Interview with John O’Hern

Interview with John O’Hern

John please tell our readers a little about your editorial experience.

I’ve been writing about art since the mid-60s when I was editor of our college paper. My first real job was in public relations at Bowdoin College where I wrote about everything from championship hockey to the finding of the marble body for a Carolingian head in the museum of art. I was in charge of publications and public relations at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in the early 70s. I worked with the staff to produce catalogues for artists from Richard Diebenkorn to Max Bill. We had quite a staff, Bob Buck who became director of the Brooklyn Museum, Jim Wood who became director of the Art Institute of Chicago and later headed the J. Paul Getty Trust, Chris Crosman who directed the Farnsworth Museum and was the founding curator at Crystal Bridges. And so many more. I¹m grateful for the exposure to the non-objective art and artists of that time because the rest of my career has been devoted to contemporary representational art.

As executive director and curator at the Arnot Art Museum I initiated a series of exhibitions called “Re-presenting Representation” and produced catalogues for the later shows. My peers thought we were crazy to promote realism because it’s all been done before. I think we showed that the best work builds on tradition but is fresh and new.

When Josh Rose asked me to write for American Art Collector in 2005, I jumped at the chance. Since then I’ve jumped at the chance to write for our new magazines, Western Art Collector, American Fine Art, and our latest, Native American Art. I “retired” in 2007 and now work full-time with the magazines.

It’s great to be able to keep in contact with artists, collectors and galleries and to write about them in my own quirky way. I’ve always thought that the people side of art is very important.

So Portraiture has been involved in your editorships and background history. However, I know that it’s impact is not as high as other works of art. Do you find that portraiture is still being collected actively? I am thinking that having Colin Davidson’s portrait of the chancellor of Germany on the cover of TIME may help.

I grew up with family portraits in the house and sat for one of them. We weren’t wealthy. My parents knew the artists and we all sat for them. When they didn’t sell, they made it into our home. I used to study them because it fascinated me that a few brush strokes could capture not only forms and light, but the personality of the people I knew so well. That was the beginning of my realization that artists could teach me to see.

Portraits are still a difficult sell. If they have a narrative other than being a study of the sitter, people are more comfortable buying them. For some reason people are more comfortable with a painting of someone else’s backyard than they are with one of someone else’s sister--unless she’s a goddess or a nymph.

Colin Davidson’s “Portrait of Angela Merkel” is masterful. All that wonderful chaos of paint that forms her face leads up to the finely rendered eyes.  It may or may not be true that “the eyes are the window to the soul” but they always reveal who the person is. It’s interesting that “Time Magazine” used the portrait for their “Person of the Year” cover.  That’s both fortunate and unfortunate. It exposes Colin’s talent to the world but portraiture on magazine covers often gets relegated to “mere” illustration.

I was just looking at his “Portrait of Seamus Heaney” the great Nobel Prize winning Irish poet and looking for a way to describe those eyes. Then I found that Heaney had already done it. “If poetry and the arts do anything, they can fortify your inner life, your inwardness.” The eyes speak of his inner life. I could easily live with that painting in my home but I suspect that most people are happy to look at it briefly at the Ulster Museum and move on to less challenging things.

So many paintings so little time. What do you think of the current competitions for Portraiture such as the one the Smithsonian offers every few years and the ones abroad?

The National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever Competition always generates a lot of excitement when it comes around every three years or so. It gives validation to the artists because of its sponsorship and the objectivity and inclusivity of the jurors. (I wonder if I think they’re objective because I subjectively agree with their choices?)

The cachet of the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution and the mix of museum and fine art professionals as jurors provides a vetting process for the artists, especially for those who aren’t well known. That’s one great thing about the competition. It’s open to household names and the unknown alike. The vetting process works for collectors, too, especially those who aren’t ready to go out on their own and buy something simply because they like it.

