My friend Carl Belz has written about his encounters with portrait art while heading up the Rose Museum at Brandeis a few years back. He was asked to recommend a portrait painter for the retiring chairman of the University’s Board of Trustees. ” I immediately suggested Andy Warhol,” Belz writes, “who was laughingly dismissed as inappropriate, and then found myself briefly stymied. The art world I knew—the art world of the 1970s, that is—didn’t include boardroom portraitists.”
He eventually finds his way to George Augusta, a Boston-based portrait painter. Stepping out of his contemporary art world view, Belz liked what he saw:
George Augusta’s signature look, a descendent of Impressionism, blended confident and airy brushwork with a perceptive eye for likeness that felt everywhere natural, allowing easy engagement with his subject, and clearly indicating he worked from direct observation. With appropriate modesty, he allowed his pictures to be about his subjects instead of about himself. Relying on neither technical virtuosity nor the trappings of class—both of which plagued the portrait genre as I had come to know it—he comfortably partnered form and content while respecting in equal measures the full energies of art and life alike.
So began a long and fruitful relationship between George Augusta and Brandeis University.
But there is a larger arc of meaning for Belz that emerges from this encounter. Anyone who has “discovered” an artistic enclave or tradition existing in isolation from a contemporary art world that is high profile, elite, detached, controlled, and carefully artificed knows that startling moment of revelation that there are other ways of making art far afield from those confining constructs.
I had my version of that aha! experience when I first encountered Australian aboriginal painting 20 years ago. Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Gloria Petyarre, Kathleen Petyarre, Johnny Warrangkula, Rover Thomas and Barbara Weir are just a few of the extraordinary artists who emerged after art supplies were first brought to the aboriginal population in the 1970s by Geoffrey Bardon. With no exposure to Western art or tradition, these artists used their own cultural heritage to produce work that, while varied and self-defined, shares an approach that is painterly, authentic, mysteriously spiritual and completely captivating. I was immediately engulfed by it, and that encounter changed my life as an artist. (An image by Kathleen Petyarre is at the bottom of this post.)
Belz describes his experience with thoughtful graciousness:
Through my association with George Augusta, I encountered a first-rate, highly successful artist working in an art world that orbited in tandem with the art world I knew but never intersected it. Had I not been assigned my unusual task—a task I admit to undertaking with reluctance, as I tacitly subscribed to the conventional wisdom of the time and so regarded boardroom portraits as mere shadows of a once noble ancestry—I would have missed entirely the rewards I discovered in George Augusta’s pictorial world. Which got me to thinking about other art worlds that might be out there, unknown and/or unrecognized by members of my art world, but the specter of what I might be missing never haunted me. I realized that I could never see every picture painted everywhere in the world at every current moment—because that kind of cultural access was as unimaginable as it was unrealistic—so I contented myself with having learned to think twice before presuming an equation between the parameters of my world and the parameters of the world at large. What did haunt me when thinking about multiple art worlds was a vision of art itself, of its vastness, of its breadth and depth, of its ability constantly to sustain and renew itself, while we—we curators, critics, art historians, and sometimes even our artists—regularly did our best to cut it down to size, bring it within our reach, and squeeze it into our theoretical constructs. I know, we’re just the messengers here, the go-betweens linking art with its audience, and I know I’m not supposed to shoot the messenger. But I also know that the messengers don’t always do justice to the message’s meaning.
Great piece Carl. You can read it in its entirety at Left Bank Art Blog.