Stephanie Rose: The Portraits

By Elizabeth C. Baker

Essay for The Eternal Return: Stephanie Rose | Portraits,
Exhibition Catalogue, Albany Institute of History & Art, 2012, pp.11-18. 

In 1996, Stephanie Rose made her first portrait. She painted her daughter, Elizabeth, just before her 29th birthday. The portrait came about almost by happenstance, Rose said, prompted in part by a lunch at the Century Club in New York, where she had encountered an intriguing assortment of portraits of influential figures in the life of the city.Up until that time, she had worked for well over 30 years as an abstract painter, although by the early 1980s, figurative elements would sometimes appear.The first of these was a chair. In hindsight, one could perhaps surmise that early chair was waiting for an occupant. The current exhibition tracks the luxuriant flowering of portraiture that has taken place in the 16 years following the likeness of her daughter.

Formally titled Elizabeth (Portrait of Elizabeth Schub), the work shows the young woman from her head to just below her waist in a three-foot-high vertical canvas. She is posed diagonally, leaning forward from lower left. She wears a long-sleeved dress of fluctuating velvety blues. Her body is shown in profile; her right arm reaches forward from an emphatically volumetric shoulder towards the painting’s lower right, forming a blue triangle of which her shoulder is the apex. Above that, her head is turned towards the viewer, who receives her wide-eyed, forthright gaze and incipient smile almost straight-on. The outline of her face is established by a slightly shaded contour, and the pale flesh tones are modeled delicately in a cool neutral hue. A cascade of long, dark-brown hair sweeps back from a high forehead; most of it falls diagonally down along her back.

Flanked by a variety of energetic abstract forms—competing pictorial activity entirely independent of the likeness—the subject nevertheless holds her own. On the left side of the head, orangey-gold folds loop down from the canvas’s top edge suggesting drapery—or perhaps, in their biomorphic, quasi-Surrealist ambiguity, the sliced-open cross-section of a mushroom or root vegetable. The visual power of this unidentifiable but assertive configuration is matched, at right, by a tangled strip of bright-red fabric that ends in a spiral; behind it is a mass of crumpled, very deep red material, presaging the wine-colored curtain present in so many of the portraits that follow. Moving rightward, a tall, narrow silver form scored with parallel lines is, most likely, one of Rose’s recurrent Classical columns, here a Doric one, supine and slightly contorted.

Free-floating rectangles that sit at the picture’s surface are characteristic abstract presences in nearly all Rose’s portraits. Here, at bottom left, a small rectangular image is inserted into the larger painting. It is flat and frontal and resembles a golden box with a lid, viewed at eye level. It can also be read as a semi-abstract seascape: the narrow horizontal strip, or “lid,” contains a little circle that could be a setting sun just above the horizon. The lower, larger section of the “box” bears linear markings that suggest a heaving ocean and a sloping patch of ground. Not far above this enigmatic configuration is a smaller rectangle that is flat and rather thickly painted —in effect a color bar—in bright monochrome blue. It is tilted slightly off the horizontal as if to assert its lack of kinship to the box-image just below it. On the one hand, it acts, visually, as a “clasp” between the sitter’s hair and the background. Simultaneously, it defines the painting’s front plane. Evoking Abstract-Expressionism and Minimalism respectively, the two dissimilar rectangles are adamant little manifestos of 20th-century abstract art.

This portrait introduces pictorial elements that appear again and again, though handled differently, in successive works. Among them are intensely worked abstract passages, along with variously loaded semi-representational forms. The repertoire of these elements will increase over the time span considered here. They seldom relate symbolically or anecdotally to the sitters, in any specific sense, but they function obliquely, poetically, to underscore a sensation or mood. They also say a lot about Rose’s obsessive interest in and involvement with different kinds and periods of art making. Many of Rose’s disparate elements are clearly historical in reference. Her own style and procedures, however, are rooted in the present tense. For the most part her sitters are close to the picture plane, and the pictorial space, when indicated (as it often is), is diagrammatic and ambiguous, not illusionistic. But these modernist “givens” are not without complication. Indeed, though some of the small inset images pay tribute to artists who were important to Rose as a young painter, and some are in fact derived from early sketches of her own for paintings she never made, they can equally well be seen as framing and distancing modernism as a historical artifact. In addition, the portraits reflect in their own characteristic way our increasingly history-conscious moment.

Each portrait is the product of thoughtful study and careful observation. All the works start out differently, and develop differently. They vary not only in size but in the way the figures are placed and what accompanies them. Rose usually paints people she knows, working partly from life, partly from photos, and partly from memory. She shoots photos from different points of view, in order to fully understand the structure of the face, and doesn’t work directly from any single photo. She invents the pose and usually also the clothing. The size and proportions of the canvas are primary decisions, and she has each stretcher built accordingly. As she works on the likeness, she develops a line drawing that is corrected many times. Subjects have included her family, friends (including several well-known writers), and colleagues; there have also been a few commissions to portray individuals she came to know in the course of making the works.

