The portrait is arguably the clearest illustration of the roles of status and patronage in the arts. Historically, portraits were reserved for the great men (and a few women) who shaped society, religion, and culture—or who had the money to pay for it. They proclaim of their subjects: “I exist and I am important.” In an era when many feel that art should remain above and separate from commerce—it should be available to all—the portrait, with its connotations of class and wealth, and its singular focus, often seems archaic and outdated.
The exhibition Joan Quinn Captured at the Brand Library Art Center aims to challenge this viewpoint by presenting dozens of portraits of one woman, Joan Agajanian Quinn, from “what is perhaps the largest portrait collection by contemporary artists in the world,” according to the organizers. For over forty years Quinn has been a passionate supporter of the arts in Southern California and beyond. A Los Angeles native, she was introduced to the Ferus Gallery group in the 1950s through artist Billy Al Bengston, who would race his motorcycle at a track owned by her father. This began her decades-long role as patron, promoter, and chronicler of contemporary art, fashion, and culture. In 1978 Quinn was chosen by Andy Warhol to be the West Coast editor of his Interview magazine, and she held positions at numerous other publications, including as L.A. editor of Germany-based Manipulator magazine and senior editor of Stuff. Since 1993, she has hosted “The Joan Quinn Profiles,” a show on cable television that features interviews with artists, designers, actors, and musicians—two per episode, for 400 episodes and counting. She has served on numerous arts, film, and architecture organizations, including a stint as the longest-sitting member of the California Arts Council. The exhibition is not only a composite portrait of Quinn; it also offers a personal and subjective lens focused on various artists and movements. Through one face, viewers see many stories.
It would be trite and wrong to say that the work in the exhibition is a “who’s who” of L.A. art of the past four decades. The Ferus artists—Bengston, Ed Ruscha, Ed Moses, Joe Goode, Larry Bell—are well represented to be sure, as are other heavyweights like Allen Ruppersberg and Frank Gehry. But the exhibition zigzags around the globe from swinging London (David Hockney, Duggie Fields, and Kevin Whitney) to downtown New York (Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Robert Mapplethorpe). What makes this collection interesting is that it’s not limited to major, well-known artists in the same way that the Broad or the Fisher collections are. Emerging or forgotten artists are given equal billing with established ones (and for that matter, memorable works are hung alongside a few forgettable ones). High art sits next to fashion photography (Helmut Newton) and design (Zandra Rhodes), blurring these taxonomic distinctions and presenting an expansive vision of culture that includes all of the arts.
The portraits range from traditional to evocative. The representational ones all share certain characteristics: Quinn’s large, bright eyes; her elegant, aquiline nose; her mane of dark (now graying) hair. Her fingers are covered with jewelry, her wrists with multiple watches and bracelets, and around her neck, a large cross. (Basquiat’s portrait depicts only her bejeweled arms, alongside images of monkeys and the written amount “$65,000.”) She is often portrayed as a queen or princess—portraiture is, after all, not for the meek—though one gets the impression that this is less because of her personal hubris than the artists’ reverence for her influential support. Within these parameters, however, great variations are evident. Don Bachardy’s 1977 full-body, graphite-on-paper portrait, Joan Agajanian Quinn, lends her face a sense of tenderness and fragility. Rupert Jasen Smith’s Portrait of Joan Agajanian Quinn from a Warhol Polaroid (1988) renders her face in profile: head tilted slightly back and hair cascading behind, lending her a regal, monumental quality. By contrast, in a 2009 canvas, Joan Agajanian Quinn, young artist Lucie Abdalian paints her as a tortured apparition in thin washes of fleshy peach, jet black, and crimson, with wide, lizard-like eyes.
Less literal depictions are just as varied. A 2003 assemblage piece by George Herms, Portrait of Joan Agajanian Quinn, is composed of a rusted ocean buoy atop ballet slippers and Zandra Rhodes’ textiles—perhaps alluding to Quinn’s role in determining cultural currents. Laddie John Dill’s funky glass and plywood sculpture, Joan Quinn (1984–85), looks like a cross between a Cubist figure and a piece of Memphis Milano furniture with no discernible purpose. An old, yellowed copy of Interview resting on the work reveals its function as a magazine rack, portraying Quinn as cultural arbiter in her role as editor and writer.
The portraits in the exhibition have been exhibited previously, but this is the first time they have been shown next to representative works by many of the artists. They are also augmented here by various ephemera, from copies of the magazines Quinn worked on, to episodes of The Joan Quinn Profiles playing on TVs, to a slideshow of her society snapshots (which were unfortunately washed out by the harsh Southern California sun). There is also an ambitious series of talks and film screenings focusing on themes related to the exhibition. This context is a welcome addition to the artworks on view, which are given additional layers of meaning through inclusion in this larger narrative. The show, after all, is not a greatest-hits survey of the last half-century, but is instead a subjective tour of a series of movements, moments, and artists through the eyes—and images—of one woman.
Joan Quinn Captured is on view at The Brand Library & Art Center in Glendale through August 1, 2014.