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Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney’s Collection

Apr 2, 2016–Apr 2, 2017

Dawoud Bey, Two Explorer Scouts, Brooklyn, New York, 1988 (printed 1999). Gelatin silver print, sheet: 23 7/8 × 20 in. (60.6 × 50.8 cm), image: 22 1/16 × 18 3/16 in. (56 × 46.2 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of Arthur and Susan Fleischer  2012.194 © Dawoud Bey

Dawoud Bey, Two Explorer Scouts, Brooklyn, New York, 1988 (printed 1999). Gelatin silver print, sheet: 23 7/8 × 20 in. (60.6 × 50.8 cm), image: 22 1/16 × 18 3/16 in. (56 × 46.2 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of Arthur and Susan Fleischer  2012.194 © Dawoud Bey

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.

Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney’s Collection is sponsored by

Delta

Max Mara

Major support is provided by Anne Cox Chambers and Helen and Charles Schwab.

Generous support is provided by The Brown Foundation, Inc., of Houston.

Explore the Exhibition
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Starstruck

In the early twentieth century, a variety of new, popular leisure pursuits—vaudeville, theater, cabaret, sporting events, and, above all, motion pictures—thrust performers and entertainers into the public eye as never before. For the crowds that flocked to see them, the stars of these entertainments became larger than life. An array of media outlets, from tabloid newspapers to glossy magazines to radio, sprang up to broadcast their exploits to captivated audiences across the nation.

Artists eagerly delved into these new phenomena, making portraits that stoked the public’s growing fascination with celebrities. Photographers in particular took advantage of the commercial opportunities offered by the booming entertainment industry, creating easily reproducible images that seemed both authentic and intimate. Foremost among them, Edward Steichen introduced the aesthetic of the close-up in his stylish magazine portraits of movie stars and other luminaries, including the examples on view in this gallery. Other works chronicle the rise of pioneering African American performers such as jazz innovator Buddy Gilmore and actor Paul Robeson.

Below is a selection of works from Starstruck.

Mabel Dwight (1876-1955), Paul Robeson as Emperor Jones, 1930. Lithograph, sheet: 23 × 16 in. (58.4 × 40.6 cm), image: 14 7/8 × 13 in. (37.8 × 33 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Purchase with funds from the Print Committee 93.86
Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964), Portrait of an Actor in “Four Saints in Three Acts”, 1934, from the series Four Saints in Three Acts. Gelatin silver print, 9 5/8 × 7 3/8 in. (24.4 × 18.7 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Gift from the Collection of Philip Taaffe 2013.166 With permission of The Van Vechten Trust
Richard Avedon (1923–2004), Dovima with Elephants, Cirque d’Hiver, Paris, 1955. Gelatin silver print, sheet: 51 1/2 × 40 3/4 in. (130.8 × 103.5 cm); image: 50 7/8 × 40 1/4 in. (129.2 × 102.2 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of Eileen and Peter Norton 2001.187  © 1955 The Richard Avedon Foundation
George Bellows (1882–1925), Dempsey and Firpo, 1924. Oil on canvas, 51 1/8 × 63 1/4 in. (129.9 × 160.7 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney 31.95
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, (1875–1942), Chinoise, 1914. Limestone, 61 × 20 1/4 × 17 in. (154.9 × 51.4 × 43.2 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of the artist 31.79
Alexander Calder (1898–1976), Varèse, c. 1930. Wire, 15 × 11 3/4 × 12 1/2 in. (38.1 × 29.8 × 31.8 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; 50th Anniversary Gift of Mrs. Louise Varèse in honor of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney 80.25  © 2016 Calder Foundation/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, NY
Walt Kuhn (1877–1949), Clown in His Dressing Room, 1943. Oil on linen, 72 1/16 × 31 7/8 in. (183 × 81 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of an anonymous donor

Installation Photography

Installation view of Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney’s Collection (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, April 27, 2016-February 12, 2017). Photograph by Ron Amstutz
Installation view of Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney’s Collection (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, April 27, 2016-February 12, 2017). Photograph by Ron Amstutz
Installation view of Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney’s Collection (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, April 27, 2016-February 12, 2017). Photograph by Ron Amstutz
Installation view of Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney’s Collection (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, April 27, 2016-February 12, 2017). Photograph by Ron Amstutz
Installation view of Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney’s Collection (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, April 27, 2016-February 12, 2017). Photograph by Ron Amstutz
Installation view of Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney’s Collection (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, April 27, 2016-February 12, 2017). Photograph by Ron Amstutz
Installation view of Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney’s Collection (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, April 27, 2016-February 12, 2017). Photograph by Ron Amstutz
Installation view of Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney’s Collection (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, April 27, 2016-February 12, 2017). Photograph by Ron Amstutz
Installation view of Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney’s Collection (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, April 27, 2016-February 12, 2017). Photograph by Ron Amstutz
Installation view of Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney’s Collection (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, April 27, 2016-February 12, 2017). Photograph by Ron Amstutz
Installation view of Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney’s Collection (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, April 27, 2016-February 12, 2017). Photograph by Ron Amstutz
Installation view of Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney Collection (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, April 27, 2016-February 12, 2017). Gaston Lachaise (1882–1935), Standing Woman, 1912–1927. Bronze. Photograph by Ron Amstutz
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Whitney Stories

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

In the News

“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"
NJ.com

"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.”
Chelsea News

"[Human Interest] delves into the art form in an unprecedented way."
InStyle

"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."
Artspace 

"There are magnetic images everywhere."
The New York Times