Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney’s Collection offers new perspectives on one of art’s oldest genres. Drawn entirely from the Museum’s holdings, the more than two hundred works in the exhibition show changing approaches to portraiture from the early 1900s until today. Bringing iconic works together with lesser-known examples and recent acquisitions in a range of mediums, the exhibition unfolds in eleven thematic sections on the sixth and seventh floors. Some of these groupings concentrate on focused periods of time, while others span the twentieth and twenty-first centuries to forge links between the past and the present. This sense of connection is one of portraiture’s most important aims, whether memorializing famous individuals long gone or calling to mind loved ones near at hand.
Portraits are one of the richest veins of the Whitney’s collection, a result of the Museum’s longstanding commitment to the figurative tradition, which was championed by its founder, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. Yet the works included in this exhibition propose diverse and often unconventional ways of representing an individual. Many artists reconsider the pursuit of external likeness—portraiture’s usual objective—within formal or conceptual explorations or reject it altogether. Some revel in the genre’s glamorous allure, while others critique its elitist associations and instead call attention to the banal or even the grotesque.
Once a rarefied luxury good, portraits are now ubiquitous. Readily reproducible and ever-more accessible, photography has played a particularly vital role in the democratization of portraiture. Most recently, the proliferation of smartphones and the rise of social media have unleashed an unprecedented stream of portraits in the form of snapshots and selfies. Many contemporary artists confront this situation, stressing the fluidity of identity in a world where technology and the mass media are omnipresent. Through their varied takes on the portrait, the artists represented in Human Interest raise provocative questions about who we are and how we perceive and commemorate others.
Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney’s Collection is curated by Dana Miller, Richard DeMartini Family Curator and Director of the Permanent Collection and Scott Rothkopf, Deputy Director for Programs and Nancy and Steve Crown Family Chief Curator with Mia Curran, Curatorial Assistant; Jennie Goldstein, Assistant Curator; and Sasha Nicholas, consulting curator.
The nude is one of the most time-honored subjects in Western art, but for centuries it was used to depict unnamed generic figures or mythological subjects rather than specific individuals. Since the turn of the twentieth century, however, artists have increasingly challenged this convention by producing frank, highly particular nudes, often with the sitters identified in the works’ titles. From Joan Semmel’s monumental self-portrait in bed with a lover to John Coplans’s unflinching document of his aging body, most of these works subvert expectations about how a nude should look, pose, and engage the viewer. Photographs by Katy Grannan, and Catherine Opie, among others, unabashedly question cultural assumptions about gender, beauty, and power, giving voice to groups and individuals who are often marginalized by both the traditions of portraiture and mainstream American culture. By transforming nudity from a classical ideal into something decidedly personal, contemporary, and idiosyncratic, these artists compel us to confront the complex and often contradictory feelings elicited by the human body: fascination and repulsion, pleasure and shame, freedom and inhibition.
Below is a selection of works from Body Bared.
Inspired by Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney’s Collection, this Whitney Stories series invites artists to discuss portraits that speak to them.More from this series
Urs Fischer’s portrait of fellow artist Julian Scnhabel is an eight-foot-tall candle that melts over time. Here, Judith Bernstein describes this work as a portrayal of the male ego, and speaks about her own engagement with politics as a woman in the art world.Watch now
“Astutely geared to the selfie age, it might well have been subtitled 'Americans Are Strange to Look At,' which, in the two-hundred and fifty images here, we sure are: funny-strange, beautiful-strange, crazy-strange, dangerous-strange, inscrutable-strange.”
—The New York Times
“In Conversation: Barkley L. Hendricks with Laila Pedro”
—The Brooklyn Rail
“This 8-Foot Candle Portrait Mesmerized Me”
—New York Magazine
"The Whitney's Extraordinary Human Interest Exhibit is the Ultimate Portrait Show"
"The mixed media show, grouped by era or thematically, includes a variety of perspectives that challenge who we are and how we perceive and record those around us"
—Blouin Art Info
“A collection that proves that more than just the faces of people can constitute portraits.”
"[Human Interest] delves into the art form in an unprecedented way."
"The Whitney Museum’s wide-angle collection show Human Interest reminds us that the democratization of portraiture started more than a century ago, and encourages us to think more broadly about what is or isn’t a portrait."
"There are magnetic images everywhere."
—The New York Times