The Whitney currently has a portrait show on view in its expansive sixth and seventh floor galleries. The show features all types of portraiture: from the iconic pop works of Andy Warhol such as Ethel Scull 36 Times, to Howard Kanovitz’s very Mad-Men-feeling New Yorkers I. Even the artists themselves are featured, as in Alice Neel’s Andy Warhol. The show also includes less conventional portraits (ie those not featuring a face). One of my favorites – “unconventional” or otherwise – was Saul Leiter’s Shoe of the Shoeshine Boy, which was a photo of exactly what it sounds like. Lovely.
Yet despite all of the beautiful and strange and vibrant things around me, I was captured by a different piece altogether.
Four large faces stared out from the white wall, looking over the other pieces occupying space in the gallery. Four young men of Robert Beck’s Thirteen Shooters.
Three years ago a shooting resulting in two deaths took place in the district where I went to school. I was under lock down for three hours, hoping for the safety of my friends and neighbors and doing my best to stay composed. And continuing to do my best to stay composed. Only in the past year have I really come to terms with the fact that I am allowed to feel it – allowed to have experienced fear in the moment and pain and loss and confusion afterward – even though I wasn’t in the same building.
Even though I wasn’t there I felt the initial aftershock. And the aftershock of the first time the PA system came on after, with a reassurance that it was just standard announcements and everything was okay… And the aftershock of an emergency alarm… And the aftershock of shooter in the area text…
And the aftershock of a piece of art.
Art makes you feel. It forces you to confront life, even the hard parts. Art stirs you up and wrings you out. Standing in front of those over-sized portraits (none of which I could describe now, their traits replaced with feelings), I felt. I remembered. And it was hard and it hurt but I am grateful for it nonetheless.
Art shocks us and keeps us human.
It reminds us that underneath all of our strength, we are terribly, wonderfully, deeply fragile humans.
Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney’s Collection is on view until February 12, 2017