Soon after the portrait of Elizabeth, she painted the novelist Ted Mooney, a friend who was for many years a senior editor at Art in America magazine, and thus also a neighbor in SoHo when the magazine’s offices occupied the same stretch of Broadway as Rose’s then studio. Mooney is posed frontally and viewed somewhat from above; his head and shoulders occupy the bottom half of a canvas almost 6 feet high.He wears a white shirt with a white necktie. Unsmiling, with his head turned slightly to one side, he looks upward attentively with one eyebrow sharply cocked. The modeling of his face is naturalistic and detailed; subtle shading grows darker around the jaw line. As in the portrait of Elizabeth, the color of the shading is not a darker flesh tone, but a smokier hue; Rose pointed out that it resembles the treatment of shadows in Byzantine icons. In the portrait’s upper left quadrant, an inset vertical rectangle bears, between soft-focus Rothkoesque horizontal bars at top and bottom, a brushy, vaguely cruciform shape which, along with the tarnished, goldish hue, itself suggests an icon of sorts. Above Mooney’s head is a layered expanse of rough brushstrokes—ultramarine blue, modified by dark gray. It is atmospheric and turbulent and grows darker towards the middle; it looks somewhat geological and cavernous. At the upper right edge, a curious object descends, painted more smoothly than the field around it; with its pewter and bronze metallic coloration, it’s half gas-mask, half gargoyle. Portrait of Ted Mooney (1996) is the least colorful of the portraits. The psychological presence of the sitter is particularly intense in this work. There are no other competing elements except for a reprise of a smallish blue monochrome rectangle, adrift off to the right.   

The poet John Ashbery, another New York friend, was painted a few months later, in early 1997. He occupies a canvas similar in size to the Mooney portrait, but he inhabits the space more fully and in a more traditional relationship to the overall area. As is the case with Mooney, the face is somewhat more naturalistically modeled than many that follow. Some light leaks from behind around the edges of the head, emphasizing its in-the-roundness. Ashbery’s shirt is a spill of uneven taupe and greenish-gray brushstrokes, all about the same size.  To the right, a stack of Baroque architectural fragments—volutes, leafy trim—coexist with a lyre and other, less identifiable elements, all painted in yellow-ochre-ish tones. At far right, a long vertical rectangle of sunny yellow-orange hugs the picture edge at midpoint. To the far left, a dark red velvet curtain descends from above; it is bunched up, constrained, as if tightly bound, and stops short of Ashbery’s shoulder. Lower down, a painting-within-the-painting in neon-bright blue fuses Abstract-Expressionist pictograms, Synthetic Cubist still-life and an Art Nouveau landscape. In a portrait constructed mostly of warm and cool earth colors—browns, dark grays, tans—the three primary colors, sharply localized (even through the yellows are pretty dark), stand out to surprising effect. It’s almost as if two distinct and opposed color sensibilities confront each other within the same frame.
Exemplifying the wide variety of relationships that Rose sets up between her sitters and the formats of the paintings they occupy, a pronounced off-center placement occurs in several smaller portraits where the subjects appear, head and shoulders, in extended horizontal canvases, double-square in proportion. The subject in Rebecca (2001), dressed in blue, appears at far left against an engulfing red curtain; a flourish of the same drapery takes to the air in a gray field to the right of her, and stops short of a yellow monochrome rectangle (another set of primaries against neutrals). The couple in Sidney and Estelle (2002) occupy the left-hand side of a slightly larger work of similar wide-screen format. At right, a big expressionist landscape hovers, mainly blue-gray with black, with a wavy, red, scroll-like element floating below it, as if to underline its significance. A tall blue color bar the same height as the landscape is aligned at the portrait’s right edge.  In Wilson (2003), the occupant of a horizontal canvas looks our way as he heads toward the painting’s left edge, as if exiting; only a few vertical decorative flourishes deter him. Behind him and monopolizing the right half of the canvas is a rectangular, semi-abstract landscape that looms large in the area it occupies; a lyre and a fallen column also appear in it; from a pile of rocks in the foreground of this painting-within-the-painting, a waterfall bursts forth, astonishingly, into the portrait’s space.

