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CMA Exhibition Reveals the Portraitist as Peeper and Prober
Feeling the Gaze
Tom Mack, free times
© © 2017 Free Times, an Evening Post Industries company
November 8, 2017

In Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre defines fear as the disquieting recognition that we exist as an object for another person, that we possess a self that he knows and we do not. As Sartre puts it, the look comes to search for me at the heart of my situation and grasps me, pulling me out of concealment identifying me arresting me.

Thus, the sitter for a portrait may very well react with apprehension to the intense inspection of the portraitist. A reading of the texts supplied by Alphonse van Woerkom to accompany each of his large-scale portrait studies of eight New-York based artists now on view in Face Value at the Columbia Museum of Art bears witness to their varied responses to his effort to capture their likenesses.

Chuck Close, himself one of the biggest names in contemporary portraiture, offers a case in point. Too pugnacious was the judgment Close made in response to Woerkom's meticulously detailed charcoal rendering. And yet one wonders if Close, who himself was drawn to portraiture in part because he suffers from a condition that makes it impossible for him to recognize faces upon subsequent encounter, might have failed the challenge of perceiving his own.

Ida Appelbroog, artist and feminist activist, did not like the fact that Woerkom depicted her with one half of her mouth downturned. You made me look as if I had experienced a stroke, she said. Only later did she discover that that is exactly what had happened to her. Woerkom captured what she herself could not see.

Pat Steir, whose waterfall paintings are, she herself asserts, the result of a personal spiritual investment in her work, was upset that Woerkom did not depict her smiling. It may be, however, that a solemn demeanor represents her natural state and that she did not see herself as so serious an entity.

Not all of Woerkom's sitters were equally sensitive to his gaze. The noted color field painter Sam Gilliam was captured nearly napping, perhaps lulled to rest by the portraitist's humming while he worked. The choreographer Molissa Fenley went on dancing, even after Woerkom had packed up his equipment and left her studio.

This relationship between portraitist and sitter, as illuminated by the text that accompanies each piece in this impressive show, adds yet another dimension to the visitor's experience. This is not to say that Woerkom's achievement is not noteworthy enough in and of itself. Indeed, the two first floor galleries devoted to Face Value offer visitors plenty of visual stimulation.

Most of these pieces, suspended from dowels at top and bottom, measure about eight feet in height. Surprisingly enough, they read well not only from a distance but also close-up. The nearer one comes to the surface of each image, the more one feels welcome to enter into the artist's technique, witnessing from an intimate perspective Woerkom's expressive facility with charcoal, pastel and white chalk.

Of particular interest are the times that the portraitist decided to depict the same sitter twice. These include the likenesses of Ida Appelbroog with eyes open and eyes closed and the likenesses of abstractionist William T. Williams. For the latter two portraits, Woerkom decided to depict the front and back of the sitter's head. During his session with Woerkom, Williams's posture his head bent forward toward the artist resulted in the portraitist's absorption with how the model stance affects the likeness. Thus, with both large-scale drawings mounted back to back in the CMA exhibition, visitors can view William T. Williams's impressive head from two sides: the subject from the front, leaning forward with a quizzical expression, and the subject from the back, with stooped shoulders turned away and receding from the viewer.

In the end, the monumental drawings themselves and the informative text accompanying each piece make one reexamine assumptions about the art of the portrait, particularly the relationship between the portraitist as psychological detective, both peeper and prober, and the sitter as sometimes apprehensive, sometimes nearly oblivious object.

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