Genevieve Allison on Martin Schoeller at Hasted Kraeutler

A new exhibition at Hasted Kraeutler in New York features the portrait photography of Martin Schoeller.

If, according to Charles Dickens, there are only two genres of portraiture, the serious and the smirk, then both exist conterminously in each of the 30 large-format archival pigment prints presented in “Portraits,” a major retrospective of Martin’s Schoeller’s photographs. His bold style of portraiture, cultivated over more than a decade as a staff photographer for the New Yorker, can be direct and penetrating or canny and constructional—or all, at the same time. Excluding works from famed series such as “Twins” and “Female Body Builders,” the exhibition instead concentrates on his celebrity portraits, which expose a more playful side of his practice. Jay Z, Bill Murray, and George Clooney are just a few notable examples of stars who have sportively sat for the German-born artist’s sensational, but not-always flattering pictures.

Whimsical pictures of the very famous prepossess appeal but seldom are they realized with Schoeller’s flare for exposing the undercurrents of a personality. This is achieved most subtly and poignantly in the black-and-white photographs he has reproduced from his commercial career, which tend to be more sober and documentary yet express his talent in bringing out the character of the sitter, not just with subtleties of lighting or the choice of attitude and expression, but by an artfully struck balance of candidness and staging. In one particularly striking  image, Bill Clinton appears chipping putts in the Oval Office with a facial expression that in that exquisite moment betrays equal volumes of calculation and bonhomie. Such pictures exemplify the artist’s preference for capturing moments of unmannered repose, when the sitter isn’t acutely aware that he or she is still being photographed.

In more staged portraits, the quality of honesty turns on what can be an unforgiving focus when it comes to matters of the finer topographical details of the face. His gossamer lens captures everything in its presence with intimacy and suspension– even the most discreet articulation of the skin.This might not be as apparent with youthful subjects like Little Kim and Lady Gaga, but discerning head shots of Brad Pitt and Johnny Cash so intently describe the aging male form that, initially, they suggest a meditation on retiring beauty or power– or at least of a truthfulness in its depiction. And certainly this theme appears again in the mutually striking yet contrasting pictures of Clint Eastwood and Geoffrey Rush: Eastwood is braced and unflinching, Rush resigning and impassive.

Despite the aforementioned and the potential for reading emotional responses  between the sitter and picture taker, Schoeller’s approach to his subjects is characterized by a sense of fun and unyielding proximity, not sentimentality. This can be perceived in every aspect of production– from the mood achieved by his direct, hyper-lit gaze to the eccentrically conceived narrative devices he tailors to each character. The set designs and props work for the most part to impose a wry reflexivity on the subject: Marina Abramovic flanked by naked people in the subway; Steve Carrell wrapped in cellotape. What is truly remarkable  and testament to Schoeller’s skill as a portraitist, are the imprimaturs of the subjects themselves, allowing fun to be made of, and from, their images.