CHAPTER THREE

SEEING IDENTITY


 

 

Once only available to the most privileged, throughout the 20th and into the 21st centuries eyewear has become quotidian and ubiquitous. Eyewear serves many ends from correcting and protecting vision to a deliberate expression of fashion and identity. Spectacles have, therefore, come to shape and inform our impressions of each other and ourselves.

In this chapter, “Seeing Identity,” modern and contemporary artists incorporate eyewear into their artwork as a tool for investigating personality, identification, and selfhood. Connecting the nine renowned artists and their multimedia self-portraits, portraits of other artists, and still lifes are their thoughtful incorporations of glasses. This online exhibition explores both the beauty and symbolism of eyewear.

Marius de Zayas (Mexican-American, 1889–1961)
Alfred Stieglitz, ca. 1912–13
Charcoal on paper, 24 ½ x 18 ¾ in.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949, 49.70.1844
© 2021 Marius de Zayas
Licensed by Art Resource, NY

An important figure in the avant-garde modern art world, Marius de Zayas identified himself as an artist, writer, editor, and, briefly, an art dealer. Born and raised in Vera Cruz, Mexico, and later residing in New York City and Paris, de Zayas found inspiration in an array of global artistic disciplines, styles, and cultures experienced during his international travels. Informed by the daring artistic movements of Dada and Cubism, his admiration for traditional Mexican and African art, and influenced by his participation in various artistic circles, de Zayas developed a unique approach to abstraction. His varied interests are apparent in his humorous Cubist and geometric abstract artworks, in particular his abstract caricatures.    

One of de Zaya’s most successful portraits captured the likeness of one of his closest friends, Alfred Stieglitz (American, 1864-1946), a pivotal modern arts advocate and photographer. Incorporating geometric shapes, symbols, and abstract signs, de Zayas renders Stieglitz’s physical and metaphysical impressions, utilizing his theory of abstract caricatures. In this portrait, de Zayas prominently repeats a pattern of circles, the central pair are shaded and represent Stieglitz’s signature eyeglasses. Other physical qualities include a complex algebraic equation—an abstract portrait of the sitter’s complicated mind—suggestive of the photographer’s distinctive mustache. Additionally, the repeated forms, bold lines, and shading allude to the subject’s more intangible qualities. For instance, the geometric shape of Stieglitz’s eyeglasses holds similarities not only to his eyes and frames but also to a camera lens—an object strongly associated with the sitter—as well as likeness to an Indigenous rope object called a “soul-catcher” which de Zayas likened to his friend. Together, the forms and symbols allegorically refer to Stieglitz’s seemingly infinite, holistic, and impressive creative vision.

Duane Michals (American, b. 1932)
Andy X 4 (detail), 1980/c. 1980s
Four gelatin silver prints with hand-applied text
3 7/8 x 5 7/8 inches (each image); 5 x 7 inches (each paper)
Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, New York
© 2021 Duane Michals

Duane Michals’ artistic career has spanned five decades, producing a vast body of photographic work. He is best known for his pioneering multi-frame compositions, painting on his printed images, and incorporation of text.

One of Michals’ best known bodies of work consists of portraits of his friend and fellow artist, Andy Warhol. Experimenting in a range of media—including painting, sculpture, silk-screening, film, and photography—Warhol’s art explores popular American cultural and consumer objects, celebrities, and advertising prevalent in the 1960s. Warhol’s art, as well as his own physical likeness, has become synonymous with the popular American Pop Art movement. Reaching a celebrity-like status, Warhol’s own physical image was captured and reproduced for popular consumption and marketing. Keenly aware of his rising acclaim during the 1960s, Warhol maintained a groomed and highly recognizable appearance donning his iconic silver wigs, black leather jackets, and trademark eyewear. Warhol sarcastically criticized eyeglasses for homogenizing humanity by giving everyone perfect vision. In his autobiography published in 1975, Warhol poignantly wrote “eyeglasses standardize everyone’s vision to 20-20…everyone could be seeing at different levels if it weren’t for glasses.” Despite his sardonic opinion on eyewear’s equality impeding individuality, his own glasses became an essential part of the artist’s public persona. In this detail from Michals’ photograph of the artist, he highlights Warhol’s distinctive glasses with a tightly cropped composition framing a quarter of his face. Despite the very limited view of Warhol’s face, he is instantly recognizable largely based on his clear acetate framed eyeglasses.

Cover Photo & Design by Yoko Ono (Japanese, b. 1933)
Produced by Geffen Records (American, Est. 1980)
Season of Glass, 1981
Phonograph Record, 12 x 10 in.
© 2021 Yoko Ono

Despite her highly publicized marriage to one of the world’s greatest musicians and activists, John Lennon (1940–1980), overshadowing much of her own career, Yoko Ono is one of the most celebrated multimedia performing artists living today. Drawing upon choreography, written word, music, and philosophy, Ono’s art encompasses multiple disciplines and often explores themes of peace, anti-war, and feminism. 

