Self-Portraits Engage, Delight at Reopened Boca Museum

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An untitled self-portrait from Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons

It’s been approximately 10 weeks since it’s been open to the public, and the Boca Raton Museum of Art has emerged from its quarantine looking, like most of us, a little bit different.

For starters, the plain old Welcome desk, which used to hang back in the lobby, is now a sleek, prominently placed island of modernity with its own halo of light.

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The new lobby desk

Steps away, the Education Center, which Boca Museum Executive Director Irvin Lippman said had been in need of some TLC for the six years he’d been at the helm, has been reimagined, too. The airy design, a hospitable improvement over its stuffy predecessor, features a new 1,800-lumen projector perfect for art films and illustrated lectures, all-new chairs, a new ceiling and a glowing monolith: one of artist Clifford Ross’ mesmerizing digital panels from his “Waves” exhibition.

Not that any large gatherings will be commencing in the room anytime soon; it’s just good to know that, once congregating resumes, the museum will have a sparkling place to greet students, budding artists and the culturally curious. It’s even better that the museum as a whole is open, as of today, and that the hundreds of pieces of artwork unseen by its patrons since they were installed during the beginning of the pandemic may finally be gazed upon.

The most eclectic of these new-to-us exhibitions, “Eye to I: Self Portraits From the National Portrait Gallery,” proved well worth the wait. Timed to coincide with the ubiquity of the selfie, the touring exhibition is a fascinating multigenerational survey of how artists have chosen to see themselves—and present themselves to the public—whether through straightforwardness or subterfuge, revelation or obfuscation.

Surprises abound, and you’re as likely to learn about previously unfamiliar artists as you are to gain new perspectives on household names. Alexander Calder, for instance, painted himself with a stark seriousness that belied the whimsy of his colorful mobiles, and Edward Hopper, poet of urban loneliness, injects humor into his own pencil-drawn self-appraisal, as a dapper, monocled gentleman with rumpled socks and a literal feather in his cap.

Roger Shimomura’s “Crossing the Delaware”

Some of the most memorable self-portraits are also among the strangest. Roger Shimomura depicts himself dressed as George Washington crossing the Delaware, surrounded by paddling samurai, as a comment on the displacement he has felt as an American of Asian descent. Louise Bourgeois depicted herself as a human/bird hybrid, and Robert Arneson’s self-portrait is simply a terracotta brick—created from scratch by the artist—with his chiseled onto the top of it. I’ve seen many Chuck Close self-portraits over the years, but none quite like the one included here—an eye-tricking construction made of toned paper pulp in two-dozen shades of black, white and gray, looking like a pixelated image out of an old movie.

Robert Rauschenberg applied the same maximalist sensibility to his own “likeness” as his did his radical combines, choosing to reveal himself through a visionary triptych that includes his astrological chart, evocative photos of oil wells and the New York skyline, and a written biography that takes the shape of a fingerprint. A symbolically loaded drawing from Francisco Clemente finds the artist poking at a snake that’s biting its own tail, prompting the question: Is Clemente really himself in this equation—or is he the snake? Or the fork? Or, more likely, all three?

Though their self-interpretations vary wildly in tone, style and medium, one attribute is fairly consistent across time and sensibility: Artists aren’t bullshitters, and they’re not out for vanity. Instead of prettying themselves up for the camera or easel or blank page, they prefer sometimes-brutal honesty—even distortion. Wolf Kahn’s self-portrait, with his face scarred with wayward lines, looks like that of a zombie. Caricature artist Ralph Barton, who sought in this work to portray the “turmoil of the psyche,” according to the astute wall text, appears more cruelly figured than his clientele—multiple-chinned yet gaunt, even equine in his facial droopiness.

Alice Neel’s “Self Portrait at 80”

But Alice Neel’s self-portrait, one of only two she completed during her lifetime, takes the cake for brave and unflinching self-assessment. It’s a nude portrait of the artist at 80, her body succumbing naturally to the effects of gravity in ways that are almost never shown in popular culture. It’s another great example of how art can shake us up. And it reminded me what I’ve been missing for two and a half months.

“Eye to I: Self Portraits From the National Portrait Gallery” runs through Sept. 20 at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. Admission is free. For information, call 561/392-2500 or visit bocamuseum.org.