To Thine Own Selves Be True

Role-playing is rampant today, with artists picturing themselves as impersonators, cross-dressers, evil twins, and exhibitionists—all to throw traditional ideas about identity up for grabs .

Maurizio Cattelan’s self-mocking La rivoluzione siamo noi (We Are the Revolution), 2000.


On the face of it, nothing could be more straightforward than a self-portrait. And nothing could be further from the truth. In recent years, artists have turned to self-portraiture less to see the face they show the world than to picture themselves as others. Many artists today routinely portray themselves in fictional, symbolic roles and speak of themselves as performers. A large number of them work in video and photography, suggesting that the camera encourages a certain degree of exhibitionism and self-regard. Donning makeup and prosthetics, they cast themselves as their heroes or their own evil twins and, with the help of digital media, reproduce themselves as armies of one.

Cindy Sherman, who may be responsible for much of the role-playing so prevalent in art today, has photographed herself in so many guises that for years few outside her immediate circle actually knew who she was. Sometimes only minimally altering her appearance, she has taken familiar representations of female sexuality from film, art, pornography, fashion, and fairy tales and created an impressive gallery of women of all shapes, sizes, classes, periods, and styles that together form a kind of pathology of womanhood.

“Modern sensibilities do not assume that the eyes are windows to the soul, and that the body is a record of identity, but that there is a gap between inside and outside,” says Robert Storr, Rosalie Solow Professor of Modern Art at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. “The outside shows wear and tear, but the inside is plural.”

Andy Warhol is still the artist who has most successfully established himself as a brand using his image. By painting his own portrait exactly as he did those of the celebrities he worshipped, Warhol effectively made himself one of them, even as he remained a cipher.

“You can make an image that’s very personal,” says Russell Ferguson, chief curator at the UCLA Hammer Museum, where he put together “Mirror Image,” a show of contemporary self-portraiture in painting, photography, and video, last year. “But it leaves out the question of who that person really is.”

That is precisely where today’s self-portraitists depart from grand tradition. Rembrandt painted himself in theatrical costumes, but there was never any doubt that he was the subject. The same could be said of van Gogh or even Courbet, the 19th-century French realist who painted himself as a wounded soldier and as a cellist.

Max Beckmann, the German Expressionist whose self-portraits were among the standout works of a comprehensive exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art last spring, invariably painted himself either in evening dress or a masquerade costume. “Maybe we should think of him as a kind of premature postmodernist,” says Storr, who curated the show for MoMA. Storr describes Beckmann as “an impersonator of identities rather than a cathartic expresser of emotions.”

Indeed the art of self-representation has grown increasingly bound to the vernacular of the stage. In 1971 the performance and installation artist Eleanor Antin anticipated Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills” by a decade when she made Representational Painting, a black-and-white silent film in which she uses makeup to “find” herself. The following year, in The King, she repeated the exercise with prosthetic beards until satisfied that she really did look like a man.

Nonetheless, there are artists who still take the self-portrait at face value. Chuck Close’s monumental views of himself and others may do double duty as abstract paintings, but most owe more to the mug shot than to an attempt to illuminate character. Indeed they seem to question how much one can learn about a person from a single picture.

Close made only front-view portraits until 1988, when he painted Cindy Sherman with her head turned three-quarters. “It took a long time for Chuck to do that with himself,” says Terrie Sultan, director of the Blaffer Gallery at the University of Houston and curator of a retrospective of Close’s prints that will travel to nine cities in the United States through 2007. “And in some ways those are a bit more revealing of him and his personality. It’s almost like he’s looking at you out of the corner of his eye.”

Where Close makes paintings that are nearly all face, John Coplans, who died last August at 83, detailed his aging flesh in headless, black-and-white self-portrait photographs that also function as formal abstractions. That leaves more traditional self-portraiture to artists such as Jim Torok, a deft cartoonist who also renders superrealistic paintings of his head and others’. They are as uninflected as any by Close but a fraction of the size.

Brooklyn-based Torok, who showed his miniatures last fall at New York’s Bill Maynes Gallery, paints everyone in expressionless front views because, he says, “You see more in a face when the person doesn’t have an expression. More emotion comes through when people are trying to be blank.” Still, no one, including himself, he says, ever looks the same from one day to the next. “You can never really capture a person,” he says. “But you can give them a quality that seems real.”

