Fact Sheet: Portraiture Now

The National Portrait Gallery’s “Portraiture Now” series showcases some of the most creative portrait artists of the 21st century. Hosted on the museum’s first floor in one of its most visited spaces, the series was established in 2006 in conjunction with the museum’s reopening to represent the next wave of portraiture in the contemporary context. Since that first show, the series has continued to highlight groups of artists who are creating compelling work in the genre of portraiture or figurative art. It focuses both on well-known Americans and largely anonymous figures through the work of established and emerging artists alike whose work demonstrate a wide range of approaches to contemporary portraiture.



“Portraiture Now” (July 2006–April 2007): This was the first in a series of changing exhibitions focusing on the works of contemporary artists who have made portraiture the subject of their recent art. The works of five artists—William Beckman, Dawoud Bey, Nina Levy, Jason Salavon and Andres Serrano—illustrated the range of approaches to portraiture today.

“Framing Memory” (May 2007–January 2008): This exhibition highlighted contemporary portraits of iconic figures as a means to explore history and culture. It featured five artists—Alfredo Arreguin, Brett Cook, Kerry James Marshall, Tina Mion and Faith Ringgold—each of whom broaden traditional notions of portraiture. In a variety of mediums, these artists integrated recognizable, remembered likenesses into larger explorations of personal and public identity. Portraits of such emblematic figures as Martin Luther King Jr., Frida Kahlo, Jacqueline Kennedy, Cesar Chavez and Josephine Baker served as evocative triggers of memory for both artist and audience.

“RECOGNIZE! Hip Hop and Contemporary Portraiture” (February 2008–October 2008): The six artists and one poet whose work was included in “RECOGNIZE!” approached hip-hop culture through the lens of portraiture, and, in combination, highlighted its vitality and beauty. The exhibition showed that hip-hop has inspired people throughout its history to create something larger than themselves. Whether through DJing, MCing, breakdancing or art-making, hip-hop has given voice and visibility to a new generation. Featuring Tim Conlon and Dave Hupp, Nikki Giovanni, Jefferson Pinder, David Scheinbaum, Shinique Smith and Kehinde Wiley.

“Feature Photography” (November 2008–September 2009): This exhibition showcased six photographers who, by working on assignment for publications such as The New Yorker, Esquire and The New York Times Magazine, brought their distinct perspectives on contemporary portraiture to a broad audience. Critically acclaimed for their independent fine art work, these photographers—Katy Grannan, Jocelyn Lee, Ryan McGinley, Steve Pyke, Martin Schoeller and Alec Soth—have pursued a variety of editorial projects, taking advantage of both the opportunities and the parameters these assignments introduced. The resulting work built upon a longstanding tradition of photographic portraiture for the popular press and highlighted creative possibilities for 21st-century portrayal.

“Communities” (November 2009–July 2010): Each of the three painters selected for this exhibition has explored the idea of community through a series of related portraits of friends, townspeople or families. This installment featured artwork by Rebecca Westcott, who passed away in 2004. Her pieces often highlighted Philadelphia artists and friends in a minimalist yet expressive style that conveyed her gritty street-art vibe. Jim Torok created meticulously rendered, small-scale portraits of his New York City friends and fellow artists, as well as one extended Colorado family. Rose Franzen portrayed 180 people from her hometown of Maquoketa, Iowa, in her 1-foot-square oil paintings created with a quick wet-into-wet technique. Together, the paintings showed the enduring power of personal communities.

“Asian American Portraits of Encounter” (August 2011–October 2012): The National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center collaborated on the Smithsonian’s first major showcase of contemporary Asian American portraiture. Through seven artists from across the country and around the world—CYJO, Hye Yeon Nam, Shizu Saldamando, Roger Shimomura, Satomi Shirai, Tam Tran and Zhang Chun Hong—the exhibition offered provocative renditions of the Asian American experience and displayed the diversity of contemporary Asian American identity. Their portraits of encounter offered representations against and beyond the stereotypes that have long obscured the complexity of being Asian in America.

“Drawing on the Edge” (November 2012–August 2013): The six artists in this exhibition—Mequitta Ahuja, Mary Borgman, Adam Chapman, Ben Durham, Till Freiwald and Rob Matthews—embraced drawing with new enthusiasm, interacting with real individuals while creating their work. While they variously included elements of narrative, fantasy, abstraction, personal memory and social commentary, their primary impulse was humanistic: to interact with another or to examine the self.

“Staging the Self” (August 2014–April 2015): This exhibition was developed in partnership with the Smithsonian Latino Center. Featuring the work of contemporary U.S. Latino artists David Antonio Cruz, Carlee Fernandez, María Martínez-Cañas, Rachelle Mozman, Karen Miranda Rivadeneira and Michael Vasquez, this fully bilingual exhibition investigated the process through which identity is constructed in portraits. The artists used their work to focus on personal or family issues, telling stories that they had remembered or imagined from their pasts, manipulating images of themselves or superimposing portraits of loved ones on their own. After the National Portrait Gallery hosted this exhibition, it traveled to the Americas Society in New York City from June to Oct. 2015, and to the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque from Nov. 2015 to March 2016.

“The Face of Battle” (April 2017–Jan. 2018): Featuring artwork by six contemporary artists—Ashley Gilbertson, Tim Hetherington, Louie Palu, Stacy Pearsall, Emily Prince and Vincent Valdez—the show attempted to assess the human costs of these ongoing wars through contemporary portraiture. The Portrait Gallery put a “face” on recent wars through the work of six contemporary artists who have pictured the raw experiences and realities of soldiers. This poignant exhibition showed how wars are portrayed, both as they are fought and in their aftermath. It focused not only on the everyday citizens engaged in modern wars, but also on how societies deal with wartime violence and trauma.

“UnSeen: Our Past in a New Light, Ken Gonzales-Day and Titus Kaphar” (March 2018–January 2019): Exhibited as part of the museum’s 50th anniversary, “UnSeen” examined how people of color are missing in historical portraiture and how their contributions to the nation’s past were rendered equally invisible. Featuring work by two contemporary artists, Ken Gonzales-Day and Titus Kaphar, the exhibition brought to the forefront African Americans, Native Americans and Latino Americans to amend America’s historical narrative. Through reworking traditional presentations of art, the artists aimed to expose mainstream cultural biases and social constructions of race.


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National Portrait Gallery

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery tells the history of America through the individuals who have shaped its culture. Through the visual arts, performing arts and new media, the Portrait Gallery portrays poets and presidents, visionaries and villains, actors and activists whose lives tell the American story.

The National Portrait Gallery is part of the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture at Eighth and F streets N.W., Washington, D.C. Smithsonian Information: (202) 633-1000. Website: npg.si.edu. Follow the museum on social media at @NPGFacebookYouTubeInstagramand Tumblr.

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