For centuries, the history of human portraiture in Western art was all about likeness. Subjects sat for their portraits, and artists were expected to deliver respectable reproductions of their sitters, who were often portrayed surrounded by the trappings of their success in life. There was also an expectation that a portrait would present its subject in at least a minimally flattering light.
Most of those conventions seemingly go out the window with the work of Martin Schoeller, a 43-year-old German photographer whose portraits capture their subjects warts and all — sometimes literally. Men with stubble! Women with wrinkles and actual pores!
A bit of wall text describes the New York-based Schoeller's color portraits as "unblinking, unflinching close-ups that at once decontextualize the face as they detail its landscape." That's a fancy way of saying that Schoeller professes not to be interested in flattering his subjects. It also takes into account his removal of anything that would distract from the human face. There are no props, just the faces themselves, shot and presented identically in a large-scale format, usually at 61 inches tall by 49 inches wide.
"Martin Schoeller: Close Up" and "Portraits From the Permanent Collection," through March 18 ("Schoeller") and May 13 ("Portraits") at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, 501 Plaza Real, Mizner Park, Boca Raton. Call 561-392-2500.
Not quite two-thirds of the 53 photos at the Boca Museum are examples of that postmodern species, the celebrity portrait. (And Schoeller knows his stuff: He worked as an assistant to the great Annie Leibovitz from 1993 to 1996.) The majority are movie and music stars, with the occasional athlete (Kobe Bryant, André Agassi), politician (Bill Clinton, John McCain), fashion designer (Valentino), and artist (Cindy Sherman, Marina Abramovic) thrown in for good measure. In a weird gesture toward democratization, Scholler includes shots of indigenous peoples, the Hadza of northern Tanzania and the Pirahã of Brazil.
There are some interesting concepts at work here. First, Schoeller seems to imply that there's no great difference between, say, George Clooney or Jack Nicholson and an Amazonian tribesman. I'm not buying it. Looking at the nonfamous faces here, we can all play amateur Margaret Mead on an anthropological field expedition, examining people whose cultures have changed little in thousands of years. The faces are links, however indirectly, to a shared human past.
To equate these humble faces with those of the insanely rich and famous (and sometimes powerful) seems somehow obtuse. Kanye West, Angelina Jolie, and Robert De Niro may appear here without any indicators of their worldly success — imagine Meryl Streep without her closetful of Oscars — but they're still avatars of a rarefied world most of us will never inhabit. Bill Murray is no less a celebrity because of his acne scars, just as Judi Dench's wrinkles don't detract from her star power.
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A posted quote from Schoeller announces his intentions: "I aim to record the instant the subject is not thinking about being photographed, striving to get beyond the practiced facial performance, reaching for something unplanned..." Again, I'm not buying it. Anyone who sits for Schoeller — at least, any celebrity — has to be aware that his blemishes will be magnified, her pores enlarged. It takes a special kind of false modesty to find it flattering to have one's flaws so ruthlessly exploited. (Brad Pitt seems to be the only star who emerges fully unscathed.)
That's not to say the portraits are without interest. Indeed, it may be impossible to strip away the artifice so fully that these faces become less than fascinating. Schoeller's whole enterprise turns out to be an exploration of that elusive intangible, charisma. Every famous face here has it, to some degree or another. If that's not flattery, I don't know what is.
At the opposite end of the Boca Museum's first floor, in the auditorium, there's another exhibit that serves as a footnote to the Schoeller show. It's a grab bag of 43 pieces in various media from the museum's permanent collection, assembled to hint at the enormous variety that's possible with the human portrait.
Perhaps it was a carryover from seeing so much of Schoeller's work, but I found myself drawn to more portraits of the famous: Arnold Newman's black-and-white photos of Georgia O'Keeffe and Cecil Beaton, an etching of artist Ed Ruscha by Theo Wujcik, photographer Mary Ellen Mark's image of Roy Cohn with an American flag, a photo diptych of René Magritte by Duane Michals, Andy Warhol's iconic silk-screens of Muhammad Ali. Maybe there really is no face like a famous face.