, its TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


NEARY: Does any one portrait stand out in your mind? And if so, why? And what do you think we can learn from portraits of yesterday? Right now we're going to talk with Jason Salavon, he is a Media Artist based in Chicago. He's one of five artists featured in the Portrait Gallery's Portraiture Now exhibit, and he joins us from our New York Bureau. Thanks so much for being with us.


NEARY: Jason we were talking before, I don't know if you heard it, but we were talking before about the fact that a lot of contemporary portraits are hyper- realistic. On the other hand, your piece on display at the Portrait Gallery, Late Night Triad, is not what I would describe as hyper-realistic. In fact, it's almost hard to see the people in this portrait; maybe you could describe it for us first.

SALAVON: Well, it's certainly ghostly. There are three separate panels - three separate video projections. And each one is a sort of representation of 64 nights of late night talk show monologues, and it's from the Letterman, Leno and Conan O'Brien shows. And these play for over three minutes, sort of showing more general structural scaffolding of these monologues and their performances. And I hope gives some character of the individual performative qualities of the characters being - the people being - whose portrait I'm doing.

NEARY: Ghostly is really a good word for it. Because as I was looking at these panels - when you first see it - I came in the middle, so I didn't actually know what I was seeing exactly. And then I realized - I recognized Jay Leno first, I have to say.

SALAVON: Mm-hmm.

NEARY: It must be his chin or something.

SALAVON: Mm-hmm.

NEARY: But then at one point I was looking at the Conan panel, and it was like he kept moving in and out of it; the others seemed a little more stationary but he really - his really had a sense of like a ghost moving in and out of his panel.

SALAVON: It's actually Leno who sort of the whirling dervish on stage and his character is the most sort of all over the stage, and Conan sort of locks in where you can actually even see individual features like his eyes and his nose. And it speaks to some extra element of their - I think of (unintelligible) the most performative portraits in that sense.

NEARY: How did you come to this kind of creation of a portrait?

SALAVON: And so I tend to do - I write my own software to do these manipulations, and tend to be interested in how to take pattern and speak to some sort of more generalized idea. So the way of looking at that say Conan O'Brien, or Letterman or Leno, rather than looking at their individual likeness, it was more about how they behave over and over again night after night, how these shows are arranged, and looking at the sort of information, or the sort of what you could learn from the more generalized look at their performance styles.

NEARY: Marc Pachter?

PACHTER: And they morphed them from the first to the last, and you saw him going mad through this particular electronic strategy, and you could not have done it any other way. Had you seen them all in the same room it would not have had that effect. So this dimension that is now added is terribly exciting in portraiture.

NEARY: I should also mention that Jason Salavon's late night triad is also - you can view that on the TALK OF THE NATIONS Web site at npr.org. I have to say it's better experienced in person.

SALAVON: I'm glad you said that.

NEARY: I'm - Jason is this something you've - is this the first portrait you've done this way or?

SALAVON: First one in video.

NEARY: Mm-hmm.

SALAVON: And each of the panels, because were from - we're both from Ft. Worth, Texas, we - they speak to demographic shift, it speaks to just - these single photographs that are sort of meta-portraits speak to all sorts of things that photographing a individual might not speak to. And that tends to be you know where my work goes.

NEARY: All right. Lets take a call now from Kelly(ph) in San Francisco. Hi, Kelly.


NEARY: Go ahead.

KELLY: Thanks for taking my call. I just wanted to call in and mention a book that I had read on a portrait painter, the (unintelligible) Portrait. I'm a painter myself and I've become a little disinterested in portraiture. And after I read that book, it was really amazing; it was a great description of the process and the relationship that develops between the painter and the subject. It was tedious and...

NEARY: Tell us the name of the book again...

KELLY: It's really a great book. I would suggest it to anybody that wants to get a firsthand look into what goes on.

NEARY: All right. What is the name of the book and author again?

KELLY: It was called the (unintelligible) Portrait, and I can't remember the name of the author. I'm sorry.

NEARY: But it dwelled mostly on the - I mean, it gave you some insight into the relationship between the artist and the subject.

KELLY: Mm-hmm, and the process that goes on between the two people, the conversation that they have and...

PACHTER: Right, any human relationship is fascinating.

KELLY: Yes, it was really great. And being a painter myself it was - it gave me a lot of insight.

NEARY: Thanks so much, Kelly.

KELLY: Thank you very much. Bye.

NEARY: I wonder if you can comment on that, Jason, the relationship between the artist and the artist subject?

SALAVON: Absolutely. I mean, I guess mine ends up being a little bit more of the artist and some sort of grouping of subjects.

NEARY: Mm-hmm, Mm-Hmm.

SALAVON: And looking at - and it's not just about the group for me, at least it's about maybe a tension between the individual - the individuals unique identity within the sort of group, whether you're part of a high school class or whether it's one monologue in a way it fits in with 64 others. There's this sort of interest in a little bit of that ambivalence and tension between those two things that maybe it typifies a little bit of modern life. The sort of idea of one's individual sort of unique identify and then how that fits into sort of the larger groups that ones a member of.

PACHTER: Is it...

NEARY: Go ahead, Marc.

PACHTER: Does, it - I was just going to say doesn't your talk show portraits depend on recognition? I mean, if you put those before an audience in Saudi Arabia who may not have access to international cable, would they respond the same way, or would they be as interested as Americans walking in? Because that connection - that prior connection redefines - excites a lot of visitors to the Portrait Gallery.

SALAVON: Right. I usually do assume some sort of sort of prior knowledge with the kinds of content I'm dealing with. And I actually showed the product in London, and while they kind of knew the people it was a little bit different. And they more had to sort of understand where we have our, you know, our late night analog that we sort recognize.


