When viewed through the lens of Rudolph Stingel’s oeuvre, this striking portrait of Pablo Picasso becomes more than just an image of the most famous figure in 20th century art history—it forms a treatise on the place of the artist in society, and of the history of painting itself. Known for his shiny Styrofoam installations which investigate the process of art-making, Stingel did a dramatic about-face around the time of his 50th birthday and turned his attention to the difficulties of being an artist, rather that the problem of what to put on the canvas. Painted in 2012, Untitled is the only purely photorealistic painting Stingel did of Picasso and is a striking example of the younger artist’s highly conceptual practice, using various media and techniques to create an insightful commentary on the history and proliferation of painting. New York Times critic Roberta Smith, speaking about his exhibition at the 2013 Venice Biennale, noted, “Mr. Stingel is among the great anti-painting painters of our age, a descendant of Warhol but much more involved with painting’s conventions and processes, which he alternately spurns, embraces, parodies or exaggerates. His art asks what are paintings, who makes them, and how?” (R. Smith, “The Threads That Tie a Show Together,” New York Times, August 20, 2013). By continually reinventing his format while staying true to his motives, Stingel has been able to establish a varied career that continually pushes forward and evolves.
Untitled is a monumental work that is not so much a portrait, as it is a painting of a portrait. Pablo Picasso, standing tall against a white wall in a double-breasted dark suit, furrows his brow and looks out of frame. His right hand is visible in the pocket of his trousers, while his left holds aloft a cigarette. The original photograph on which the painting is based was likely taken in the 1930s, when Picasso was in his 50s. Therefore, an enticing parallel becomes clear in Stingel’s depiction; this is a painting of an image of Picasso during the middle of his career and the middle of his life, painted by an artist who was also reaching the middle of his career during the middle of his life. Stingel, just like the Cubist painter at the time the photograph was taken, was coming to terms with his own mortality and taking stock of both his art and his life. Though using oil on canvas, his medium is that of history.
After working for decades with silver panels, gold installations, and colorful compositions that take process and conceptual rigor as their tact, Stingel turned to a representative mode of oil painting that broached the subjects of time and mortality. Beginning in 2005 with Untitled, a portrait of gallerist Paula Cooper, Stingel started on a series of paintings that investigates the interrelated nature of painting and photography and their connection to the tradition of portraiture. Working exclusively from photographs taken by other artists, Stingel painstakingly reproduces the images in oil. “These paintings may evoke a number of art-historical references for the viewer in their composition and monumental scale, but the process allows Stingel to keep any self-expressive content out of the finished paintings. In this way, even as the image of the artist moves from photograph to painting, it maintains the impersonal quality that the camera can provide. Most importantly, Stingel does not produce the image that appears on the canvas, leaving the act of representation to the photographers themselves. It is more accurate to describe the labor of these paintings as a sequence of framing, selection and translation” (G. Carrion-Murayari, “Rudolf Stingel: Moving Pictures,” Flash Art, November 23, 2016). To preserve the look and feel of the original black and white images, Stingel goes so far as to include the inherent imperfections that were present in the original pre-digital photograph, such as minute scratches and specks of dust enlarged to fit this epic scale. Untitled is also presented in grayscale, making preliminary visual connections to the blurry photographic paintings of Gerhard Richter. However, unlike Richter, Stingel’s works are singular in their subject matter and deal with the idea of the individual. However, they do share a connection in their detached qualities which is inherent to the translation. Taking framing, pose and all other formal aspects out of the equation (since the photographer has made those choices already), works like Untitled are faithful reproductions in the way that they are nearly indistinguishable from the original. The person is recognizable (as Picasso, Ms. Cooper or the artist himself) and the audience can connect on the human level, but the odd visual distance afforded by the photographic source provides an invisible barrier through which the viewer must peer.
Stingel—who is the subject of an upcoming solo exhibition at the Beyeler Foundation in Basel later this year—joins a noble lineage of artists who have taken other artists as their subject matter. Vincent van Gogh painted Gaugin; Manet depicted Tissot; Francis Bacon committed his friend Lucian Freud to canvas as early as 1951, and Basquiat immortalized both Warhol and Picasso. This photographic painting may seem like a sudden change within Stingel’s oeuvre, but they actually follow on a parallel track to his other works. Francesco Bonami noted about this dichotomy, “The early silver paintings and the recent self-portraits are the two poles of the bipolar nature of the artist and the bipolar nature of painting, torn between the limitless sublime and the suffocating boundaries of the mundane [...] There is in this simple cheesy image of a man celebrating himself, probably alone, the weight of art history, the weight of generations of painters asking the same question and never finding the right answer, the responsibility to be in charge of Painting, maybe for the last time, maybe and more tragically, forever” (F. Bonami, ibid.). By choosing Picasso as his subject, Stingel pays tribute to the master, at the same time as investigating the collision of painting and photography. The meeting gave painters yet another reason to go beyond the representational. No longer were artists tasked with recording a lifelike reproduction when a lens could do it for them. Picasso saw this and began to experiment and evolve outward. By choosing him as a subject, Stingel allies himself with the Cubists and inserts his own practice into the grand scheme of avant-garde painting.