Framed: The Best of Bachardy Goes on Display at Craig Krull Gallery

The new exhibition <em>Hollywood</em> showcases the celebrity portrait artist’s work over five decades

In a disturbingly memorable scene from Robert Altman’s 1993 indie feature Short Cuts, the Lili Taylor character, Honey, playfully collaborates with her makeup artist husband (Robert Downey Jr.) on a staged photo shoot where she lies in bed looking as if she’s just been beaten and stabbed. In Don Bachardy’s striking painting of Taylor, one in a series of his commissioned portraits of the Short Cuts creative production team, her expression and pose convey the suspicious reluctance we might have expected from Honey in response to her own artist’s model assignment.

23 years later, Bachardy remembers Short Cuts as a “dream” project. In addition to all of the actors, director Altman and other contributors to the film were contractually engaged to sit four hours for Bachardy, whose portraits illustrated the published Short Cuts screenplay. Three of these pieces—featuring Taylor, Altman and Frances McDormand—are among the two dozen portraits (along with five abstract paintings) in the Craig Krull Gallery’s Hollywood exhibition of work by Bachardy created over a period of more than five decades.

This show arrives only a few months after the publication of a large-format art book, titled Hollywood, containing­ over 300 Bachardy portraits of actors, directors screenwriters, producers and other film industry personalities. In addition to works found on those pages, the exhibition also includes a trio of more recent paintings commissioned for a W magazine profile of Bachardy this month.

From the early 1960s until the mid-‘80s, Bachardy represented his subjects in pencil and ink, and about half of the portraits on view in the current show are from this period, the earliest a 1961 pencil drawing of Jack Lemmon. Beginning with a 1987 portrait of Ellen Burstyn, the works are all acrylic paintings on paper. Except for the drawings of Lemmon and Montgomery Clift (1964), each piece is signed by both the artist and the subject, emphasizing the collaboration between two participants that is intrinsic in creating these images.

Throughout his career, Bachardy has painted portraits only of live subjects, never working from photographs. His preference is always to complete each work in a single sitting. “Even if we stop and get up for just ten minutes,” he insists, “my mood may have changed by the time we sit back down again.”

Growing up in Atwater Village, Bachardy idolized celebrities. Two black and white photos from the early 1950s near the gallery entrance show a teenaged Bachardy eagerly soliciting autographs from Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe. Hanging directly next to the first of these is the artist’s 2009 painted portrait of Russell.

Hollywood is Bachardy’s fifth exhibition at the Krull gallery, but the first specifically devoted to the celebrity portraiture work for which he is best known. Earlier shows focused on abstract paintings, self portraits, and portraits of other southern California artists and literary figures.

The artist’s long romantic and domestic partnership with prominent English writer Christopher Isherwood, whose Berlin Diaries inspired the Broadway musical and motion picture Cabaret, was recently chronicled in The Animals, a book of love letters between the two men published last year. Bachardy also made a cameo appearance in the 2009 film A Single Man, based on Isherwood’s novel of that name.

Don Bachardy: Hollywood remains on view at the Craig Krull Gallery at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica through February 28.