Briefly a student of Method acting, photographer Lucas Samaras has spent the last four decades making art with his own image, even appearing in each session for “Sittings,” a 1978 series of nude portraits of other people. (They were naked. He was clothed.) The series will be on view in “Unrepentant Ego: The Self-Portraits of Lucas Samaras,” an exhibition opening this month at the Whitney Museum that takes stock of the 67-year-old artist as a formal innovator as well as a pioneering self-mythologist.

Samaras’s photographs can be as repellent as they are beautiful, a contradiction in which Sherman has also been known to revel. In his work with Polaroid cameras, the fetishizing “Auto-Portraits” (1969) and head-turning “Photo-Transformations” (1973–76), he distorted and abstracted his appearance by playing with the developing photograph’s emulsion before it set, turning himself into a fascinating grotesque.

Today he describes his process as one of “trying to find a method where something magical can be created, no matter what natural deficiencies accompany you. You can look in a mirror, or a camera, and say, ‘Let’s fix that. Let’s create a drama.’”

The narcissism in his art does not stem entirely from vanity. He has connected his self-consciousness to growing up in a household of women, later turning a camera on his naked body to help him feel comfortable in his own skin. In conversation he refers to the body in general as “a field for conquering” and explains his fixation on his own image as “a Napoleonic conceit, a desire to conquer being with just myself.”

If Samaras had a “Eureka!” moment when he first picked up a Polaroid, his initial experience with a digital Leica three years ago was something like love at first sight. “Obviously my body doesn’t look like it did when I was 30,” he says, “but Leica shoots me in a way that the age is not a problem. It’s kind of ravishing.”

New York’s PaceWildenstein gallery will exhibit his new “Photo-Fictions” concurrent with the Whitney show. Taken in his midtown Manhattan apartment and in Cen
tral Park, the photographs are drenched in color and play with the nature of illusion itself, as Samaras alters his figure to create imaginary situations within actual locations. “I can’t do Weegee,” he says. “That’s why I use myself. But some sense of beauty has to appear in the photo, whether I’m in it or not.”

Amy Adler, 37, performs similar sleight-of-hand with her large-format Cibachromes. Like Samaras’s Polaroids, each is unique and evolves from a complicated process that begins when she makes a life-size pastel drawing of the subject of a found or original photograph, often of herself. She then creates a new photograph of the drawing that otherwise replicates the original, which she destroys along with the drawing. “I choose to use things that are relevant to me,” she says, “because I feel that is what distinguishes my pursuit from anyone else’s.”

For “Unknown,” a series she exhibited last fall in New York at Casey Kaplan, Adler hired an actress to come to her Los Angeles apartment and sit on her bed, play with her cat, and wear her clothes while she took the surrogate’s picture. “The term ‘self-portraiture’ plagues me,” Adler says, “and part of this project was an attempt to understand what that meant.”

Even now she characterizes five provocative “centerfolds” she made of herself in 2002 not as self-portraits but as documents of live performances. “I’m presenting myself as myself, but I’m not really there,” she says. “It’s a drawing. It’s not my body. I’m presenting something very straightforward that is simultaneously a fiction.”

Like many artists today, Adler creates self-portraits that are not really about her. “Charles Ray used his own image numerous times in the 1990s,” recalls Donna de Salvo, a senior curator at London’s Tate Modern. “You might see Oh! Charley, Charley, Charley…”—an onanistic group of eight Ray mannequins—“as a quintessential ‘self-portrait,’ a person in love with himself. At the same time, however,” she points out, “it is just as much about the sculptural object.”

Anthony Goicolea is 32 but looks much younger, so he can credibly enact the rituals of adolescent boys on the cusp of manhood in videos and photographs that picture him within a crowd of towheaded youngsters, all of whom are replicas of his image. “I’m standing in for a universal idea of boyhood,” says the artist, who is represented by New York’s Rare.

Korea-born New York artist Nikki S. Lee was far more than a stand-in when, between 1998 and 2001, she had onlookers snap her picture to mark her infiltration of clannish social groups—sex workers, hip-hop kids, seniors—to which she would not ordinarily gain entrance, relinquishing her natural identity while firmly remaining in her role as an artist.

