Beginning on Wednesday, the emails and text messages started pouring in. “You’re in The New Yorker!” was the notion of the generally congratulatory remarks. This was not untrue. But, it also wasn’t entirely accurate. My friend and former studio neighbor, Hope Gangloff, painted a portrait of me painting for her new current exhibition and a reproduction of it appeared in the “Goings On About Town” section. Although she adeptly captured my likeness, the portrait is very much Hope’s world. Granted, I am more or less wearing what I paint during the sultry New York summer months — cut-off skinny jeans, black socks, beige suede loafers (basically ragged clothes) — and it’s my lanky contrapposto.
On the other hand, many details are Hope’s or her invention as she rarely works from photographs, but rather what is close and at hand: the paint-speckled floor is Hope’s own studio; I rarely use round brushes like Hope’s; she created a larger box beam level for compositional purposes (she frequently talks about what visually feels right rather than what just looks right). The sweater was loaned to me in November by Hope’s husband, painter Ben Degen, while sitting (standing) for Hope in her unheated studio. Hope decided she liked the texture more than the t-shirt I wore earlier in the summer, creating an even more humorous and composited composition. The painting, like its accompanying fame, is a bit of a self-perpetuating myth.
My lazy, somewhat private studio attire was probably part of what attracted Hope to creating my portrait. I never planned for this practical yet sloppy fashion to reach the public, much less The New Yorker’s 1.06 million readership. I can’t deny loving the attention, at first. Besides emails and texts, I posted an image of the layout on my Facebook profile, which elicited the highest number of “likes” (69) and comments (28) my profile has ever received. I found this unexpected and wondered why.
I don’t intend to be overly meta or obvious, but the painting in the portrait is by Hope Gangloff, not me. And maybe as artists, that’s the way we think about seeing our work reproduced. Yet in portraiture, to the average viewer, the gaze on the sitter is given at least equal importance. There is also an implied collaborative aspect, at times the portrait and its attention feels like a shared parenthood, even slightly a co-authorship. But in reproduction, the image overtakes the object and its authorship, or so the response seems to suggest. Also, this painting is nearly five by seven feet, about one and a half times human scale — and its reproduction in The New Yorker is about four by six inches. That online media (like the blog in which you are reading this now) has destabilized the print hierarchy is a statement with which most writers would agree. However, magazines such as The New Yorker seem to still carry their weight in print — judging from the response, many people I know still only read it in print.
Congratulatory comments and gestures in Facebook are experienced with the same sort of passivity involved in watching television. They may come from an acquaintance or distant friend, and you may not give them the full attention you would in a real world conversation. The overture of compliments became uncomfortable when I attended an art opening for my arts editor and my support was sideswiped by an artist-acquaintance, who dug out The New Yorker, exclaiming that I was famous. No hard feelings, I was flattered, but a bit annoyed that I came to congratulate and discuss my editor’s virtuoso drawings, not be congratulated for my friend’s painting.
I’m not writing this piece to perpetuate my own short-lived fame, but rather to set the record straight. Hope refers to her painting as “love letters” to her closely held circle of friends and family, for which, I have learned, there is little difference. Her process of portraiture is an intimate exchange for both her and the sitter: Hope revealed her misplaced brushstrokes, creative worry, and fanaticism for painting, while I divulged similar anxieties and more personal matters.
To paint a portrait is one of the highest acts of love and friendship for Hope. This is exactly why the resulting response, like the Facebook “Like” button, in public, feels not about the portrait’s real love or affection, but an awkward separation from these affections. Fame is as Kurt Cobain once said, ironically, a process of distancing and isolation. During the course of this portrait, I was torn between my creative identity as a painter, writer, and bassist in a band. Hope has lovingly and decidedly cast her vote.