Now on view at the Breman Museum is a unique exhibition of photography by artist Robert Weingarten. ICONS, featuring selections from The Portrait Unbound, offers a modern take on traditional portraiture with 14 carefully composed images that offer a unique look into notable individuals in our society.
“The series was based on the idea that portrait photography was time, place, and subject matter-specific in the past,” explained Weingarten.
I had the opportunity to speak with the photographer over the phone from his Malibu home about the exhibition at the Breman Museum and why he chose to essentially invent an altogether new method of capturing portraits. He felt that the limitations of portraiture didn’t allow for a comprehensive understanding of who a person actually is and what is important to them, so he took matters into his own hands.
“I decided to move portraiture from the constraints that it had in the past to not being time or space or visage-specific, but more metaphorical portraits of individuals,” he said.
In his process, Weingarten began by choosing iconic public figures and asking them questions about their passions, interests, and convictions. Once the individuals consented to being a part of the project they provided a list of objects, places, and things that they believe defines who they are. Weingarten would then ask follow up questions to learn more about the individual’s backgrounds and experiences to inform his work before beginning his composition.
“I created this new form which I refer to as a ‘translucent composite’ where I take all those things and put them together,” said Weingarten.
By adjusting the transparency of various layers, he produces compelling and multi-dimensional portraits that invite the viewer to come closer and look at all the small details within.
At the Breman, the 14 pieces on display are paired with detailed exhibit placards that include a list of those self-selected elements as well as biographical sketches that enhance understanding of the finished works. A printed gallery guide offers those same elemental lists that viewers can take home with them and several monitors in the space show behind-the-scenes footage of Weingarten’s process. Including all of this material in so many formats allows for viewers to experience the pieces in a deeper and more meaningful way, offering insight and creating an art scavenger hunt of sorts.
The process to compile these elements into finished portraits was quite a long one, sometimes taking months from start to finish. “There’s a lot of experimentation,” Weingarten said. There is a lot of adjustment and thought that goes into each individual part of the image until it finally feels right. And I was curious, how does he know when a piece is completed? “My answer is that I know it’s done when you add something to it or subtract something from it and it gets worse.”
Weingarten was born and raised in Brooklyn, and though he always had a penchant for arts and played classical violin from an early age, he ultimately pursued finance in school. After graduating from Baruch College he went to Wall Street and quickly ascended the ranks, building a very large multinational insurance holding company. Throughout his career he pursued photography on the side and maintained a dark room in his home.
As a teenager, Weingarten attended The Family of Man photography exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. That experience changed him and fueled a lifelong love for photography. And so, when he sold his company at the age of 54, he decided to pursue photography full time. While his first post-retirement photography endeavors focused on landscapes, the palette of colors seen in nature, and documentary style photography of the Amish communities living in America’s heartland, he eventually made his way to re-imagining the portrait.
“Bob Weingarten was just the perfect match,” said curator Tony Casadonte of Lumière Gallery. ICONS is the third in a series of collaborations between Lumière and the Breman, and Casadonte explained that the partnership was actually sparked by a request from the Breman Museum. “He’s a living and working photographer which is nice as opposed to long gone historical figures,” continued Casadonte who had previously coordinated two separate exhibitions at the Breman featuring the works of Herb Snitzer and John Gutmann. “It was a nice change up from classic black and white photography from the ‘30s to these vibrant and colorful ones.”
Weingarten’s work has been featured in nearly 100 exhibitions worldwide and is included in the collections of over 40 major museums including the High Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Institution, The National Gallery of Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, George Eastman House, J. Paul Getty Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Denver Art Museum, and the Museum of Fine Arts among other private and corporate collections.
I asked Weingarten if – as a young man – he could have imagined achieving all of this fame and notoriety for his photography. His answer? “Absolutely no way.”
Having grown up in an impoverished inner city community called Brownsville, he knew he wanted to gain wealth so that he could get himself out of that area and make a better life for himself. At the time, he was advised that photography would not be the way to do so, and he chose to focus on his career in finance instead. If only he could have known then what his work would lead him to now; inclusion in major museum collections across the country, featured in books, and even on the cover of the New York Times. “It has been an incredible thing, and very gratifying, but not expected at all.”
The exhibition of ICONS at the Breman Museum offers a glimpse into the stories of some truly beloved public figures including Steven Sondheim, Hank Aaron, Chuck Close, Colin Powell, Sandra Day O’Connor, Quincy Jones, and Dennis Hopper, among others. Visitors will gain a deep understanding of these individuals from their own perspectives and I strongly suggest that those who are interested should attempt to see the exhibit in person. There is only so much detail that one can glean from an image on a screen, and these images when viewed in full scale on the wall provide a much deeper experience of the portraits.
ICONS: Selections from The Portrait Unbound with photography by Robert Weingarten will remain on display through Oct. 1. The Breman Museum is located at 1440 Spring Street just across from the Center for Puppetry Arts.