By Carl Belz
|Portrait of Warren E. Burger, Justice, U.S. Supreme Court by George Augusta © George Augusta, 1984, oil on canvas, 32 x 40 in. (The Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States) )|
Nor did I know George Augusta’s name, let alone his work, when my then boss, Brandeis Vice President David Steinberg, asked me to come up with an artist to do a portrait of the retiring chairman of the University’s Board of Trustees. I immediately suggested Andy Warhol, who was laughingly dismissed as inappropriate, and then found myself briefly stymied. The art world I knew—the art world of the 1970s, that is—didn’t include boardroom portraitists. Alex Katz? Alice Neel? They both did portraits, but their portraits were meant for the home or the museum, they wouldn’t fit the boardroom any better than Warhol’s would. But then I had an inspiration: I remembered the “Portraits Inc.” ad that I’d been seeing in Art in America for longer than I could remember, so I called and asked them to send me half a dozen portfolios that would give me a range of styles to select from. Which they were glad to do, but which turned out to be a dead end. The paintings were dry and academic, many looked as though they’d been done from photographs, the figures were enhanced by pretentious architectural features and scenic backgrounds, and the surfaces seemed generally lifeless.
I was back at square one when spouse Barbara suggested I was thinking about my assignment from the wrong vantage point, I was thinking New York instead of Boston—Boston, where there are colleges and universities, law schools, business schools, and hospitals on every street corner, every one of them housing a boardroom hung with the kind of portraits I was looking for, portraits radiant with dignity and tradition. That equation led me before long to the Vose Galleries of Boston, a name synonymous with American pictures through a family business that had been founded in 1841, their home base just a block or two away from the contemporary galleries I regularly visited on Newbury Street. There I met Bill Vose, who, upon hearing about my mission, introduced me to the artistic world of George Augusta.
I liked what I saw. George Augusta’s signature look, a descendent of Impressionism, blended confident and airy brushwork with a perceptive eye for likeness that felt everywhere natural, allowing easy engagement with his subject, and clearly indicating he worked from direct observation. With appropriate modesty, he allowed his pictures to be about his subjects instead of about himself. Relying on neither technical virtuosity nor the trappings of class—both of which plagued the portrait genre as I had come to know it—he comfortably partnered form and content while respecting in equal measures the full energies of art and life alike. He knew his job of work, and I strongly recommended we sign on to his program when I reported back to David Steinberg.
|Portrait of Rosalynn Smith Carter by George Augusta, © George Augusta,1984, oil on canvas, 32 x 40 in. (White House Collection).|
Through my association with George Augusta, I encountered a first-rate, highly successful artist working in an art world that orbited in tandem with the art world I knew but never intersected it. Had I not been assigned my unusual task—a task I admit to undertaking with reluctance, as I tacitly subscribed to the conventional wisdom of the time and so regarded boardroom portraits as mere shadows of a once noble ancestry—I would have missed entirely the rewards I discovered in George Augusta’s pictorial world. Which got me to thinking about other art worlds that might be out there, unknown and/or unrecognized by members of my art world, but the specter of what I might be missing never haunted me. I realized that I could never see every picture painted everywhere in the world at every current moment—because that kind of cultural access was as unimaginable as it was unrealistic—so I contented myself with having learned to think twice before presuming an equation between the parameters of my world and the parameters of the world at large. What did haunt me when thinking about multiple art worlds was a vision of art itself, of its vastness, of its breadth and depth, of its ability constantly to sustain and renew itself, while we—we curators, critics, art historians, and sometimes even our artists—regularly did our best to cut it down to size, bring it within our reach, and squeeze it into our theoretical constructs. I know, we’re just the messengers here, the go-betweens linking art with its audience, and I know I’m not supposed to shoot the messenger. But I also know that the messengers don’t always do justice to the message’s meaning.
Carl Belz is Director Emeritus of the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University.