Los Angeles

Don Bachardy

Nicholas Wilder Gallery

Although portrait painting is not quite a lost art—thanks to Andy Warhol, Alice Neel, and a few others—it has certainly become a neglected one. Photography has made the painted portrait unnecessary as a record, and the hack painters specializing in flattery have made most “serious” artists shy away from portraiture. Don Bachardy’s recent show of 32 portraits—15 drawings and 17 watercolors—offers ample proof, however, that when handled with skill and intelligence, the drawn or painted portrait offers pleasures the photographed one does not.

Bachardy has always drawn people from life. Unlike his last show, which was composed entirely of drawings of other artists, this show of work done in 1977 includes portraits of artists, writers, actresses, and people outside the arts. Each portrait is completed in a single sitting of about two hours, which gives it a freshness and spontaneity that several sittings would probably kill.

The principal pleasure derived from the 15 portraits in pencil, pen, and ink wash is that of seeing great drawing. Bachardy’s drawing is detailed and precise at the face and hands but almost spare at the other parts of the body where the lines largely suggest contour rather than create mass. Bachardy refers to these works as “drawings of people under stress,” the stress being that of sitting two hours for one’s portrait. Aspects of character become manifest under this stress. Gore Vidal appears cold and suspicious. Evelyn Hooker looks bored but patient. The young Mark Valen is puzzled and questioning. A wonderful drawing of Renate Druks shows a woman sitting with head held erect and hands clasped across her breast, looking at the artist like an imperious but wise queen granting an audience. In acknowledgment of the sitter’s contribution, each drawing is signed and dated by the sitter rather than by the artist.

Bachardy’s work shows a considerable sensitivity to the natures of his media. In contrast to the pencil drawings, which are fine and precise, the 17 watercolors are loose and free. Great pools of color slide off the sides of faces. A few broad strokes suggest the shape of a chest. The runniness and transparency of the medium are exaggerated, and this makes these works not just paintings about people but paintings about painting.

I found many of these watercolors disturbing. Faces are painted with the colors of a bruise. Paint on a nose or cheek slides across the face in the manner of Francis Bacon, suggesting that the face is dissolving before one’s eyes. In the painting of Rick Sandord, white eyes staring out of a purple face appear to be those of a demon.

Bachardy began watercolors 12 years ago to loosen up from the restrictiveness of his drawing. Though these works are more generalized than the drawings—more paintings than portraits—and tend toward abstraction, one has the certainty after seeing them that one could pick out the subjects in a crowd since each has a strong feel of the person. He’s permissive with the medium, allowing it to express its elusive nature as fully as possible without going out of his control. Bachardy is dancing at the edge of a cliff, but so far he hasn’t lost his balance.

Jeffrey Keeffe