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Art Review

Art that asks: What makes a self?

Marsden Hartley’s “One Portrait of One Woman.”
Marsden Hartley’s “One Portrait of One Woman.”Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis

BRUNSWICK, Maine — In 1916, Marsden Hartley, the greatest of early American modernists, painted a portrait of Gertrude Stein. Stein with her big blockish face, her hulking, sack-shrouded body, her “beefsteak laugh.”

Is it, however, a portrait? There are no eyes, no face, no body. Just a teacup, two candles, a checkered table cloth, a pattern of arch-like forms, and the word “MOI” — French for “me” — at the bottom. Hartley called it “One Portrait of One Woman.” Apart from deliberately sounding rather like something Stein herself would write, this also made the matter explicit: It is a portrait.

The painting is an early highlight of “This Is a Portrait If I Say So: Identity in American Art, 1912 to Today,” a richly stimulating show at Bowdoin College Museum of Art. It runs through Oct. 23.

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Hartley’s painting, like almost all the other works in the show, uses symbols, allusions, and visual varieties of metonymy — when words with one meaning stand in for something else with which they are associated (“Beacon Hill,” for instance, to refer to the government of Massachusetts.)

The teacup, in this way, suggests Stein’s famous hospitality, so crucial to the fostering of modernism in Europe and America; the candles suggest a sacred space, and perhaps — along with the word “MOI” — Stein’s own prodigious creativity. The red, white, and blue palette suggests the American and French flags. And the patterned arches, like stylized female genitalia, could be a reference to Stein’s gender and sexuality.

The Bowdoin show makes us rethink not only portraiture but identity. What makes a self? Is it, in fact, a function of identity, in the contemporary sense of “identity politics”? Or is it something more slippery, layered, sly, and unknowable?

If we abandon the trope of a nose, a mouth, and two eyes which open onto the soul, can we still (visually) suggest some kind of coherence of the spiritual, moral, or existential kind? Or are we all just a jerry-built accretion of genes, attributes, and social cues?

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The show divides in three. The first part, devoted to the 1910s and ’20s, is the best. It emphasizes the personal connections between the European and American avant-garde during these years; and it has amazing loans. Some of them feel like ephemera — but what extraordinary ephemera!

Stein’s own influential abstract text portraits, published by Alfred Stieglitz in Camera Work, in 1912, are displayed behind glass. They inspired her friend Virgil Thomson to pen a melody that functioned as a portrait — in this case, of Florine Stettheimer. She was in the room with him as he composed it.

Wonderful, too, is a drawing by Charles Demuth that functions as a study for a “Poster Portrait” of the poet Wallace Stevens. There are papers, inkwell, and quills, and a checkered background, evoking quilts from Pennsylvania Dutch country where both Demuth and Stevens spent their childhoods. Demuth accidentally left a letter out of Stevens’s name, but no matter.

Two fascinating portraits of Hartley reinforce the social echo chamber effect of this section. One is by Ben Benn, a conventionally trained artist who switched to modernist abstraction after the 1913 Armory Show. The other is by Edward Steichen, whose portrait-as-colored-triangles has a back story too involved to go into here. But it is very funny — as is the moniker he has given its subject: “Mushton Shlushley, the Lyric Poet and Aestheticurean.”

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Gerald Murphy’s “Razor.”
Gerald Murphy’s “Razor.”Estate of Honoria Murphy Donnelly/Licensed by VAGA, New York

Look out for a rare painting by Gerald Murphy, a kind of self-portrait as luxury razor, fountain pen, and box of matches. Murphy and his wife, Sara, were the subject of Calvin Tomkins’s classic “Living Well Is the Best Revenge” and the inspiration for Dick and Nicole Diver in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Tender Is the Night.”

The section also includes a photograph by Charles Sheeler of an assemblage that functions as a portrait of Marcel Duchamp. The assemblage was by Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, an artist’s model, jewelry designer, poet, and fellow-pioneer, with Duchamp, of found-object sculpture. Her portrait of Duchamp is a wine glass overflowing with fishing lures. Very suggestive.

Duchamp, unsurprisingly, plays a major role not only in this first part of the show, organized by Jonathan Frederick Walz, but as an inspiration for artists who feature in the two later parts, organized by Kathleen Merrill Campagnolo and Anne Collins Goodyear, the Bowdoin museum’s co-director.

Duchamp was the most important influence on Robert Rauschenberg, who was once invited to contribute a portrait of Parisian art dealer Iris Clert to an exhibition inaugurating her Paris gallery. Distracted in Stockholm, Rauschenberg forgot to make the portrait. But at the last minute he sent a telegram: “THIS IS A PORTRAIT OF IRIS CLERT IF I SAY SO.”

Robert Rauschenberg’s “This Is a Portrait of Iris Clert If I Say So.”
Robert Rauschenberg’s “This Is a Portrait of Iris Clert If I Say So.”Robert Rauschenberg Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York

That was in 1961. In 1964, Rauschenberg made a self-portrait to go with a profile of him by Tomkins in The New Yorker. It was a thumbprint, with the letters RR in the bottom right corner. A thumbprint, as every police officer knows, is one of the surest guides to identity.

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It also evokes criminality, and artistically, harks back again to Duchamp — not only to the thumbprint in the final frame of the Frenchman’s 1926 film, “Anemic Cinema,” but to his even earlier self-portrait as a “Wanted” poster, with a $2,000 reward.

The idea of a portrait as an image of someone who is “wanted” — as in desired — was adopted later in a series of “Wanted” silk screens (not included here) by Andy Warhol, another American caught on the Duchampian fishhook. And it’s a theme built into the show as a whole.

When you depict someone with an image of things that are connected with a person but not actually that person, you are really evoking his or her absence.

In the later stages of the show, there are terrific works evoking the connections among absence, identity and loss by Dan Flavin, Glenn Ligon, and Eleanor Antin. And absence becomes the literal trace of a tactile presence in a work I love by Janine Antoni.

It’s called “Butterfly Kisses.” Instead of a trace that evokes criminality (like a thumbprint), Antoni’s work suggests eroticism and intimacy. It’s made with Covergirl Thick Lash Mascara applied with 1,124 blinks of the artist’s left eyelid and 1,124 with her right eyelid.

In its evocation of an erotic absence so close that it hurts, it reminded me of the great W.S. Merwin poem, “Separation”: “Your absence has gone through me/ Like thread through a needle./ Everything I do is stitched with its color.”

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THIS IS A PORTRAIT IF I SAY SO:
Identity in American Art, 1912 to
Today

At Bowdoin College Museum of Art, 9400 College St., Brunswick, Maine, through Oct. 23. 207-725-3275. www.bowdoin.edu/art-museum


Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.