Heads up!

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Art trends come and go, but when they take hold, they can dominate the art market to such an extent that many artists  lack the courage to buck the trend. Some however,  listen to their own muse regardless of the dictates of the art world.

America in the 50’s and 60’s was caught up in the whirlwind of abstraction and abstract expressionism. The art of portraiture was thrown out with the bathwater of realism. Nonetheless, as the current show Face Value at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC reveals, the desire to portray and represent  our common humanity was too powerful to be suppressed.

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Many of the iconic artists of this era demonstrate innovative interpretations of the genre and are represented among the impressive group of works in this exhibition: Andy Warhol, Jim Dine, Elaine de Kooning, Alice Neel, Chuck Close, Philip Pearlstein are some of the recognizable names.

Two sculptural works caught my eye – Marisol Escobar’s portrait of Hugh Hefner (used for Time Magazine’s March 1967 cover) and Robert Arneson’s Classical Exposure. Marisol’s blend of 2-D and 3-D techniques, and her strong sense of composition made an arresting impression.

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Robert Arneson is one of my heroes – one of the first ceramic artists to work in large-scale, attacking conceptual notions with a big dollop of humor. In his self-portrait entitled Classical Exposure (below) he deconstructs his body parts using classical references and poking militant feminist views of objectification in the eye. His bust rests on a pedestal whose center is pierced by his protruding penis and whose base reveals his grubby looking toes.

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Joan Semmel’s Me Without Mirrors pushes back against the traditional male gaze by portraying the female body from a perspective that only a woman is privy to.

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One work that really reveals the New York art scene of the sixties is Red Groom’s 3-D cartoon-y reconstruction of an artist’s loft.  Cool guys and gals are listening to records, smoking, reading, laughing, eating and drinking. You can almost smell the pot and hear the jazz.

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Through January 2015 at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC.

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