The Ultimate Collection of “Selfies” by America’s Leading Artists, 1901 – 2015

Eye to I: Self Portraits from the National Portrait Gallery visits the Boca Raton Museum of Art

Self-Portrait, James Amos Porter, Oil on canvas, 1957. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Dorothy Porter Wesley.

The term self-conscious takes on a whole new meaning in today’s social media era. At a time when millions of selfies are posted every day and identity is proving to be more fluid, an exhibition from the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery shines a new light on self-portraiture and representation. Created to commemorate the National Portrait Gallery’s 50th anniversary, and to celebrate the artists who make their collection so extraordinary, Eye to I: Self Portraits from the National Portrait Gallery brings together the work of major artists of the 20th and 21st  centuries. The exhibition will be installed at the Boca Raton Museum of Art through June 14.

The exhibition features self-portraits by prominent figures in the history of portraiture, including Robert Arneson, Thomas Hart Benton, Deborah Kass, Elaine de Kooning, Alexander Calder, Jasper Johns, Allan Kaprow, Jacob Lawrence, Louise Nevelson, Irving Penn, Robert Rauschenberg, Fritz Scholder, and Roger Shimomura. Early works by Edward Steichen, Edward Hopper, and composer George Gershwin, who was also a painter, are also featured, as are recent works by Ana Mendieta, Chuck Close, Lois Dodd, Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons and Alison Saar.

“These artists looked inward in ways we can connect with in our modern time. They created a lasting mirror effect for future audiences that most of them could not have foreseen,” says Irvin Lippman, the executive director of the Boca Raton Museum of Art. “These artists steered self-portraiture away from the traditional poses of the past into new realms of self-reflection. Their self-depictions cut across time through multiple pathways of creating art that ring true today.” 

In total, Eye to I showcases sixty works in a variety of styles and media ranging from caricatures to photographs, from colorful watercolors to dramatic paintings and time-based media. The show was organized by Dr. Brandon Brame Fortune, chief curator of the National Portrait Gallery, and this national touring version differs from the previous Smithsonian exhibition – all of the works on paper are new, as are several of the paintings. 

Untitled from the series When I am not Here, Estoy alla, María Magdalena Campos-Pons, Dye diffusion transfer print, 1996. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Julia P. and Horacio Herzberg © María M. Campos-Pons.

The exhibition traces the process of self-portraiture, from gazing into the mirror to looking into the camera; from painted and drawn surfaces to mechanical reproductions such as prints and photographs; from static forms to video. “These individuals have approached self-portraiture at various points in history and using different tools, but their representations – especially when seen together – all raise important questions about self-perception and self-reflection,” says Fortune. “Some artists reveal intimate details of their inner lives through self-portraiture, while others use the genre to obfuscate their private selves or invent alter egos.” 

Chosen as the cover for the exhibition catalogue, Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons used her own body to map out feelings of translocation from place to place. The bilingual title is in half-Spanish and means When I am not Here, I am There. She stands with her eyes closed, as though transported between territories while holding on to her Afro-Caribbean talismans. 

In his sinewy Self Portrait with Rita, Thomas Hart Benton evokes the type of

Self-Portrait with Rita, Thomas Hart BentonOil on canvas, c. 1924. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Mr. and Mrs. Jack H. Mooney.

posturing so prevalent on Instagram today. He was fascinated with Hollywood and channeled his inner movie star (the artist had recently seen Douglas Fairbanks in the 1924 film, The Thief of Baghdad). 

In 1975, Alice Neel began her shocking, endearing, and utterly unconventional self-portrait that took her five years to complete. She foreshadowed by decades the use of “this is the real me” selfies to challenge gender and body-image stereotypes. Neel took on the history of male artists depicting nude women and flipped it around completely, with absolute control of her image. An unflinching challenge to centuries-old conventions of idealized femininity, Neel’s self-portrait is openly accepting of her aging body. 

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