It’s extraordinarily important for there to be artists on the jury because their experience brings an objectivity to an inevitably subjective process. The jurying process is always a crap shoot no matter how carefully organized. A harrowing taxi ride to the museum or last night’s bad sushi can affect a juror’s outlook

I’m more familiar with the BP Portrait Award an international competition at the National Portrait Gallery in London. I’ve watched artists enter year after year, getting rejected, getting accepted, winning a prize and sometimes winning the competition. It’s been disheartening to see how little impact winning the competition has had on some of the artists’ careers. 

The cash awards are modest but welcome. The flurry of press coverage is brief.

Do you think the British care more about portraiture than Americans?

As with most things, the British have a longer history of portraiture than we have. Royal portraits were often self-promotions by the monarchs. Charles I was about 5’ 4” but in his portraits by Van Dyck he appears, literally, majestic. There are some great portraits from years back and some pretty awful portraits more recently.

I’ve always liked Lucian Freud’s tiny, millennial portrait of Queen Elizabeth. I sometimes think it looks like a self-portrait, but it depicts the monarch, on in years, who is still commanding and resolute. There’s an amusing story that as he was painting he thought he should add the Diamond Diadem so he had to add on to the top of the canvas.

Who are some of the other artists who are bringing the souls out of the sitters onto the canvas?

As for contemporary artists who, in my opinion, reveal the souls of the sitters, I’ll limit myself to a few. In the “old school” there are Max Ginsburg and Burt Silverman. Max’s paintings are often multiple portraits. Each person contributes to the whole but is an individual with his or her own story. Burt’s self-portrait “Survivor” is one of my favorite paintings. He painted himself shirtless, photographing his reflection with paint brushes in his hand. A real survivor.

Years ago I saw Anne Harris’s portrait of her newborn son Max and have been a fan ever since. Her nude self-portraits pregnant with Max are painfully honest and haunting.

There are two young guys whose portraits are also honest and haunting. Frank Oriti paints the people of working class Cleveland, people he says are “inspiring because of their resiliency and never giving up attitude.” 

Jason Yarmosky paints his grandparents, willingly being playful about their still being kids in their octagenerian bodies. The paintings are about aging but also about his love for his grandparents and their trust in him.

Since I seem to be into honesty. Haley Hasler’s self-portraits depict her in mythological dream worlds while she goes about the mundane chores of wifehood and motherhood. They’re portraits of her inner and outer self.

It seems to me that most artists are always creating a portrait of themselves whether it is intentional or not. If you could choose to have your portrait done by any living artist, who would you pick?

Oscar Wilde wrote “Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter.” I think artists reveal something of themselves in whatever they do, whether they want to or not.

I’ve sat for three portraits. One at three when the artist told me to sit still or she’d stop painting. One at the beginning of my career at the Arnot Art Museum by Thomas S. Buechner in which I’m dressed as a monk. And one at the end of my term there, two heart attacks and eighteen years later, by my friend Marc Dennis. It’s uncompromising and painfully honest.

It would be nice to have a portrait that ironed out the wrinkles. I drew one name out of the hat with names of potential portrait painters. It’s the Canadian painter Daniel Barkley. Lots of paint. Lots of light. Lots of honesty. Lots of humor. I’d keep my clothes on, though.


Interview was finalized in December 2015 by Didi Menendez. 


John O’Hern is an editor for American Art Collector, Western Art Collector, American Fine Art and Native American Art magazines. He retired from the Arnot Art Museum in Elmira, NY, where he was director and curator and where he began the influential series of exhibitions, Re-presenting Representation. He began his museum career at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, NY, where he was responsible for publications and public relations. As resident curator of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Darwin D. Martin House in Buffalo, he was instrumental in obtaining National Historic Landmark status for the property as well as a listing of the Parkside Neighborhood, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, on the National Register of Historic Places. Among his community activities was serving as chair of the Visual Artists Panel of the New York State Council on the Arts.

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