Trends Fairs Collectors USA

Vanity, vanity… or the ultimate commission?

No longer limited to oil on canvas, artists are challenging the conventions of portraiture

Street cred: Takashi Murakami’s commissioned portrait of the graffiti artist Kaws at Galerie Perrotin (G6). Photo: Vanessa Ruiz

Having your portrait painted by a famous artist must be the ultimate form of possession: it is about you, but seen through the artist’s eye. It is about entering into what can be a very intimate relationship—think Lucian Freud and many of his models. It is about owning a work of art that may, one day, transcend your own lifetime and live on as part of art history.

Although portraiture is as old as history itself, today’s artists are changing the rules of the game, and the Art Basel Miami Beach week offers an array of examples of just how far artists depicting sitters are prepared to go in their use of technology and in stretching the limits of taste and acceptability.

One example at the fair can be found at Galerie Perrotin (G6). The Japanese superstar artist Takashi Murakami is taking a leaf from Warhol’s book and offering commissioned portraits, made from a photograph and available in a number of formats and sizes. Sitters supply a favourite photograph, are Skyped or go into the studio, and the resulting image is superimposed on a typical Murakami background of happy smiley flower faces in candy colours. “We have had a number of commissions already, and we are particularly happy that one is from someone who also commissioned a portrait from Andy Warhol,” says Emmanuel Perrotin, the gallery’s owner. Prices start at $70,000. Murakami keeps one copy as a proof for himself and the other goes to the sitter.

The artist Julian Opie also makes portraits, and a work depicting the fashion designer Diane von Fürstenberg dominates an outside wall of Lisson Gallery’s stand (J1). Opie’s method is to make a series of portraits, with sitters able to choose as few or as many as they like; the others go onto the market. Prices range from £40,000 to £80,000.

These examples are figurative depictions of the sitter, filtered through the artist’s personal approach. But many of today’s artists are pushing back the boundaries of the genre. Tobias Rehberger has been making portraits in the form of sculptural flowers in vases, an ongoing series that he began in 1996 (neugerriemschneider, C15, €20,000 each); the Puerto Rican collector César Reyes is among his patrons. The French artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster made a group “portrait” of her friend, the collector Andy Stillpass, and his family, in the form of a clothes line hung with articles of white clothing taken from their cupboards. (The artist is represented by 303 Gallery; G5.) The British artist Tracey Emin has made neon “portraits” based on the sitter’s answers to a questionnaire. According to her gallery, she will still occasionally make new works for “closely vetted” subjects (Lehmann Maupin, K15; around £60,000).

“The choice of artist and the manner in which you are portrayed is just as much an indicator of status today as it was in the past,” says Louisa Buck, the author of the recently released Commissioning Contemporary Art: a Handbook for Curators, Collectors and Artists (Thames & Hudson) and a regular contributor to The Art Newspaper. “But commissioning a radical artist shows you are progressive and innovative—and gets you the respect of the most innovative creators around.”

Pilar Corrias Gallery (N34) is showing a series of highly explicit portraits by Leigh Ledare, commissioned by a prominent New Yorker whose face is obscured (her name is even redacted in the contract). The sitter approached Ledare after being inspired by a series in which the artist photographed his mother in a variety of pornographic poses. The sessions for this series, “Untitled”, took place over seven days in the sitter’s apartment; the resulting images were superimposed on silkscreened front pages of the New York Times. The agreement with the artist was that he could make, and sell, an edition of 16 ($15,000).

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