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BRUNSWICK — In 1961, artist Robert Rauschenberg was asked to submit a portrait to an upcoming show at Iris Clert’s famous avant-garde art gallery in Paris.
Instead, he sent a telegram with a simple statement: “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so.”
The gesture “stole the show,” Bowdoin College Museum of Art Co-Director Anne Goodyear said June 24.
That telegram now opens the college museum’s latest summer exhibit, “This Is a Portrait If I Say So: Identity in American Art, 1912 to Today,” which runs until Oct. 16.
The show includes abstract, symbolic, and conceptual portraits from artists such as Rauschenberg, Yoko Ono, Gertrude Stein and Byron Kim.
Bowdoin’s summer exhibitions typically attract thousands of visitors to Brunswick. The museum’s 2011 “Edward Hopper’s Maine” drew a record-breaking 36,000 people; other summer shows average about 19,000.
This year’s show, organized by Goodyear and guest curators Jonathan Frederick Walz, of the Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln, Nebraska, and Lisbon, Portugal-based independent curator Kathleen Merrill Campagnolo, has been six years in the making.
The curators delve into a style they say has been overlooked.
“The ground-breaking nature of portraiture during the past century has not always been recognized, yet the boundaries of identity have shifted significantly during this period,” Goodyear wrote in a press release. “With this show, we’re examining the ways in which portraiture has expanded and evolved to reflect these transformations.”
On June 24, the day before the exhibit’s official opening, artist Byron Kim stood in a wing examining his two contributions to the show.
Both pieces are grids made up of small painted plywood panels. “Emmett at Twelve Months, #3,” which consists of panels painted the colors of his young son’s body, was missing a piece that had been damaged in transport.
Kim said he created the work while taking care of his infant son. Though usually based in Brooklyn, Kim had followed his wife to Middlebury, Vermont, where she had a residency. During the day, he’d look after Emmett.
“I’d watch him lying there in his crib,” Kim said, and began painting the colors he saw on little plywood panels: the white in his eyes, the shades of his lips and ears.
The result is a piece that challenges “the troubling conceit of reducing a single individual to one shade as a stereotype for describing race,” the museum curators write.
On the opposite wall in the Bowdoin gallery is another grid painting, “Synecdoche.”
Starting in 1991, Kim has been painting the skin tones of subjects that sit for him and adding to a piece that now includes over 400 panels. Eighty-two are now in the Bowdoin museum; the other panels are at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
Kim said it’s fine – appropriate, even – that the work exists in two places. Synecdoche means “a part of the whole, representing the whole,” Kim said. The Bowdoin and D.C. segments both evoke the complete idea of the piece, he said.
He said one of his favorite things about “Synecdoche” is how people try to find themselves in the sea of skin tones.
“They walk along the wall, going like this,” Kim said, holding his arm up to the panels. “Portraiture can be that way; people try to relate to the subject.”
It’s these new interpretations of portraiture, and not just “head and shoulders depictions,” that Goodyear, the museum’s curator, hopes will get visitors thinking deeply and critically.
Brooklyn, New York-based artist Byron Kim in front of his portrait “Synecdoche,” which consists of plywood panels painted in skin tones. The panels hang at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick this summer, and in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
Robert Rauschenberg’s 1961 telegram to gallery owner Iris Clert opens “This is a Portrait if I Say So: Identity in American Art, 1912 to Today,” at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick.