Family Portrait

Linda Yablonsky at the 1st American Portrait Gala

Left: Aretha Franklin. Right: Author, sociologist, and MSNBC political analyst Michael Eric Dyson and former US attorney general Eric Holder. (All photos: Linda Yablonsky)

THE FIRST PERSON I met in Washington, DC, last Sunday night was Eric Holder, former attorney general of the United States. He had just arrived at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, where he would present Aretha Franklin with one of five Portrait of a Nation prizes during the museum’s first American Portrait Gala. The event, which raised a healthy $1.74 million for the museum’s exhibition program, also attracted Holder’s replacement, Loretta Lynch, as well as Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

“No posting!” Justice Sotomayor warned, after posing for my camera. Presumably, she had to avoid any suggestion of partisanship. In the nation’s capital, even a nonpolitical fund-raiser is going to attract more people engaged in politics or government than the arts. This was no exception.

Among the gala’s five hundred guests were at least one sitting senator (Blumenthal, of Connecticut), a proactive congressman (John Lewis, representative from Georgia and a leading figure in the civil rights movement), and some past and present ambassadors. If there were a few identifiable Republicans in the crowd, this was overwhelmingly a house of Dems. That might explain why the black-tie evening felt informal rather than forced. It also helped that the gala’s founding chairs, philanthropists Wayne and Catherine Reynolds, are an agreeable, optimistic pair who make friends of everyone.

Left: Philanthropists Wayne Reynolds and Catherine Reynolds. Right: Artist Maya Lin and Daniel Wolf.

Maya Lin was the lone visual artist among the honorees, but it was heartening to see one honored as a national treasure, rather than denounced, as Lin was in 1982, for her now celebrated Vietnam Veterans Memorial off the Washington Mall. Her design signaled the first battle of the decadelong culture wars, which seem almost quaint compared with the global terrorism of today.

A solo performance by Aretha was reason enough for many in the crowd to be there, particularly Steve Hamp, chair of the NPG’s board of commissioners, as well as MSNBC political analyst Michael Eric Dyson and his wife Marcia, who were all in the singer’s posse from Detroit, their hometown. Naturally, I was interested when Mrs. Dyson told me that her husband sometimes wrote about art. “Google him!” she said. As an art person, I was also curious about the museum’s collection, which I hadn’t seen before.

Holder hadn’t seen it either, even though he was accustomed to being in the museum during its regular hours, when it attracts an impressive 1.3 million visitors a year. “I often come here for lunch,” he said. “This museum has a very good restaurant.” The collection, however, is a bit strange.

It has official portraits of significant figures in American life dating back to Pocahontas and up to former marine corporal Kyle Carpenter, at twenty-six the youngest of the evening’s honorees. It has a tiny 3-D-printed figure of Maya Lin by Karin Sander. And it has a glamorous, well-known image of fashion designer Carolina Herrera, another honoree, taken in 1979 by Robert Mapplethorpe—the same Robert Mapplethorpe who was vilified in Washington, as well as in Cincinnati, during the culture wars of the ’90s. (Happily, he’ll be the subject of a major historical exhibition opening in March, copresented by LACMA and the Getty.)

Left: Fisher and designer Carolina Herrera. Right: Filmmaker and TV producer Lee Daniels.

“I met Robert in Mustique and instantly we became friends,” the Venezuelan-born Herrera recalled. In the ’70s, the private island in the Grenadines was a favorite of the jet set—and a hunting ground for the career-conscious young photographer. Though Mapplethorpe shot most portraits in his studio, he did Herrera’s at the old Mayflower Hotel, where she was then living with her husband. “Reinaldo had to hold the lights so Robert could take the picture,” Herrera said, laughing, while her award’s presenter, film director and Empire producer Lee Daniels, listened in. “Carolina is beauty, grace, and fashion,” he said. (They’re friends too.) “I love it,” she said of the portrait. “It’s my favorite. And I’m very happy it’s here.”

I asked curator Dorothy Moss why the museum didn’t commission portraits by contemporary artists that would equal its purchases of works by Andy Warhol, Alice Neel, Annie Leibovitz, or Alex Katz. “That’s an interesting idea,” said Moss. “I’d really like to pursue it.” NPG director Kim Sajet didn’t think artists today would be interested in such commissions, but then wondered aloud if Kerry James Marshall would be willing to paint someone. Maybe, I thought, Aretha, who is represented in the collection only by a print, albeit an iconic one from 1968 that Milton Glaser created for Eye, a short-lived magazine that, at this point, would be a prize artifact itself. Sajet then pointed to a small self-portrait that Patti Smith drew in 1974, giving herself a long, wraithlike figure and large nose. I would call it a caricature. “I think it’s interesting to see how she thought of herself when she was starting out,” Sajet said. Point taken.

On the way into dinner, I met Carpenter, who is as long on personal charm as his dress uniform was replete with decorations. While serving in Afghanistan, Carpenter was nearly torn apart when he threw himself on a grenade to save the other members of his platoon. The shiny medals on his uniform—including the Congressional Medal of Honor—testified to his heroism, if not to his three years of surgeries and rehabilitation, though the museum’s photograph of Carpenter (by Mike McGregor) makes some of his scars visible.

Left: National Portrait Gallery director Kim Sajet. Right: Billye Aaron, PBS NewsHour coanchor Judy Woodruff, Hank Aaron, and PBS NewsHour coanchor Gwen Ifill.

Now he’s a junior at the University of South Carolina, majoring in international relations. I asked if he had political ambitions or preferred diplomatic service. “I don’t know yet,” he said. “Maybe all of the above. I already did my research abroad!” he joked, before moving off to shake the hand of baseball great Hank Aaron, the evening’s other honoree, who was schmoozing with PBS NewsHour co-anchors Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff, the gala’s emcees.

With the event coming just two days after the terrorist attacks in Paris, and three after a bomb killed more civilians in Beirut, Sajet began the dinner speeches with a moment of silence for the people of Lebanon and France. (The previous evening, Lin told me, Gérard Araud, the French ambassador in Washington, was to have hosted a dinner for the honorees and presenters at his home. The dinner went forward, awkwardly, she said, while the ambassador stayed in his private quarters.)

Despite the pall that the attacks cast on the proceedings, Ifill and Woodruff, known for their sober analysis of current events, introduced each honoree and presenter with lighthearted warmth. I was seated at the art table with Lin, her husband, collector and dealer Daniel Wolf, and their daughter India, who was nearly as proud of her first Oscar de la Renta gown as she was of her mother. (Her parents’ own philanthropy includes their ongoing conversion of an abandoned jail in Yonkers into artist studios and exhibition spaces.)

Left: National Portrait Gallery curator Dorothy Moss. Right: Medal of Honor winner Corporal Kyle Carpenter, USMC.

Earlier in the day, I’d seen Lin’s floor-crawling, wall-climbing evocation of Chesapeake Bay—in green marbles—at the newly reopened Renwick Gallery, DC’s first museum, originally the Corcoran. “I looked at that room and I thought, ‘Barnacles!’” she said. With the family was architect David Adjaye, who had recently returned from the opening of the Aïshti Foundation in Beirut. “It was tense at times,” he said, happy for a change of subject to his design for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, now nearing completion on the Mall. “It’s beautiful,” Lin said. “The best thing to happen to the Mall in years.” Tonight, however, he was Lin’s “trophy carrier,” as he characterized his nonspeaking role as award presenter. (All of the awards, mirror-polished stainless steel abstractions that suggest a human profile, were designed by a Washington homeboy, Barton Rubenstein).

The main course concluded, it was finally time for Aretha. In another nod to the attacks, the seventy-three-year-old Empress of Soul opened her set with a singalong of “Amazing Grace,” accompanying herself on the piano and appearing before projections of her image in years past. “Respect” and “Think” came next. People were respectful, but when she launched into “Chain of Fools,” the entire room got to its feet to dance and shout.

If only that gospel spirit could stay with us through the next election. Yeah, think, think think! Let your mind go. Let yourself be free.

Left: Artist Barton Rubenstein and US Attorney General Loretta Lynch. Right: Architect David Adjaye.