The National Portrait Gallery in Washington just unveiled a new oil painting of Bill and Melinda Gates that it commissioned from the artist Jon Friedman, and it isn’t even close to significant art. It’s pretty much interchangeable with any of 10,000 other works of official portraiture. (It happens to be in what you could call the “Snapshot Photorealist” mode, meant to signal that its sitters, caught relaxed and at home, are people just like you and me—if someone would only lend us a few billion dollars. But it wouldn’t have made much difference if it had been painted in the brown-leather “I’ve Seen Rembrandt” mode, or the lush-paint “Singer Sargent, Eat Your Heart Out” mode, or even in a distorted, Lucien Freud-ish “I Know Modern Art” mode.)
No one could imagine this portrait, which is the gallery’s second nonpresidential commission, getting even a footnote in the art texts of the future. It couldn’t find a place even in the deepest vaults of the Museum of Modern Art or the National Gallery or any other serious art institution. If you didn’t recognize the celebrity sitters in Friedman’s painting, you wouldn’t spare it a glance. You’d expect to come across it in any corner suite on Wall Street or Capitol Hill—and to keep walking once you saw it.
Friedman says he was paid $75,000 for his expenses and his months of work on the painting. Those are the fees of a fine craftsman, rather than a payment for an object that has real value of its own, out on the open market. Major artworks by major artists fetch far more than that.
But here’s the thing: I think Friedman got his Gates portrait absolutely right. It doesn’t need to be good art, because it isn’t functioning as art at all, any more than the picture on your driver’s license is. It was commissioned by a history museum in honor of its subject—“someone of national significance, someone our audience is interested in,” as curator Brandon Fortune explained—not by an art museum to honor its artist. Speaking after the painting’s unveiling, Friedman said “I’m determined that it exist as fine art,” but he’s wrong to want that. The purpose of pictures like this is to pick out people of note in our culture and hold them up to our notice. And that means that, almost like that photo on your license, once it has picked out its subject its job is almost done. It is a placeholder for its sitter’s virtues, and it can’t hold that place if its own virtues stand out too much.
“Ideally, we would love to commission portraits from all the leading artists of our day,” says Fortune, “to reestablish the art of portraiture as an interesting genre in contemporary art.” But maybe too much talent would be wasted, or even a drawback or distraction, in calling Bill Gates to mind. As Fortune admits, “With portraits you might find at the Hirshhorn [Museum] or at MoMA, you would know that the artist is far more important than the sitter.”
In a case like this, the wall text listing a sitter’s accomplishments is what truly matters. The portrait is that label’s illustration.
Friedman’s painting has plenty of connoisseurial flaws: Its painted surface ranges from dull to naive; its rendering of a flat-screen TV is so bad you can only just tell what it is. But they barely affect the job the image is doing.
Does it even matter if it captures its sitters? Imagine a distant future where a computer virus had eaten up every image of Bill Gates and replaced them all with pictures of Steve Jobs. Would that “mistake” really change anything we know or feel about Gates or his accomplishments? We’d simply switch them over from one face to another, and go on as before.
Friedman said he was given only one hour with the Gateses, and he spent it madly shooting digital photos of them, which he later recombined in his computer and finally rendered in paint. “A painted portrait has a quality that is fundamentally different from a photographic portrait,” said Friedman, hitting on a truth of our current sociology: For most people today, an oil painting still says “we honor this person” as a photo simply doesn’t, no matter how vastly better it might be as art.
In fact, I have my doubts about the importance of the mad shooting and ardent Photoshopping that preceded Friedman’s work with his brush. Bill Gates was right to give him only an hour. Unlike in the days when royals would sit for days for their artists—because they hoped to get great art from them—today, as Gates intuited, the specifics of the portrait weren’t worth too much of his time. Only the portrait’s existence mattered.
Friedman got his Gates portrait absolutely right. It doesn’t need to be good art, because it isn’t functioning as art at all, any more than the picture on your driver’s license is.
Friedman says he felt it would have been “presumptuous” to attempt a psychological portrait of someone he’d barely met, so he decided to make his picture a kind of neutral record of a great career. That was a good move. His painting didn’t need to speak deeply of the Gateses, of us, or of art. It needed to sit as an almost neutral entry in a visual Who’s Who of America.
What’s ironic is that Friedman chose to fill his painted flat-screen with the Gates Foundation mantra: “All lives have equal value.” Whereas the true point of commissions such as this one —the deep message in its oil paint—is making clear to us who matters, and who doesn’t.
Blake Gopnik writes about art and design for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He previously spent a decade as chief art critic of The Washington Post and before that was an arts editor and critic in Canada. He has a doctorate in art history from Oxford University, and has written on aesthetic topics ranging from Facebook to gastronomy.