The Live Encounter of Portraiture


The Live Encounter of Portraiture
Pause, Bernard A. Zuckerman Museum of Art (Catalog Essay)
March 14 - June 7, 2015

By Faith McClure

By its very nature, sustained attention is both still and penetrative. The longer we focus on a specific object, the more our perception is transformed by our encounter with it. Artists frequently treat attentiveness as a skill of refined artistic practice. As a technique, it is traditionally introduced early in artistic education through drawing from life, in which careful observation of the outer world―finessed with pen or pencil―both confirms the acuity of the observational act and unhinges it from ordinary perception. 

When this kind of artistic attention is dedicated toward a human subject, the stakes are higher and more elusive. We tend to think of the portrait, whether in historical or contemporary practice, as illuminating the inner psyche of the subject, as if to turn the subject inside-out in order to glimpse the texture of his or her interior. While true in most cases, portraiture is more than an artist’s objective claim on another human presence.  In addition to being a work of art, a portrait is also an account of a live exchange between two human presences―the remains of an intersubjective event that probes the ordinary boundaries between self and other. 

A portrait, in this case, is a slippery mimesis, the result of subject and artist having entered into one another’s emotive labyrinths and psychological matrices. Such a portrayal is in equal parts potent and fugitive, emphatic and unreliable. Its capacity to pierce the viewer is a function of its skill at intimating the mutual vulnerability between artist and subject―at intimating an intimacy, as it were. 

If successful, such a portrayal communicates an empathic realness that can be transformative for subject, artist, and viewer alike. The South African artist William Kentridge describes his experience of drawing others as a matter of conjuring such empathy, which he feels is “embodied in the human labor of making the drawing.”[1] Similarly, laboring over the minute details of another’s face, as in the case of Phong Bui’s pencil-drawn portraits, is equally transformative in that the artist comes to know his subject in new ways through intimate and dedicated observation.

Stillness, as a mode of intentionality, is essential to the portrait so undertaken. Like slowing the rotation of a filmstrip so as to see each frame distinctly, stillness begets what the ancient Greeks termed kairos―an ideal moment in which a window of opportunity appears. Indeed, stillness might be considered another name for the empathic relationality on which portraiture is predicated. It is a name for the precise encounter between artist and subject―the deliberate, often private vibration between persons whose resonance becomes a portrait.

Such a conception of stillness also implies a spatial dimension, specifically porousness or permeability of space. Like the rest in music notation, stillness infers the “space between” by nature of what it refutes or interrupts, thereby making stillness a spatial phenomenon as well. In design, for example, stillness could easily translate as negative or inactive space—the visual silence amid reverberations of color or movement of line. Functioning as points of entry, so-called open spaces make a painting or photograph aerated and breathable, like a house with its doors and windows open. 

The portrait’s expansive spatiality―its capaciousness―connotes readiness, availability, and even generosity. German philosopher Theodor Lipps, who expanded our modern concept of empathy, or einfuhlung, from the German meaning “to feel into,” considered empathic exchange with another as a “spatial extension of the ego.”[2] If a portrait is gauged by its empathic resonance, then the expansion of inner capacity is essential in order that the artist—as medium or conduit—make room for the subject to come forward. This quality is evinced in Beach Portraits, Rineke Dijkstra’s photographs of awkward teenagers which allows, as Diekstra describes, “what we don’t want to show anymore but still feel,” to be captured on film.[3]

In this  respect, the portrait as a vehicle for empathic exchange relates to the deep and  immemorial labor of philosophers and religious mystics to cultivate a similar amplitude of consciousness. Nāgārjuna, a second century Indian Buddhist philosopher, was among the first to teach the concept of śunyatā, translated as “emptiness” or “spaciousness” from Sanskrit, as the dissolution of svabhāva or self.  “To be full of things is to be empty of God; to be empty of things is to be full of God,” said Meister Eckhart, thirteenth  century German theologian and philosopher.[4] Conceived as such, openness or capaciousness also means the absence of an absolute or fixed structure that could erroneously diminish what might otherwise manifest in its natural intensity.  

It’s for this reason that stillness and openness correlate to portraiture’s ethical implications, as well as its responsibility as a mode of representation. The artist, of course, wields a privileged power. Openness, as an intention of mind, allows the artist to yield or defer to the subject with humility, like tipping one’s boat in the direction of the current. When the artist is open, sustained attention has the power to disrupt ordinary perception from its automatic mode of efficiency that generalizes experience into broad sweeping categories, oversimplifications, and incomplete or erroneous assumptions.

Such intent can be seen in Alfredo Jaar’s Real Pictures, a collection of unrevealed portraits of Rwandan genocide victims. Offering only verbal descriptions of the photographs and their context, Jaar liberates his subjects from the oversaturation and blanketed response to such imagery, and instead, requires the viewer to actively construct the photograph’s particulars as well as their moral implications.

While traditional portraiture may come across as passé or old-fashioned for audiences seeking more cutting-edge modes, the fundamental principles of its tradition can nonetheless be upheld and applied in innovative forms. As Harold Rosenberg deemed the action painter’s drip paintings “arenas in which to act,” meaning, “what was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event," the live engagement a portrait requires signifies its merit, not only as a work of art, but as an intimate, transformative encounter between persons.[5]

As a creative practice, portraiture sets the conditions for a quality of mind that yields itself to attention and connection, while simultaneously upholding the value of the individual in a society too busy to be bothered by its presence. Through its empathic necessity, portraiture, at its best, resists the diffusion, isolation and fragmentation characteristic of contemporary society, and contemporary art trends today.




[1] William Kentridge: Pain & Sympathy. New York, NY: Art21, 2010. Digital video.


[2] Jahoda, Gustav. "Theodor Lipps And The Shift From Sympathy To Empathy." Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 41.2 (2005): 151-63. Accessed November 1, 2014. DOI: 10.1002/jhbs.20080.


[3] Smith, Roberta. "What’s Hiding in Plain Sight." The New York Times. July 5, 2012. Accessed November 27, 2014.


[4] McGinn, Bernard, ed. Meister Eckhart. Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1981. 47


[5] Chipp, Herschel Browning, and Peter Selz. "Harold Rosenberg, "The Action Painters," 1952." In Theories of Modern Art: A Source Book by Artists and Critics, 569. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.