Can there be such a thing as a portrait without a person? That’s the question digital artist Robert Weingarten asks, and then answers in the affirmative, in his innovative exhibition “Living Legends,” recently opened at the Norton Museum of Art.
Beginning in 2007, Weingarten, a California-based photographer, approached many “living legends” in various fields, from sports and politics to music and religion, asking them for input for what he was then calling his “Portraits Without People” project. He then took this input, from some two dozen public figures, and created montage “portraits” that captured their essence and their spirit, if not their facial contours and camera-ready smile. The result shows us that while the eyes may be one window into the soul, they aren’t the only portal: We can understand a person’s elemental consciousness through the physical fragments of their life—the objects, places, people and concepts they hold dear.
The generously sized photographs—five feet wide and more than three feet high—in this small but valuable exhibition are inherently busy works full of layers and superimpositions and witty juxtapositions, all of them the result of the copious input his subjects provided. In an interesting touch, the Norton has included the recipients’ input responses next to finished product, and the format, length and specificity of each says something about the person who wrote it. For his portrait, Hank Aaron sent Weingarten a printed letter, on official letterhead, and explanations for why each piece of input was important; Mikhail Baryshnikov, meanwhile, mailed the artist a handwritten piece of yellow college-ruled notebook paper, with the following words chicken-scratched onto it: “my office,” “dance studio NYC,” “my photography,” “dance,” “music.”
Thus, in some cases more than others, Weingarten has his work cut out for him, and “Living Legends” runs the gamut from the painterly and abstract to the doggedly literal. Typically, a close-up of an object will occupy the center frame—a Louisville Slugger for Aaron, a space module for Buzz Aldrin, a violin’s pegbox for Itzhak Perlman—around which the rest of the subject’s input orbits around and generally pays deference to.
Sometimes the key noun in each work is not an object but a place, or places. This is the case with two of the exhibit’s strongest portraits. Sonia Sotomayor is represented by three superimposed locations vying for your eye’s simultaneous attention: The Supreme Court Building, Yankee Stadium and her favorite cheese shop, whose amber lighting casts a radiant glow over everything. The Court building’s “Equal Justice Under the Law” promise is positioned below the words “Yankee Stadium,” humorously conflating the purposes of the two landmark edifices. And the artist’s Don Shula portrait is especially revealing, linking a football stadium with the interior of a church, its pews pointing the way toward the gridiron: In Shula’s essence, one literally feeds into the other, intertwining the faith, football and morality that have made him who he is.
Sometimes, the results of Weingarten’s inquiries are just weird, but no less compelling. The portrait of Chuck Close, a fellow photographic innovator, is all over the place, his subject’s rambling list of “favorites” rendered in a doctor’s penmanship. Close found it important to include tapioca pudding and Bounty paper towels in his list, so Weingarten dutifully inserts them into his portrait. But even this eccentric result is beautiful, because it reflects an exhilarating breadth of art history as curated by Close; Giotto’s frescoes, Vermeer’s “Girl With the Red Hat” and de Kooning’s “Woman I” share the same canvas of influence and imagination, indeed speaking to Close’s artistic sensibility for better than a shot of the artist’s visage ever could.
The only celebrity who didn’t seem to “get it” is Quincy Jones, whose shallow input was less an embodiment of his essence than a C.V. for his next job. His minimal requests included the poster for “A Color Purple,” his Grammys, his Oscar, and some of the records he worked on. Weingarten, given nothing substantial to work with, created a portrait that is a tribute to Jones’ vanity.
Perhaps the greatest value in this show, beyond its capacity to recast the definition of a portrait, is that it prompts us to look deeply at art, and rewards us for our probing inspection. At a passing glance, Weingarten’s portrait of Jane Goodall is chimp-centric, with other primates, dogs and candles hovering behind and around it. But the more you stare at this piece, beyond its multiple surfaces, the more you’ll notice its coat of photographic primer: the shelves of a library filled with books, stretching across seemingly the entire canvas. Sure enough, “books” were listed among Goodall’s input.
Like the best works of art, the more you look, the more you see.
“Living Legends” runs through Sept. 7 at the Norton Museum, 1451 S. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach. Admission costs $5-$12. Call 561/832-5196 or visit norton.org.