Though the art world may seem as native to Lower Manhattan as the industrial spaces it has transformed, its roots lie north, in Midtown. This is where Leila Heller established her career as one of the foremost dealers in modern and contemporary art, and where she now returns with a newly opened gallery, to complement her Chelsea location. To inaugurate this multi-story space, she asked the founding director of the Armory Show, Paul Morris, and the collector, philanthropist, and curator, Beth Rudin DeWoody, to take a look back over the history of portraiture in modern and contemporary art and craft an exhibition that captures the spirit of the gallery’s ambitious programming-to-come. Its doors have opened with “Look at Me: Portraiture from Manet to the Present,” a far-reaching exhibition featuring every conceivable approach to the genre, in more than 200 works by 170 artists, ranging from up-and-coming to canonical.
“Commissioning a portrait in the 20th century became a somewhat dangerous exercise in checking your ego at the door,” Morris wrote in the accompanying catalogue. While stories of sitters’ egos being tried and tested by the artists who depicted them abound, artists also turned the lens on themselves, producing self-portraits full of piercing honesty. Among the most searing self-portraits in history are those of van Gogh, with their deeply felt swirls of lush, impasto pigment; Takashi Murakami pays cartoonish homage to the Dutch master at Leila Heller, in Van Gogh (2001). The painting features a smattering of his signature many-eyed mushroom figures arrayed against a flat silver background. A number of them have wounds on their heads, a possible reference to van Gogh’s own, self-inflicted mutilation. Less dark, but no less psychological, are works like Fernando Botero’s Woman with a Fan (2003) or Wayne Thiebaud’s Girl in Striped Blouse (1973-75), each one centered upon an inscrutable female subject, who seems to return the viewer’s gaze. In Lover (2011), by Gilbert and George, a pastiche of text fragments portrays the jilted lover stereotype, dangerously undone by love lost or unrequited. Easier on the eyes are the quartet of photographs of Angelina Jolie by Firooz Zahedi, who captures her clutching her head in mock-frustration without sacrificing an ounce of sex appeal. Look at her. Look at all of them. And look forward to more at Leila Heller Gallery.
“Look at Me: Portraiture from Manet to the Present” is on view at Leila Heller Gallery May 8 – August 14, 2014.