A double portrait titled Summer (Portrait of Tom Breidenbach & Iannis Delatollas) (1998) is especially striking in its use of a large inset rectangle/artwork. The two young men resemble each other and appear close in age; both have short dark hair, large dark eyes, and wear white open-collared shirts. The two sitters are shown close to each other, shoulders slightly overlapping, in a portrait only slightly wider than square.  Crossing the bottom of the canvas, a frieze-like vista acts almost as a wall between us and the two sitters. Within it, dark, jagged abstract sculptures line up, silhouetted against a flat, bright yellow sky. Are we being pushed away? Is the frieze a protective element? It is certainly, among other things, an homage to mid-century abstract sculpture.
As these inset pictorial components gain in prominence, they sometimes declare their independence of any framing element and overtly join the larger composition.  In Portrait of Albert B. Roberts (2004-07), there is no pictorial insert; rather, an image that made unobtrusive appearances elsewhere, an Art Nouveau landscape with tall spindly trees in front of a water view with a horizon line, occupies the entire right-hand third of a three-foot-high vertical painting. In this work, a narrow red velvet curtain starts at top center and winds its way down the middle of the canvas, veering towards the left to pass in front of and below the portrait subject’s head and shoulders. Roberts’s elegant white suit jacket and shirt match his white hair. He also wears a slightly more than incipient smile—rare in this group of paintings. A color bar—here, chartreuse—links the curtain to the subject. Even without that clue to close-up spatial positioning, this portrait conveys a particular sense of immediacy, and Roberts himself seems to meet us more than half-way.

Over the past several years, architectural references and depicted sculptures, in addition to inserted images of paintings, increasingly claim part of the amply scaled pictorial territory. This is evident in the exhibition’s title work, The Eternal Return (2009), a double portrait that presents the artist’s two grandchildren, Maximilian and Theodore Browde, in a dark space that makes reference to the perspectival complexities of Las Meninas. They are posed amidst an assortment of narrow, vertical sculptural presences. The older of the two boys stands at front and center, seen from the knees up. At the picture’s left a bust of Athena towers over him. Resting on a blue-veined column supported by a high square base, the Classical bust, despite a helmet and an armored breastplate, seems to radiate a benevolent maternal spirit. On a wall adjacent to the bust is a second maternal presence, a small grisaille replica of the portrait of Elizabeth.

Next to that is the famous Las Meninas open doorway. Silhouetted against the back-light, a tall, narrow, vertical entity widens into a paddle-shape, resembling a head, at the top; it is an abstract surrogate for the artist. Similar forms occur in some of her earlier, abstract paintings. Returning to the foreground, to the right of the older boy is a tall Egypto-Cubo-Futurist sphinx which casts a friendly, almost cartoonish eye towards him. The smaller brother stands farther back in space, and is visible from head to toe. He has golden blond hair, and grasps a levitating length of red-orange fabric. Perhaps sensing a powerful updraft drawing the fabric aloft, he looks a bit apprehensive; still, his feet are encased in heavy slippers (or perhaps they are sabots) that root him to the floor.
 The intricacies of The Eternal Return are compounded in a portrait of Carter Ratcliff, the art critic and poet. Clad in sober black, he occupies the right side of an incident-packed canvas (5 feet wide, slightly wider than square, 2008-11). Several narrow ranks of abstract imagery, as well as a glimpse of a moonlit landscape, stand full-height at left. At the extreme left edge a sliver of orange hints at a curtain, but the fully rendered red curtain is set farther back in a space containing a levitating sculptural element that emanates quivering, vaporous, twig-like tendrils skyward. The blue color bar is on hand again; placed vertically, it spans the meeting point of two structural planes, perhaps to negate any implication of conventionally constructed perspective at a juncture between wall and floor. Behind Ratcliff, a streaky orange background glow gives way to roiling, greenish-gray curvilinear marks nearer the front and to the right.  In the midst of all this, Ratcliff appears unperturbed, partially barricaded by a substantial, whitish, de Kooningesque rectangle at dead center (the ghost of Excavation?).

In some of the portraits, especially the commissioned ones, Rose’s adjunct images do relate quite directly to the subjects’ institutions or lives. An early commission, Portrait of Edmond L. Browning, XXIVth Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church (1997), marked the occasion of the Bishop’s retirement. The handsome prelate has pure white hair; he wears bright ecclesiastical magenta, relieved by a gleaming white clerical collar a bit too loose for his neck. Every element in the painting makes reference to medieval or Renaissance Christian iconography. Here, the inserted pictorial vignette is atypically circular (the circle being a symbol of eternity), and it is perspectival, clearly detailed and representational, rather than flat, painterly and abstract. The round image contains a baptismal font standing in front of a small arched gateway giving onto a town square; nearby, a rocky wall disgorges a tiny (purifying) waterfall. Elsewhere, a sparrow (representing the least of God’s creatures) hovers just above the Bishop’s shoulder as it investigates low-hanging folds of drapery. This Bishop’s tenure was distinghished by his social concern; he referred to it as a “ministry of inclusion”. To the right, a cerulean blue rectangle (blue is the color of truth) is positioned vertically at the level of the sitter’s eyes; it reads as a blast of blue sky, as if seen through a small window—an opening, quite possibly, into the Beyond.

