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True Self: The Search for Identity in Modern and Contemporary Art

August 18, 2010 – June 30, 2011

photograph showing a person in costume with face paint, a star painted on their cheek, as they drink out of a plastic bottle
John R. Coplans, Mummer’s Parade, 1982. Gelatin silver print, 18 3/4 x 23 inches. Gift of Mr. Roger Smith, Collection of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art
white silhouette of a person's profile on a dark surface
Jin Lee, Untitled Head (#12) from the Untitled Head series, n.d. Gelatin silver print, 14 x 11 inches. Purchase, through funds from the Brittingham Foundation, Collection of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.
a person's portrait overlayed on top of a interior space with the door wide open
Lorie Novak, Self-Portrait (Ellis Island), 1988. Cibachrome print, 22 1/2 x 18 1/2 inches. Collection of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Gift of Karen Novak and Daniel Dickson.


The “self,” the essential quality that makes a person distinct from all others, is a core theme in modern and contemporary art, and the focus of True Self: The Search for Identity in Modern and Contemporary Art.

All works featured in the exhibition are drawn from the Museum’s permanent collection. The collection was established in 1968 and currently includes approximately 5,000 works.

The concern with the uniqueness of the individual dates back to ancient Greece and Rome. It has prevailed into the modern world, where it is commonly understood to be a distinct aspect of Western civilization. In the visual arts, the self has usually, though not always, been expressed through the portrait and self-portrait, which focus on the identity and psychology of the model.

True Self explores the ways artists have understood and conveyed the essence of the self: through facial expression, body language, dress, and the particulars of setting. For the modern and contemporary artist, the true self is fluid, not fixed; layered, not clearly evident. The true self is both innate and determined by experience and culture. Never consistent, it is often self-contradictory.

Artists represented in the exhibition include Thomas Hart Benton, Sonya Clark, Chuck Close, Käthe Kollwitz, Alfred Leslie, Diego Rivera, Cindy Sherman, Hollis Sigler, Raphael Soyer, and Ida Wyman.

True Self is the first in a trilogy of exhibitions that examines three defining themes in the art of our time. Beginning with a consideration of the nature of self, the remaining exhibitions will address the nature of society and the nature of reality.

Exhibition Support

Exhibitions in the Henry Street Gallery of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art are generously funded through an endowment established by the Pleasant T. Rowland Foundation.