David Kassan and Andy Warhol: Portrait Perspectives

David Kassan’s paintings go well beyond what a photograph can achieve. Kassan masterfully conveys the character of his subjects- one can feel the emotional intensity that pervades his portraits- while also effectively communicating the subject-viewer relationship. His portraits are palpably real, almost uncomfortably personal. The emotional connection Kassan establishes with his subjects contributes to the intimate nature of his paintings. In stark contrast, Andy Warhol turned the subject-artist relationship on its head with his acclaimed/reviled celebrity portraits. The subjects he presents us are façades- Warhol does not attempt to capture true character, as Kassan does, choosing instead to convey the subject’s public image.

Figure 1.David Kassan, “Letter to My Mother”. 2014. Oils on panel.

David Kassan’s artistic process can be seen in his painting “Letter to My Mother” (Figure 1), completed this year. As demonstrated in this painting, Kassan balances likeness and artistry, never sacrificing one in favor of the other. His work goes far beyond mere representation. The sitter is the artist’s mother, Roberta, and she seems uncannily alive; the skin careworn and translucent, eyes downcast, fingers intertwined. The backdrop is characteristically textured, but still simple enough so as to not distract from the figure. Most of Kassan’s work is similarly composed. The simple compositions allow the viewer to experience the model without distractions, bolstering Kassan’s attempt to establish intimacy. His brushwork is all but eliminated, giving the paint on the figure a very photographic feel. Kassan asserts that his softening of the brushstrokes is meant to force the viewer to think “more about the model’s expression and emotion rather than the movement of a brushstroke… You have the viewer and you have the subject of the piece, and I want nothing in between that connection. I don’t want paint to get in the way of that. I want the paint to prop up this person to be seen, so you can feel their emotion more tangibly and they are in your space”. Kassan is not a painter of flair and fluff- he gets down to the nitty-gritty. The emotional connection established between the viewer and the subject is what is most valued. Kassan’s painting also conflates abstraction and representation. On the surface, his paintings appear photographic- but they are, in a sense, abstracted to fit the artist’s need or message. Kassan often sets his realistic figures against more abstracted backgrounds; for example, in the heavily textured backdrop above the figure in the painting of his mother are Hebrew letters, purposefully breaking up the space; juxtaposed against the figure, this brings the subject forward in the space.

Kassan acts as an intermediary between the subject he portrays and the viewer. His work is more than just artificial representation; the intimacy he establishes allows the viewer to communicate with the subject interpersonally. We are offered a glimpse into the sitter’s psyche, moving us. In Figure 1, Roberta’s stance and her downcast eyes captivate us- every experience, every feeling that the sitter has ever felt is etched in the lines of her face. Most of Kassan’s work is introspective in nature. The power of his paintings is derived from the viewer-sitter relationship. Kassan’s primary objective of capturing the little nuances of emotion and expression is very aptly conveyed in this portrait. As evidenced by Figure 1, Kassan’s handling of oil paint (removal of brushstrokes, the conflation of abstraction and representation) allows him to more effectively represent what he sees. The intricate skin tones, built up slowly and layer upon layer, gives fleshiness to the figure. Through these layers light enters and is reflected back, imbuing the figure with presence and vivacity. His background, which is graphic and fragmentary, textured and tactile, serves as a descriptive patina. In Figure 1, the Hebrew letters hearken back to Kassan’s Jewish heritage. They read: “This painting is my way to spend more time with you”. To the casual observer, who more than likely doesn’t understand Hebrew, these words still have weight. The archaic text lends the painting a certain ambiguity, which both entices and mystifies the viewer, strengthening the subject-viewer experience. As in most of his paintings, the backdrops import a sense of history; both subject and background are integral components in establishing an emotional connection with the viewer. His artistic interjections of self are subtle. Kassan is conscious not to interfere between the subject and viewer; his technique is therefore a means to an end, its goal to enhance the viewer’s experience. Whether we, as the viewers, are aware of Kassan’s personal connection to the model is irrelevant; his paintings are appealing because they are relatable on so many different levels. The viewer is given a glimpse of something that seems tangible and important, and much of this effect is achieved visually, not necessarily thematically.

Figure 2. Andy Warhol, “Gold Marilyn”. 1963. Silkscreen.
Figure 2. Andy Warhol, “Gold Marilyn”. 1963. Silkscreen.

Andy Warhol’s approach to portraiture, contrary to Kassan, doesn’t seek to establish a personal connection between the subject and the viewer- at least, not a connection based on true self. Warhol was obsessed with celebrity- perhaps one of his most iconic portraits is “Gold Marilyn” (Figure 2), completed in 1963, shortly after Monroe’s tragic death. When Warhol first exhibited the painting, critic Michael Fried heralded Warhol’s painting as one of the “most successful pieces in the show”. Warhol’s image was impactful because of its symbolism; upon her death, Monroe became a kind of martyr, the ultimate symbol of celebrity and its effects. It is not meant to inform us of Monroe’s character, but rather sets out to capture the public’s perception of her. In a sense, Warhol is illustrating the myth of Monroe, not Monroe as she truly was. Throughout the rest of his life, Warhol would always use the same image of Marilyn in his paintings, signifying the fixity of her myth.