While some artists shy away from entangling their personal lives with their work, Ono openly embraced the tragedy of her private life in this sculpture commemorating the murder of her late husband. In 1981, she repurposed a photograph she took of Lennon’s bloodstained glasses as the album art for her successful fifth studio album, Season of Glass. Despite her record company’s discouragement, Ono demanded that this haunting image be used as the cover art. For her, the eyeglasses are sentimental as one of the only remaining objects belonging to her late-husband from his last day. “The pair of glasses were the only thing I had managed to salvage,” Ono later recalled. “And people [were] looking at me saying it was in bad taste to show the glasses to them. …I’m not changing the cover. ‘This is what John is now,’ I said.” As with much of the artist’s work, this photograph alludes to violence, trauma, and death felt and experienced personally by the artist and collectively throughout society.  

Carrie Mae Weems (American, b. 1953)
Untitled (Spike Lee Grid), 2018
Magna, acrylic, and oil on linen, 72 x 48 in.
Courtesy of the artist, TIME and Jack Shainman Gallery
© 2021 Carrie Mae Weems

Activism is a prominent thread that runs through Carrie Mae Weems’s diverse and complex body of work, in which she unabashedly explores the themes of family relationships, power, identity, and issues surrounding gender roles, race, and class. Her bold work confronts problematic historical and contemporary sociopolitical narratives and provokes viewers to question long-accepted stereotypes and sustained cultural issues.

Similarly, award-winning director, producer, screenwriter, and actor Spike Lee has long confronted similar issues through his masterful films. In 2018, in celebration of the auteur’s inspiring 30-year career, Time magazine and Weems created several poignant portraits of Lee wearing his signature quirky glasses. Comprised of 35 individual images cast in various shades of blue and black, this grid installation features a mixture of portraits of Lee and the titles of several of his early films, including She’s Gotta Have It (1986), School Daze (1988), and Do the Right Thing (1989). Untitled (Spike Lee Grid) is informed by her artwork Untitled (Colored People Grid)(2009–10), wherein Weems plays off the loaded word “colored” and challenges viewers’ perceptions about the term by bathing Black adolescents in varied, bold tonal shades. Weems reclaims the derogatory term, and applies color to the grid as a signifier of pride.

Collaging and juxtaposing color, negative space, text, and photographic portraits of Lee in Untitled (Spike Lee Grid), Weems not only celebrates his manifold accomplishments and legacy, but she also honors his beauty, individuality, and cultural identity. Weems captures Lee in various profiles, gazing out in different directions, and includes tight detail images of jewelry and personal adornment. Lee’s aviator-style glasses are established emblems for expressing his charisma, fashion sense, and creativity, and therefore it was only natural for Weems to make sure they were prominent in these thoughtful portraits.

Wayne Thiebaud (American, b. 1920)
Five Rows of Sunglasses, 2000
Oil on canvas, 20 x 16 in.
Collection of the Phillips Collection, Washington DC, 2001.008.0001
Gift of the Thiebaud Family, 2001
© 2021 Wayne Thiebaud
Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

Wayne Thiebaud finds beauty and intrigue in everyday objects. From repetitive rows of confectionary-colored cakes and ice cream cones to boldly adorned arcade games, Thiebaud exquisitely paints familiar object associated with mass consumption and appeal.

Often interested in serials, Thiebaud’s curiosity for slight variances in formal design is apparent in this painting depicting eyewear. In Five Rows of Sunglasses, Thiebaud explores the variety of formal qualities and creative design of sunglasses. Displayed in sequential rows that exceed the confines of the canvas—echoing a display case—the different styles of eyewear are displayed against a flat neutral background. Highlighting different defined geometric forms and lines inherent in the basic design of sunglasses, Thiebaud’s repeated rows of these everyday objects present as an abstracted pattern of circles, rectangles, squares, and a rainbow of colors.

Thiebaud’s Five Rows of Sunglasses also honors sunglasses as a signifier of identity, fashion, and emulating “coolness” within American popular culture. The reflective surfaces of optical or mirrored lenses act as concealers of identity, presenting the wearer a sense of anonymity or authority that has an air of detachment through disguise. Theibaud explores how the functional forms of sunglasses come in all shapes and styles allowing wearers the ability to creatively express themselves through the fashionable frames they choose.

Jasper Johns (American, b. 1930)
The Critic Sees, 1961
Sculp-metal on plaster with glass, 3 1/8 x 6 ½ x 2 1/8 in.
© 2021 Jasper Johns 
Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY
Photography by Jamie Stukenberg, Professional Graphics, Rockford, Ill.
© The Wildenstein Plattner Institute, New York

American artist Jasper Johns’ work defies easy art-movement categorization. Over seven decades of experimenting within abstract expressionism, Neo-Dada, and Pop Art, Johns has assembled a vast and diverse body of art that encompasses painting, sculpture, and works on paper. Recognized for repurposing and incorporating well-known symbols and motifs into art—from the American flag to a target—Johns’ work often challenges preconceived notions about particular subjects.

