As we enter our third calendar year of quarantine and pandemic, it’s an apt time to reflect on our relations with others, and it’s a subject that art is uniquely capable of shedding light on.
Exactly ten years ago, when the Brooklyn-based Nicole Eisenman made an etching called The Met, not a soul in the crowded beer garden rendered by the artist could have fathomed the era we are living in today. Being "together," for those depicted in this scene, is not necessarily something to be celebrated. In truth, the downcast eyes and intoxication of each character, humorously observed with the artist's jaundiced eye, speaks to a kind of atomization: the characters are together, alone. In a way, it's a luxury that the individuation of modernity affords us; sociological depictions of an individual in an anonymous public sphere date to the Impressionists, whose drowsy absinthe drinkers in all-night bars are channeled in Eisenman's print.
Robert Longo's prints, Jules, and Mark, also speak to alienation, specifically the conformity of modernity. Like Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman, and other artists of the "Pictures Generation," Longo is known for reworking the semiotics of the cliché and the everyday, often with startling results. Here, he de-contextualizes appropriated images, like film-stills of actors being assassinated. By isolating the figures and leaving them alone against a white background, we are left to ponder why these generic men in suits are making such emotive gestures.
In his Blues Men portfolio, the German artist Thomas Schütte makes expressive portraits of Albert King, Bukka White, Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker, Leadbelly, Otis Redding, Son House and Willie Dixon. Alone, these works are effigies of pioneers that paved the way for rock n' roll. But taken together and reproduced all in the same high-contrast style, the artist gives them the gravitas and provides a web of influences, placing these important individuals into a powerful network of musical innovation.
There is nothing so charming as seeing an artist capture the unique features of an individual. The ability to evoke celebrity countenances in her portraits is one of Elizabeth Peyton's strengths. In her Michelangelo, the British artist has reproduced Michelangelo's portrait of the Florentine noble Andrea Quaratesi (which can today be found in the British Museum). The quick gestural style, the sensitivity to human expression, and the simplicity of the background, absent of other accessories to contextualize him, leaves the eye to focus on the sitter's subjectivity. In doing so, the artist, as Michelangelo did, brings forth the universal humanity of an individual who looks as if he were still very much with us now.