SALAVON: And understand this is the American version.

NEARY: Well, Jason, thanks so much for being with us.

SALAVON: Thank you.

NEARY: All together, you know, as you said, creating a conversation about our history and ourselves.

PACHTER: The only question is how do we depict them? And the interesting thing is that both our greatest presidential portrait, the Lansdowne, is essence of Washington. And in a funny way, what Jason is doing is also essence.

NEARY: Mm-hmm.

PACHTER: They're not likeness, per say, they are the combined effect of these people. And it's interesting you can do it in these two ways. So I think there's a tremendous similarity, while the means are very different.

NEARY: All right. Let's take one more call from Lori(ph) in Sacramento, California. Hi Lori. Are you there?

LORI: Hi. Yes, thank you. I just wanted to comment on the portrait in the state capitol of California of Jerry Brown.

PACHTER: Mm-hmm.

LORI: And it is quite modern and quite a stark contrast to the other portraits.

PACHTER: It would be.

LORI: Exactly. And in taking my 12 year old nephew through the capitol, that portrait made him stop and ask a question: who was that man and why does he look different from all the other men that are hanging on the wall?

PACHTER: Will you come work for me?


PACHTER: That's exactly...

LORI: Absolutely.

PACHTER: ...exactly it. A portrait needs to stop you. And different eras will stop in different ways and wonder about that individual. And as I just jumped in - Jerry Brown - I'm an original - originally a Californian, so I knew - I knew Jerry Brown.

LORI: You know the history. But, you know, it's a 12-year-old boy who had no knowledge of any sort of art...


LORI: ...beyond coloring books. You know, it made him stop and it provoked a very, I think, good conversation about governance and attitudes and, you know, as much as you can talk to a, you know, a 12 year old about these things. I just think it's the one portrait that stands out in my mind.

NEARY: Why - what makes it so different from the other ones? Is it just the contemporary nature of it? Is it that - is it a hyper-realistic kind of portrait that we've been talking about?

LORI: It's very abstract.

NEARY: Oh, okay.

LORI: And, you know, it's in a gallery - it's in a stairwell. It's in the west stairwell in the capitol, along with Ronald Reagan and Greg Davis and, you know, Deukmejian and Pat Brown, his father. And those are very staid, traditional portraits.


LORI: And here is this portrait that's bright blue and pink and yellow and orange. And it really makes you stop and think about it.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for your call, Lori.

LORI: You're welcome.

NEARY: Lori points up one other thing that I think we've been getting at, but this - but that I guess I was really struck by when I went to the National Gallery, which is - which is...

PACHTER: National Portrait Gallery.

NEARY: National Portrait Gallery, yes, the National Portrait Gallery - which is the variety of - that's there with portraits. And I do think that it is a - it is a genre that we tend to think of as just one thing.

PACHTER: Right. And if we're trying to explode any assumption, it's that. Not that portraits are the greatest form of art as opposed to something else. We're not in that conversation. We just want you to basically know that you do and don't know what a portrait can be.

NEARY: And earlier, we mentioned the portrait competition, the Portrait Gallery's portrait competition. Joining us now is David Lenz and he is a painter based in Shorewood, Wisconsin. And he is the winner of that competition. He joins us from member station WUWM in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Congratulations and thanks for being with us.

DAVID LENZ: Thanks very much. Thank you.

NEARY: I don't even dare try and describe - maybe you could just describe your painting for us first.

LENZ: And he's leaning in towards the viewer with kind of a quizzical look on his face. The sun is kind of hitting the corner of his eye. He's kind of squinting because of the sun, almost looks like he's winking at you, but he's not. He's squinting because of the sun.

NEARY: And the name of...

LENZ: And his mouth...

NEARY: I was just going to say, the name of this, because you just mentioned Sam, is - because people need to hear this now that you've described it - Sam and the Perfect World.

LENZ: Right, right. And so his mouth is ajar and it looks like he's just about to say something to you. And so, in my view, it sort of takes the traditional view of people with disabilities as being someone that should be living on the margins of society and it kind of turns it on its head and says Sam is - he has a disability, but yet he has something to say. And he's portrayed as being thoughtful and perhaps even with some answers for society. And whatever he's going to say, the viewer can fill in the blank.

NEARY: And you call yourself...

LENZ: (unintelligible) which I like.

NEARY: You describe yourself as a social realist painter.

LENZ: Some people say, well, they look photographs, but there wasn't anyone photograph that looked anything like what I ended up with in this painting. So every little detail is manipulated and massaged and the colors are changed and everything is fixed just to get to the end that I'm looking for.

NEARY: And were you surprised that you won? I'm just curious. Were you surprised that you won?

LENZ: Oh yes, I was very surprised. Who would have thought?

NEARY: Let me ask Marc Pachter, because we're running out of time, unfortunately, but what - what was it about this particular portrait, Marc Pachter, that it rose above the rest of the competition?

PACHTER: So, in some ways, we didn't over-talk this. We just said this moves us. We want to know. We want to enter into a conversation with this young man, Sam. We also thought there was something humane in it without being sentimental. We thought the oversized sun said something. We weren't quite sure what. And by the way, we noticed things that may have been just accurate, which is that there is a fence between Sam and that perfect world.

LENZ: Oh yes. Oh yes.

NEARY: All right. I'm afraid we've run out of time for this discussion, which has been a fascinating discussion. David Lenz, thanks so much and congratulations for winning that competition.

LENZ: Thank you very much.

NEARY: And Marc Pachter, so good to have you with us. Marc Pachter is the director of the National Portrait Gallery. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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