John’s 1961 Sculp-metal on plaster sculpture The Critic Sees presents humorous commentary on the rhetoric used by art critics of his day. Using Sculpt-metal on plaster and real eyeglasses, Johns has produced 15 of these life-size soft metallic bricks. Set within the frames of the critic’s eyeglasses are two animated mouths, one open and the other clenched shut, both with teeth exposed. The cavernous mouths fill the entire frames, totally replacing any eyes. By doing so, Johns satirically implies that critics are blind or hindered from “seeing” art clearly, as their quick mouths— voicing what he considered their unsubstantiated opinions — impede their vision. Johns’ sour opinion of art critics is based on his view that they fail to listen to artists before they share their misguided views.

Robert Arneson (American, 1930–92)
California Artist, 1982
Stoneware with glazes, 68 ¼ x 27 ½ x 20 ¼ in.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Gift of the Modern Art Council
© 2021 Estate of Robert Arneson
Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY
Photography by Ben Blackwell

Over the course of his three decades of work, sculptor Robert Carstone Arneson never shied away from confrontation. Instead, he injected his figurative ceramic sculptures with biting satire and, at times, controversial sociopolitical commentary that was popular within the art movement referred to as “Funk Art.” Arneson was not afraid to turn his humorous, critical lens onto himself creating hundreds of caricatured self-portraits throughout his life.

In California Artist, Arneson satirically depicts himself through the critical lens of the New York City art establishment. In Arneson’s eyes, West Coast artists were the antithesis of East Coast artists—who he saw as overly theoretical, intellectual snobs who took themselves too seriously. Portraying himself as the stereotype of a “California artist,” Arneson appears belligerently nonchalant, casual, and unkempt. He unabashedly wears a denim shirt left unbuttoned, fashioned with sunglasses, to capture a smug, unperturbed and cool appearance. The classically inspired pedestal that supports his bust features an ironic array of some of California’s most well-known indulgences including a marijuana plant, spent cigarette butts, and empty beer bottles.   

Photography by William R. Ferris (American, b. 1942– )
James “Son Ford” Thomas in Leland, Mississippi Displaying Head Sculptures, 1973
Photographic print
William R. Ferris Collection, Southern Folklife Collection,
The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
© 2021 William R. Ferris

Born and raised in rural Mississippi, James “Son Ford” Thomas’ art and identity are firmly rooted in his experience as a Black southerner. He earned his moniker by sculpting model Ford tractors out of locally sourced red Yazoo clay Thomas called “gumbo.” Introduced to music and sculpture at a young age by his uncle, Thomas’ passion for performing the blues and creating clay sculptures continued throughout his life providing a supplementary income to farm work and grave digging.

He typically modeled woodland animals, birds, fish, and human skulls, the latter for which he is best well known. Informed by the spiritual beliefs of hoodoo and dreams, his portrait busts often feature hollowed spots on top of the cranium for use as ashtrays, but were often purchased by neighbors and collectors for display. Thomas’ sculptures are highly recognizable for replicating bone, and his inclusion of mixed media and found objects detail and decorate each unique portrait. At times, the artist fashions foil, beads, marbles, matchstick heads, and wire to adorn the busts, as well as incorporates real hair and teeth.

The head sculptures captured in this photograph are exemplary portraits from Thomas’ extensive oeuvre. These whimsical, slightly macabre busts functions as momento mori—a reminder of our inevitable mortality—as Thomas’ astutely stated, “we all end up in the clay.” The skull portraits are also a reflection and celebration of the people and community he portrayed. Sculpted using unfired clay, Thomas likely added wax or hair grease, typical to his process, to the raw material to prevent the work from cracking. Two of the sculptures in this photograph—the one Thomas is holding and another resting near his right foot—are adorned with distinctive spectacles. Both the sunglasses and eyeglasses add details of specificity and personality to these individualized and creative portraits.

Cindy Sherman (American, b. 1954)
Untitled, 2016
Dye sublimation metal print, 48 1/8 x 52 ½ in.
Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth
© 2021 Cindy Sherman

For over four decades, Cindy Sherman has explored the social and cultural constructs of identity, gender, and celebrity by manipulating her own image. Transforming herself into different identities, personas, and tropes, her photography challenges the credibility of consumer culture and stereotypes.

Carefully altering her appearance before photographing herself, Sherman purposely selects appropriate backdrops, prosthetics, makeup, wigs, and costuming to transform herself into one of her fictional characters. For some of her guises, the artist incorporates distinctive eyewear, a necessary prop or tool for completing the appearance. While Sherman has long integrated spectacles into her art, her most recent photographic series featuring glasses are some of her most withering commentaries on the way society views feminine beauty and youthful appearance. In Untitled, from Sherman’s 2016 “Flappers” series, she transforms into women wearing nostalgic, vintage costuming and hairstyles reminiscent of young 1920s Hollywood stars. While the four women attempt to cover up their aged features under thickly applied makeup, their strikingly similar circular eyeglasses reveal their vulnerability to aging and physical deterioration. Their glasses are emblematic of their true age and diminishing eyesight. Moreover, the series plays on the artist’s recognition of her own advancing age. In this case eyewear not only acts as a catalyst for transforming Sherman into these four different women, but also provides a new lens for exploring beauty, identity, and age in a culture that assigns attractiveness to youth, and perhaps, perfect eyesight.