“All work is autobiographical, so, that’s why I decided to just paint myself, instead of trying to come up with all kinds of wonderful ways to show myself...there’s a big tradition of portraits, and lots of self-portraits too; each artist did it. This is very different than everything that I have done before.” Rudolph Stingel
Monumental in both scale and scope, Rudolph Stingel’s Untitled (After Sam) is an epic painting which deals with the universal themes of creativity, ambition and mortality. One of the most original and innovative artists of his generation, Stingel has worked in a variety of media including covering the walls of the gallery space with carpet and reflective Celotex insulation board. Based on a black-and-white photograph, in the present work he returns to the more traditional genres of painting and photography to continue his investigations into the practices of contemporary art. As his subject matter he has chosen his own likeness—a noble form of representation that has occupied some of the greatest painters in history. With this work he builds on the nature of self-portraiture as a historical genre, and by using a photograph as his source, prompts us to question the fundamental nature of both. Painted in 2006, around the time of his 50th birthday, Untitled (After Sam) is one of only four large scale self-portraits that the artist painted and they were exhibited to critical acclaim the following year in his mid-career retrospective organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago which then transferred to the Whitney Museum of American Art. Two of the four works from this series now resided in these museums’ permanent collections.
At eleven feet tall, the looming figure of Rudolph Stingel dominates the canvas, both physically and metaphorically. Dressed in a well-cut pinstripe jacket over a crisp white shirt, and with distinguished tussles of graying hair and a salt-and-pepper beard, ordinarily such an image would project an air of success. Yet in Untitled (After Sam), instead of quiet contentment the image exudes despondency and melancholia. His shoulders appear hunched and his are eyes are heavy with a sadness that is also reflected in the deep furrows of his wrinkled brow. However, this is not an image of an angry man, of a man lashing out in resentment of the world; instead it is a poetic portrayal of a man reflecting on an important milestone of his life and contemplating his past, his future and even his own mortality.
Like Francis Bacon, that other great portraitist of the 20th century, Stingel works not from life but from a photograph. For Untitled (After Sam) the artist used a photographs taken by the American artist Sam Samore (after whom, the Sam of the title refers). Using these photographic portraits as his starting point, Stingel, along with his studio assistants, began the process of enlarging these small, hand-held, photographs to a colossal scale. The resulting surface is rich with painterly brushstrokes. From the ordered daubs of white, pale blue and gray that replicate the weave of his crisp white twill shirt fabric to the short staccato black and gray brushstrokes which produce the richly brocaded backdrop, Stingel’s accomplishment is to create the illusion of reality by laying down brushwork that moves between the expressive and the automated. This can be seen to remarkable effect when walking towards the painting from a distance and witnessing the trompe l’oeil of Stingel’s ‘photographic’ rendering dissolve into abstraction the closer one gets to its rich and alluring surface.
With a work such as this, Stingel joins the struggle between self-representation and emotional expression that has occupied artists for centuries. From Rembrandt to Dürer, and Van Gogh to Picasso, artists have long battled with the conflicts inherent in painting their own image. The 17th century Dutch painter and writer Arnold Houbraken wrote that his contemporary Rembrandt had, “…a wonderful ability to fix an idea in his mind, [Rembrandt] knew how to capture the momentary appearances of emotion whenever they appeared in the face before him” (A. Houbraken, De groote schoubergh der Nederlandtsche konstschilders en schildressen (The great theater of Netherlandish painters and painteresses) (Amsterdam, 1718–1721, via http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/Collection/highlights/highlight79.html). In Rembrandt’s late self-portraits the almost sublime rendering of his own soulful deep-set eyes reflect, like Stingel’s nearly five hundred years later, the wisdom that has been gained from his life experiences.
While Rembrandt chronicled the passing of time in his self-portraits, Vincent van Gogh (painter of some of the most powerful self-portraits in art history) exorcised other demons in his canvases. The feverish nature of his brushstrokes could be seen as reflecting the fragility of his own mind, and in many of his self-portraits the heavy lines of undulating impasto seem to radiate from his head like the physical manifestations of his own tormented thoughts. Yet, as he wrote to his brother Theo, painting his own likeness proved a challenge “People say—and I am quite willing to believe it—that it is difficult to know oneself—but it’s not easy to paint oneself either... (Letter No. 800; to Theo van Gogh, October 16, 1883).