A more recent commission (2012) portrays Christine Miles, director of the Albany Institute for 25 years, who retired recently. She appears in an architectural setting that reflects, considerably transformed, many details of the museum’s historical building. Another nearly six-foot canvas, it surrounds the subject with generous space and pale orange light. She stands in a relaxed pose facing front. On the ceiling, a trapezoidal form filled with purple brushwork establishes some receding space. A bust of Athena (minus the breastplate, this time) leans gently against Miles at hip level. Athena’s helmet has sprouted a leafy finial. An elongated vertical rectangle bears an image of a sculpture that refers to one in the museum’s collection; at bottom, where the image meets the floor of the depicted space, a long irregular black fringe drips downward, as if the image itself is melting. Darkly witty, it utterly contradicts a consistent spatial reading.

The exhibition’s most recent portrait depicts the late British film director Michael Powell (1905-1990). His films, especially The Red Shoes (1948) and Tales of Hoffmann (1951), have been major influences in Rose’s development. Both films involve lush, color-drenched, hermetic theatrical worlds. Rose grew up in New York City and was steeped in theater from her earliest childhood. (In 1991, she designed a stage set for The Rise of Dorothy Hale, by Myra Bairstow, which appeared at an off-Broadway theater.) She attributes her omnipresent red velvet curtains and ornate, patterned surfaces, as well as the romantic, spectral chandeliers such as the one depicted in the Powell portrait, to her memories of the old Metropolitan Opera building, before the move to Lincoln Center. One of Powell’s later films, Peeping Tom (1960), includes a vivid episode when an actress suddenly breaks from her part and looks straight at the camera for a long, fraught moment. All Rose’s subjects fix the observer with a penetrating gaze—attributable, Rose says, to the impact of that filmed moment.

The portrait is built from many sources. Rose never knew Powell, though she once heard him lecture. To begin the work, she brought together numerous photos and other documents. Here, Powell is surrounded by one of the most elaborately Cubist of her compositions. A major feature is an opening onto a seascape in which an arched stone bridge rises out of a pale gray ocean against a misty sky. A horizon line establishes a sense of real distance. Otherwise, the structural action remains at close range, and includes two anti-gravitational swaths of muted red-orange fabric, a bright blue Ionic capital, and two tall abstract sculptures, one topped off with a lyre. A double layer of theatrical framing is present, with a flat, scrolling architectural proscenium in front of the velvet curtain. Behind Powell is a tilted, gold-framed, abstract canvas, underpainted with pale blue and pink and overlaid with gold and silver metallic paint. It is, as Rose describes it, “a strange non-color”—and an  internal source of light. The tilt of the frame refers to a mirror that figures in one of the last scenes of The Red Shoes. It also activates the space: Rose’s inventions are never without their formalist utility.

Speaking of utility, the Albany Institute of History and Art was founded in 1791 as a learned society with a focus on the natural sciences. Its original name was the Society for the Promotion of the Useful Arts. Over time, it became a regional art museum with strong holdings in the Hudson River School artists, and now an increasing interest in contemporary art. Even today, portraiture can be considered one of the useful arts, given its intersection with so many economic and sociological worlds. Ours is an interesting time for portraiture, so often dismissed as a conventionalized genre of secondary importance. Two recent museum shows in New York proved just how wrong this preconception can be for historical art: the stunningly diverse show of Renaissance portraits at the Metropolitan Museum, and the eccentric “character heads” of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt at the Neue Galerie. Furthermore, this traditional form has provided 20th-century artists with a jumping-off point for experiments and expressions of all kinds. A number of museums have recently highlighted a range of contemporary portraits and self-portraits, including Cindy Sherman’s at the Museum of Modern Art, Rineke Dijkstra’s at the Guggenheim, Kehinde Wiley’s at the Jewish Museum, Elizabeth Peyton’s at the New Museum, and in Chicago, Dawoud Bey’s at the Art Institute and the Renaissance Society.  At the galleries and/or art fairs, portraits or self-portraits by Eric Fischl, Alex Katz, Catherine Opie, Rudolf Stingel, Philip Pearlstein, Chuck Close, Avigdor Arikha, Jenny Saville, Chantal Joffe, Andy Warhol, Alice Neel and Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, among others, have attracted much attention, and Lucas Samaras’s devastating art-world mug shots fit in here, too. Rose’s portraits represent just one aspect of her broader career, but in their painterly strength, pictorial and imaginative breadth, and multiple productive tensions between contemporary concerns and the past, constitute a complex and highly individual addition to this thriving contemporary genre.