“Selfies” are nothing new.
Humans have been producing self-portraits ever since the first cave artist put brush to rock.
Open at the Albuquerque Art Museum beginning Saturday, June 12, “Eye to I: Self-Portraits from the National Portrait Gallery” gathers more than 50 works examining the ways American artists have portrayed themselves since the beginning of the last century. Curators have organized the exhibition chronologically by medium (photography, painting, printmaking and works on paper.)
With each self-portrait, artists either affirm or rebel against a sense of identity linking eye to “I.”
Santa Fe’s Will Wilson (Diné) expands the documentary work of the early 20th century photographer Edward Curtis through the lens of a 21st century Indigenous artist in “How the West Is One,” owned by the Albuquerque Museum. Wilson uses a tintype process to impart an illusion of antiquity to his photographs.
Wilson’s dual self-portrait explores the cowboy versus Indian stereotype through dress.
“He really questions how we think about Western history,” curator Josie Lopez said. “Native American culture also includes certain practices that are part of the cowboy culture, so there’s this intersection and complexity.”
Onetime University of New Mexico visiting professor Elaine de Kooning painted herself in a forthright gaze that seems almost confrontational. A plant, a vase and artwork on her walls provide background, with a cup of coffee placed casually beneath her chair. The objects reflect her years of intense study with her more famous Abstract Expressionist husband Willem.
“She paints herself within this domestic scenery,” Lopez said. “She’s also playing with the concept of the still life. She’s also showing herself as an artist; she’s wearing her smock and look at her gaze. She’s directly confronting the viewer.”
The late Fritz Scholder painted himself toward the end of his life in “Self-Portrait with Grey Cat” (2003.) Scholder was one of the first teachers at Santa Fe’s Institute of American Indian Arts.
“You can see the oxygen box and he has a cane,” Lopez said. “He’s reflecting on his life.”
Scholder challenged the way Native Americans had been traditionally portrayed in feather-and-fringe clichés.
“He didn’t try to romanticize; you know, the traditional views of Native people at the pueblos,” Lopez said. “He wanted to show they were contemporary.”
A key part of the postwar New York art scene, Lois Dodd donned a black top hat atop her wild hair as she gave her viewers a sidelong glance.
“She definitely is claiming her place in the world,” Lopez said. “She’s reflecting on what it means to be a woman in the art world. She had her own gallery and she helped other women artists.”
Roger Shimomura depicted himself in a Japanese version of “George Washington Crossing the Delaware.” The painter set his scene in the San Francisco Bay.
“In the original, the men were Washington’s troops,” Lopez said. “In this version, they’re Samurai warriors. It’s thinking about Asian immigration.”
Shimomura and his family were relocated from their Seattle home to a Japanese American internment camp during World War II.
In 1957, African American painter James Amos Porter portrayed himself sitting before a cityscape holding his brush like a baton.
“He was very interested in African American art history,” Lopez said. “He went to Harvard, he studied in Paris and New York. He was always about championing African American artists and how that identity is explored in different ways.”
The Cuban artist María Magdalena Campos-Pons showed herself with closed eyes, holding a bird-of-paradise flower. Campos-Pons left Cuba for America in the 1990s.
“She’s thinking of concepts of exile and theories of displacement,” Lopez said. “Flowers are often used in Santeria rituals.”
Santeria is an Afro-Cuban folk religion incorporating some aspects of Catholicism.
Early exhibition works will feature self-portraits of the photographer Edward Steichen, mobile inventor Alexander Calder and the composer George Gershwin, who was also a painter, as well as the Pop art grandfathers Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg.