TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT September 1987

ICONS AT LARGE

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FOR MANY PEOPLE, I WOULD guess, an important, early, and visceral experience of art involves being followed around a room by the eyes of a portrait. Raphael’s Baldassare Castiglione, 1515–16, in the Louvre, and Ingres’ Comtesse d’Haussonville, 1845, in the Frick Collection, are two brilliant adepts at this regard—more straightforward than their elliptical cousin, Mona Lisa. When encountered with a degree of innocence, these paintings are unyielding in their assertion of presence, clearly exercising some ineffable but absolute authority, relentless in their knowingness of what a child zigzagging in a gallery to test their gaze might sense to be a big truth outside its grasp or a lie caught that even Mommy had just missed.

To return to orbs like these years later is to be engulfed by the ambiguous blankness of their expression. They betray no specific emotion: classically heroic, they suggest no particular experience; they are consummate judges and ideal confessors. The enormous force of their gravitational pull, however, is no mere illusionistic trick. These deadset yet “moving” eyes embody a principle contemporaneous to (and the logical, necessary obverse of) the discovery of three-point perspective. They focus their sights on the bull’s-eye of a perpetual present—the viewer—rather than toward a theoretical point in the estuary of the future’s prospect, on the horizon. They place the viewer, in other words, at the so-called vanishing point—the position of the artist stepping back to look at the work—charging his or her momentary powers of sight with the full weight of all the riddles of ontology. These eyes are jewels set in the crown of classical humanism.

Most painting in the 20th century, concerned with the style, fragmentation, relativity, and existential uncertainty of figures and fields, has not often availed itself of this canonical eye. Obsessed with breaking from the past, anxious of the future, Cubist and Expressionist painters projected the blind eyes and empty sockets of sculpture to embody their view; or else, sensing fierce dynamics, terrors-to-be-inhabited, cosmic jokes, and primal urges all around them, they found kindred protagonists outside the narrative of progress in the faraway makers of idols, fetishes, and masks, and, more locally, in their own caricaturists. Surrealist paintings tell tales of a voyaging eye—the collecting eye shopping along the street of dreams, in curio stores, exacting a precise and acutely literary account. And with abstract painting, the retina was filled, the figure reduced to figment or a state close to archetype. Kenneth Noland’s target paintings from the ’60s, for instance, can be described as archetypal eyes long free of Oedipus—free of the body and its fate.

With so many eyes in front of so many canvases today, all darting around the history of art, painting, after its tumultuous comeback, has itself begun to sprout eyes. If the body’s eyes are windows to the soul, these now nearly ubiquitous elements in paintings, characteristically independent of the figure, are superimposed as if to punctuate some metaphysical point yet to be made. These eyes may be wearing the makeup of other centuries or of other cultures—heavily outlined Coptic eyes, “third” Hindu eyes, multiple Bosch eyes, eyes from the Enlightenment, eyes from the pages of Leonardo’s notebooks—but they don’t appear to be ushering in the revival of a genre or “exotic” fashion. They seem to be looking out as if to attract comers to the dance.

With the word “classicism” whispered through so many lips, heard by so many ears, picked up by so many sensitive noses of late, the dance may involve the meticulous eye contacts and courtly rhythms of a revived minuet; or, with Victorianism and voyeurism on the rise, a striptease; or, for those seeking more contemplative states, positions for breathing. But whatever the style of the pupil, whatever form the steps may take, all these eyes seem to be saying “Make something of me.” They are, in fact, a lot like mouths, chewing the air.

During the ’50s, when the lullaby of the man-in-the-moon was being replaced by plans to put a man on the moon, the designer Piero Fornasetti began a project of eyes—neoclassical eyes like those of the Comtesse d’Haussonville—that he reproduced on the disklike surfaces of dinner plates, in as many combinations and permutations as human imaginations might allow. Fornasetti’s iconography of eyes is now enormous, and his project, still ongoing, comes with the offer of a free set of plates to anyone who thinks up a new vision of the eye.

Maybe this surfeit of eyes, taken as a whole, supplies that new angle of vision. A proliferation of eyes is a proliferation of searches, and all these insistent eyes in the air seem to be searching us. It is as if they are moving us out of our expected place on the vanishing point and propelling us into a spotlight. They are placing the burden on their beholders, and if they seem somehow rhetorical, perhaps lacking focus and depth, the earth, the moon, and painting, too, just a while ago, were as good as flat.

Lisa Liebmann is a writer and critic who lives in New York. Her column appears regularly in Artforum.