The invention of photography in the mid-nineteenth century fundamentally changed the nature if the relationship between the artist and the nature of the self-portrait. One artist for whom the importance of maintaining the relevance of painting in the age of photography was important was fellow German painter Gerhard Richter. In works such as his 1971 painting Ohne Titel (Selbstporträt) (Untitled (Self-portrait) he took this idea of the painter displaying his style to its ultimate conclusion, presenting an abstract array of smeared brown and ochre brushstrokes that reveal no recognizable human figure at all. Similarly, the silkscreened faces of Andy Warhol are in perfect concert with his professedly flat, affectless aesthetic. “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol,” he once said, “just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it” (A. Warhol, quoted in G. Berg, “Andy, My True Story,” Los Angeles Free Press, March 1967, p.3). Like these masters before him, Stingel is keenly aware that the self-portrait is a fictional construct to be manipulated at will, operating as mask, screen or disguise, yet in Untitled (After Sam) the precision in which this is conveyed makes this increasingly challenging.
In Untitled (After Sam) Stingel responds to this challenge by subverting the traditional role of photography. In the catalogue essay to the artist’s retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Gary Carrion-Murayari say that here, Stingel’s work has parallels to Modernist painting “Stingel moves beyond photography by adding a temporal element. It’s not privileging the historic moment… In using a series of photographic moments in a single space Stingel problematizes the relationship with photography as the viewer starts to connect those images into a single stream” (G. Carrion-Murayari, “Untitled,” in F. Bonami (ed.), Rudolph Stingel, exh. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 2007, p. 112). He identifies this as being part of a long tradition of Europe, and with German painters in particular, “Stingel adds to this tradition in that all of his work speaks about the passage of time,” he says, “moving from the photographic to the cinematic. For Stingel, painting is not just representational—it’s always related to materiality, and physical change with a temporal space. Stingel’s paintings rely on and point to an expanded meaning of time (Ibid.).
This notion of the cinematic is clearly evident in Untitled (After Sam)’s impressive size. Yet in ‘scaling up’ these grand images, they lose nothing of the intimacy of the original photograph. However, it is not Stingel’s intention that we feel empathy as Carrion-Murayari writes that it is the artist’s intention to use photography to create a distance between the subject and his audience. “Stingel’s use of photography as the basis for these works removes the possibility of insight into the artist’s psyche…” he writes. “The application of paint onto the canvas is accomplished once again in a depersonalized way, in expressive manner with the artist’s assistants gridding the photographs and transferring each tiny square” (G. Carrion-Murayari, “Untitled,” in F. Bonami (ed.), Rudolph Stingel, exh. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 2007, p. 112).
Writing in Flash Art, Murayari concedes “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” (C. Carrion-Murayari, “Rudolph Stingel: Moving Pictures,” Flash Art,” via http://www.flashartonline.com/article/rudolf-stingel-2).
Throughout his career, the painter has confronted the traditional idea surrounding concepts of authorship, and in the process deconstructing the practice of art making. In 1989, he produced an instruction manual on how to make abstract paintings and duly painted according to its formula for almost a decade. Together with his gallery walls covered with Celotex which visitors would then scrawled their own interventions into (thus becoming part of the creative process), Stingel’s methods have defied convention. He asserts the deadpan materiality of the surfaces of all of his works, either by revealing the method by which it was made, or by inviting its alteration or destruction. Moving away from the traditional divide between abstraction and figuration, his approach reveals a fundamental questioning of the institution of painting today—authenticity, hierarchy, individuality, and meaning. The painter constantly redefines what painting has been, what it is, and what it can be. His ultimate goal is to demystify the artistic process, the artist, and finally, the art object. In this process of the “stripping the aura” off the art object, Stingel manages to create astoundingly beautiful art objects.
Stingel’s body of work, spanning many mediums over the past two decades, is particularly admired for the way in which it ties together many of the most relevant currents of today’s contemporary art world—the extremes of abstraction and photo-realism, a sharp sense of provocation, reverence for both beauty and conceptual rigor, and frequent elements of social participation. In Untitled (After Sam) Stingel moves away from his mostly abstract works, and returns to his roots as a portrait painter. An intensely personal work, this painting allows Stingel to put himself on display, no longer represented indirectly through his abstractions or installations. Speaking in 2006, the year of the present work, Stingel expressed the impetus behind this painting. “All work is autobiographical, so, that’s why I decided to just paint myself, instead of trying to come up with all kinds of wonderful ways to show myself...there’s a big tradition of portraits, and lots of self-portraits too; each artist did it. This is very different than everything that I have done before. I’m nearly fifty now, and I turn around 180 degrees and show the other side... On top of that, it also tells a story. It’s not just a classic self-portrait, with a neutral background, it’s a pose; it’s taken out of my life... I just want to go back to a more psychological platform, if you want; reconnecting because of my age and everything to my origins, somehow. It also seemed to me to be the bravest thing I could do” (R. Stingel, quoted in V. Miguel, “Review,” via http://www.rbge.org.uk/the-gardens/edinburgh/inverleith-house/archive/inverleith-house-archive-main-programme/2006/rudolf-stinge77).