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With the ascendancy of abstract expressionism, portraiture in America seemed to many to have lost its experimental edge. The gap between the rejection of illusionism and the portrayal of the recognizable face appeared to some artists and critics unbridgeable. But while portraiture certainly diminished in the 1940s and 1950s, the break with the figural tradition was never complete. During this relatively quiescent period, furthermore, seeds were sown for reinvention. Inspired by the ambitious canvases of the abstract expressionists, artists used monumental scale, abstract surfaces, and imagery appropriated from advertising, photography, and film to distance themselves from the sitter.


Was figuration and portraiture extinct as a progressive art form by, midcentury, as many claimed? To some extent, its seeming demise reflected the preoccupations of leading critics more than the actual practice of art making. Many artists refused to abandon figural subject matter. Figurative artist Ben Shahn, represented here by his image of J. Robert Oppenheimer, was even chosen, together with abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning, to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale in 1954. Georgia O'Keeffe drew her carefully observed pastel of Beauford Delaney in 1943. Rico Lebrun made his image of Igor Stravinsky in 1947; the terrain of the human image, he insisted, "is immense."
Beauford DelaneyIgor Stravinsky
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The critical preoccupation with abstraction and the prevalence of photographic likenesses in the media both undermined traditional approaches to realist portraiture, but new ideas were emerging that would update figural art. Elaine de Kooning, in such images as her ink drawing of Harold Rosenberg, applied the energetic brushstroke of the abstract expressionists to the portrait image. In portraits such as Roy Lichtenstein's Robert Kennedy, Andy Warhol's Jamie Wyeth, or Philip Pearlstein's Mark Strand, artists sought to empty portraiture of biographical narrative, allying it to the formal elements of making art.
Harold RosenbergJamie WyethMark Strand
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