In “Parts,” her most recent photographs, on view this month at Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects in Chelsea, Lee dispenses with snapshots and the kindness of strangers. “I wanted to tell a story of how another person affects my identity,” says Lee, who appears alone in each new photograph, though all bear evidence of another presence—a hand on her shoulder or breast, or a male torso on her bed—whose identity she has literally scissored from the picture. “In my previous work, I look different in different pictures,” she says. “In these, people focus more on the person they don’t see, and yet they get more of the story of my life.” (Lee also has a solo show at the Cleveland Museum of Art, opening the 22nd of this month and up through January 21.)

Self-absorption is not merely a by-product of such an enterprise, it is also a central theme. The cross-dressing Japanese artist Yasumasa Morimura has been working his way up the slippery slope of selfhood by photographing himself as leading ladies of Western art and cinema—Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, Cindy Sherman, Frida Kahlo—remaking their best-known images in his own. Sue de Beer’s first video, Making Out with Myself (1997), in which she does exactly that, is an oddly melancholy affair expressive of both the frustrations and the gratifications of narcissistic desire. New Yorker Robert Melee indulges in an extreme form of solipsism, performing a series of role reversals in his videos with his nearly naked mother, while the Jekyll-and-Hyde theme has been a favorite of Douglas Gordon, the 1996 Turner Prize winner whose video from that year, A Divided Self I and II, focused only on his hands and forearms as he wrestled with himself, one arm shaved, one with matted hair.

But even narcissism has a mirror image in contemporary self-portraiture—self-mockery. With 2000’s La rivoluzione siamo noi(We Are the Revolution), the Italian, New York–based ironist Maurizio Cattelan hung an effigy of himself in a Joseph Beuys–style suit of gray felt—he calls it his “mini-me”—from a metal coatrack. More recently the artist (who is represented by New York’s Marian Goodman Gallery) produced a mechanized sculpture of his adult self as an eye-rolling, tricycle-riding boy named Charlie, who followed visitors around the 2003 Venice Biennale and then the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, which commissioned the work. “Maybe the way you live in public is your self-portrait,” he says.

It would seem that way from the videos of Guy Richards Smit, an American up-and-comer who, in 1999, created the character Jonathan Grossmalerman (or Big Painting Guy), an ego-bloated, alcoholic schlemiel with a rapier tongue trying to get a break in the art world. Now Smit is building a performing career as Maxi Geil (or Super Horny), another alter ego, enjoying moderately more success than Grossmalerman. “In part he’s acting, in part he’s being himself,” says Christian Viveros-Fauné, co-owner of Smit’s Brooklyn gallery, Roebling Hall. “It’s a self-portrait of someone who’s famous and totally out of control, which I guess we all want to be.”

Until last July, the photo booth, which Warhol also used to his advantage, seemed the last refuge of the unadulterated self-portrait, but with the New York debut of a young Tokyo-based artist named Tomoko Sawada, it too fell to the machinations of a new conceptualist.

Making herself up, Cindy Sherman–style, as dozens of archetypal Japanese personas, Sawada repeatedly sat for her photo-booth portrait and then rephotographed the results, multiplying nearly 400 versions of herself by four and installing the black-and-white strips on the walls of New York’s Zabriskie Gallery, in grids of 100 photos each. None would make it easy to pick her out of a lineup.

For her part, painter Deborah Kass is careful to distinguish performing personas from art that plays with what she terms “the idea of being more than one thing at a time.” Last year Kass organized a sweeping survey of contemporary self-portraiture in a group exhibition at Momenta Art, a nonprofit gallery in Brooklyn.

Now in her early 50s, Kass spent much of the 1990s appropriating Warhol, faithfully copying his camouflage self-portraits and substituting herself—a white, Jewish, lesbian feminist—for him. It wasn’t that she wanted to be Warhol himself so much as a Warhol painting. “I’m one of those people who believe they make self-portraits no matter what,” she says. “The only issue is what form it will take.”

Linda Yablonsky is the author of The Story of Junk and a contributing editor of ARTnews.

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