Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / The art that accompanies magazine articles usually seems decorative and functional, there merely to cheer up black-and-white text and interrupt regimented columns. Rarely does it well-nigh embody the article itself. William Powhida’s portrait of Joe Biden, centered below the title of Fintan O’Toole’s “To Hell with Unity” in the March 25 issue of The New York Review of Books and on view recently in “Twenty Twenty,” a group show at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, is a striking exception.
O’Toole, himself a sharp and snarky literary and social critic, makes the soberly convincing argument that Biden’s bipartisan instincts will be futile in the face the Republican Party’s irretrievable retrogression into nativism, racism, and fascism. The author counsels the president to hammer the stone cold wrongness of Republican positions into a duly alarmed but fiercely determined Democratic plan for vanquishing them through security for all, echoing the clarion comparisons between Biden and FDR. Biden should, says O’Toole, “enter the dark, to confront fear and give it new meaning.”
Powhida’s piece, based on a photograph and painted well before O’Toole wrote his article, subtly poises Biden at the edge of the abyss that O’Toole contemplates. The president’s head floats in a grayish white, as if emerging from a cloud (maybe teargas). Even so, his eyes are clear and fixed straight ahead. Crow’s feet and the sag in the neck impart age, but a ruddy pallor makes it authoritative rather than enervating. His smile suggests the inclination to reconcile, winning even if unavailing. But its distinct slightness around a mouth ajar conveys the rueful shock and deep disappointment, and his preternaturally rectangular face the resoluteness, that move great leaders to make the hard choices.
The portrait captures the empathy and gravity in Biden that O’Toole considers necessary to summon the reassurance, consolation, and resilience that can save the American republic after its near-implosion. During the 2020 campaign, Biden looked like a compromise nominee – an affable centrist who split the difference between hidebound establishmentarianism and iconoclastic progressivism and stood the best chance of defeating an unhinged demagogue. But as O’Toole has put aside his erstwhile skepticism about Biden, so too has Powhida quieted his trademark sardonicism about American politics. Hopefully if not optimistically, both conjure earnest conviction at this critical moment in history, and cast Joe Biden as a figure of destiny.
William Powhida, Joe Biden (Democratic Presidential Nominee) in “Twenty Twenty,” The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, 258 Main Street, Ridgefield, CT. Through March 14, 2021. Artists include Marti Cormand, Oasa DuVerney, Judith Eisler, Andy Mister, William Powhida, Gil Scullion, and Diana Shpungin.
Fintan O’Toole, “To Hell With Unity,” The New York Review of Books, March 25, 2021.