In Figure 2, Warhol attempts to capture the cult of personality surrounding Monroe by invoking religious, Byzantine imagery. Much of Warhol’s work attempted to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary; in the case of “Gold Marilyn”, this transformation is religious in nature. Arthur Danto in After the End of Art argues that Warhol, and Pop Art in general, “transfigured the things or kinds of things that meant most to people,” raising the ordinary “to the status of high art”. Pop art was, essentially, trans-figurative. Warhol’s portrait of Monroe is no longer a depiction of reality, but an exalted image, made religious in our minds by the power of public perception. Unlike Kassan’s painting, Warhol’s subject is not meant to be seen as a person, per say; it transcends the banal and takes on a kind of spiritual quality. To Warhol, the idea of Monroe was more important than her personal self. The process of silk screening that Warhol employed reinforced his ideas on the concept of celebrity; the artist’s touch is nearly eliminated, and all that is left is the viewer and the idol. Whereas Kassan’s work is intimate -we are given a glimpse into the life of the sitter- Warhol’s work is more concerned with image, not necessarily the true nature of the sitter. According to Jeanette Wintersen, in Warhol’s works the “Id, the instinctive subconscious self has been replaced by the Ego – the surface self. Photo-Ego is what Andy started. It’s what happens when identity is confused with recognition. How we see ourselves becomes dependent on how others see us. The surface is all there is.” In a sense, the surface becomes the true nature of the person.

Despite their obvious stylistic and thematic differences, Warhol and Kassan’s portraits share one striking similarity: they force the viewer to think more deeply, encouraging introspection. In a sense, both relationships are personal projections, and merely represent different ways of observing a person. Kassan’s attempt to establish a connection between the viewer’s self and the subject’s self is reinforced by his subtle technique and simple composition; Warhol uses similar methods, utilizing simple composition to bring home the idea of Monroe’s importance. Kassan rejects artistic flair in his work, dismissing it as a distraction.Warhol’s paintings are also simple, lacking any readily apparent artistic voice. Both artists attempt to avoid excessive personal interjections in their works though Warhol takes this avoidance to the extreme. The relationship that the artist establishes with the viewer is important to both artists; Kassan achieves this through his highly personal portraits, many of which portray friends or family- however, knowing the personal relationship Kassan shares with his model/models isn’t necessary to understand or respect the work he produces. In Figure 1, we see that all the elements of the image contribute to establishing a connection between the viewer and the subject. Kassan’s mother seems almost shy with her downcast eyes, yet seems to be at peace with herself, as indicated by her relaxed posture and peaceful disposition.

As aforementioned, the viewer/subject relationship found in Warhol’s portraits deal with image, not true personality. But it wasn’t exclusively Marilyn’s image that Warhol was capturing- in all his work, Warhol’s detachment actually gives presence to his paintings. In a way, Warhol’s detachment becomes his trademark. This further creates a sense of detachment from the sitter, placing importance on Warhol’s commercial quality rather than on the sitter herself. Warhol’s personality predominates all his celebrity portraits, in a way that Kassan’s personality does not. Ironically, though Warhol claimed complete detachment from his work, his paintings bear the unmistakable and now iconic features of a “Warhol”. Like Marilyn Monroe, Warhol had a public mask as well, and more than anything he wanted to become a vital commodity. Warhol successfully created a kind of art that shifted the focus from the subject of the painting to the artist behind the painting- not overtly, but by severing the connection between the viewer and subject, placing emphasis on surface and commodity. In this way, Warhol takes the lack of artistic flair a step further than Kassan, but ironically this detachment ends up becoming an unmistakable trademark of Warhol’s that often overshadows the subjects of his paintings.

David Kassan and Andy Warhol’s portraits are effective because they provoke a reaction from the viewer. Kassan achieves the viewer/subject relationship by creating a realistic scene in which the viewer seems to occupy a space with the subject of the painting. The vibrancy and tactility of his subjects breathe life into Kassan’s paintings. His compositional choices and more abstracted backgrounds/texts add a certain ambiguity to the paintings, further drawing the viewer in. Kassan paints personal subjects but attempts to keep his personal interjections limited, so as to not become too obtrusive. Warhol focuses on the surface image of the sitter, placing her against a flat backdrop. She is detached, her personality replaced by the façade of celebrity. As a result of his effort to erase his hand from the painting, the subject actually takes on the artist’s own identity, becoming a symbol of Warhol’s trademark style. Both artists effectively convey two different sides of portraiture, while also sharing similarities that might not be readily apparent to the casual observer.


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