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The Carter's latest exhibit revels in the human visage captured by the artist's hand

As with any earthly endeavor, museum-going is governed by certain immutable, objectively verifiable laws. Laws like Biederman's Razor: The worse the institution, the greater its penchant for puffery.

Fortunately, there is a corollary to this axiom. While far too many major museums put a postmodern faith into spin, quality shows still hang. With increasing frequency, they are to be found at small, relatively low-profile venues, places that benefit from small PR budgets, low expectations and smart asset allocation strategies. Places like Fort Worth's Amon Carter Museum.

By all rights, the Carter should be one of America's cultural jokes. Founded by a wealthy Texan with impossibly philistine tastes, the place began as a dumping ground for acres of Western art. But decades of smart, aggressive, sometimes controversial stewardship have turned the Carter into a premier venue for viewing treasures of American art. The winning streak continues with Eye Contact: Modern American Portrait Drawings From the National Portrait Gallery, one of the more interesting exhibitions to tour the area in some time.

At top, Beauford Delaney's 1963 pastel-on-paper portrait of James Baldwin; bottom, Harrison Fisher's 1927 conté crayon drawing of Zelda Fitzgerald, both currently on view at Fort Worth's Amon Carter Museum.
At top, Beauford Delaney's 1963 pastel-on-paper portrait of James Baldwin; bottom, Harrison Fisher's 1927 conté crayon drawing of Zelda Fitzgerald, both currently on view at Fort Worth's Amon Carter Museum.

Organized by the Smithsonian, Eye Contact consists of 50 watercolor, gouache, crayon, ink and charcoal portraits dating from roughly the mid-1880s to the mid-1980s. An outstanding 256-page catalog accompanies the show. Yet Eye Contact is a decidedly low-key affair, with stops scheduled in Elmhurst, Illinois, and Naples, Florida. And so much the better, for those good burghers and aging snowbirds will be immeasurably enriched, Eye Contact being that rarest of museum shows, an exhibition that provides a framework for understanding what has gone wrong with contemporary art.

The catalog begins, predictably enough, by alluding to Twain and suggesting that reports of portraiture's death in the 20th century have been exaggerated. It is true that throughout most of the century, the form has suffered critical disrepute. Current art-historical wisdom holds that a vast wasteland lies 'twixt Picasso and Warhol (or between Picasso and Freud or Bacon, if you wish), a desert littered by the xenophobic carcasses of American Regionalists and throwbacks like Edward Hopper. Yet, the show argues, portraiture never really vanished. As popular culture eclipsed high culture and the influence of Madison Avenue waxed, the art of drawing the human face just went underground, into the parlors and studios of the intelligentsia.

For this, the curators blame the usual suspects: photography and the rise of an empty, Madison Avenue-driven celebrity. And it is true that the banality of the camera, along with its use in advertising, film, billboards, print and even silk-screening, have all contributed to the devaluation of the human face. Wandering through the show, one gets misty for the days when a portrait could actually provide insight, in part because the artist actually knew or spent time studying his subject. Not that psychoanalysis was always the goal. There are plenty of examples of artistic flattery on display in Eye Contact, along with caricature, satire, affection and lust. Yet even the bootlicking is somehow more interesting than the usual contemporary fare. Next to Roy Lichtenstein's mythologizing sketch of Robert Kennedy, the posed, pompous Vanity Fair portrait of a political leader, a president or a business tycoon is a poor substitute, and about as revealing as a burka. The celebrity shot of Tom Cruise mugging or Whoopie Goldberg in a tubful of milk satisfies no hunger for insight, supplies nothing worth knowing, not even about the photographer's art. It is as intellectually nutritious as a candy bar.

Eye Contact works on two levels. The exhibition presents not only a compendium of interesting American lives, but through them, a narrative of intellectual and artistic trends during the 20th century. Many selections give the lie to Cartier-Bresson's suggestion that 40 gives us the face we deserve. Some didn't make it that far; others, for example, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, were more interesting in their prime than in their booze- and insanity-addled later years. Their stories, presented in wall text and supplemented by the catalog's in-depth biographical notes, present the struggles of the extraordinary men and women depicted, as well as fitting the artistic styles into an arc of historical development.

Between the lines, you can follow another equally important narrative: the tale of art's over-intellectualization. Like most 20th-century developments, it was ironic. After all, it was the court painters, 18th-century portraitists like Sir Joshua Reynolds, who first fought to give painting intellectual airs, to separate themselves from mere craftsmen. But 200 years later, somewhere between Marius de Zayas' abstract portrait of Agnes Meyer, with its subject's enormous intelligence reduced to an algebraic formula, and Milton Avery's loosely crosshatched self-portrait, art had become a means of overthinking problems, a means of sublimating emotion or anxiety.

It was a natural development, in its way, as well as a logical response to historical developments. Faced with snapshots of concentration camp victims, or even the carnage wrought by terrorists, what can the artist add? Thus, since World War II, contemporary art has increasingly become detached from the real world, a form of philosophy--in short, repression for smart people.

Yet Eye Contact shows us, clearly, what contemporary art sacrificed when it devalued the drawn human figure. Unlike much contemporary, photography-based portraiture, the drawings in this show do not strike a pose, don't shout slogans or hit you over the head with manipulation. Nor do they feign objectivity or indifference. These are portraits full of humanity and sophistication, full of subtlety and analysis and sly wit, full of the sound of the human, and humane, voice.

 
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