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It took more than a decade, but Jonathan Blum has finally sold his most notorious portrait.
On recent Friday evening, it hangs on a wall at Eastern Market’s Market 5 Gallery. In impressionistic dapples of color, the piece depicts a man in a kente-cloth hat standing in front of the Supreme Court building. It’s scratched in places, and the edges are pitted—the result of trips from gallery to studio to storage to new studio.
“It’s been through a lot,” Blum says.
Still, it’s unmistakably a picture of Marion Barry. Tonight, 100 or more gallerygoers mingle around the portrait, titled The Rejected Portrait of Marion Barry, toasting the opening of a 19-year Blum retrospective. The artist, a gregarious 39-year-old, scrambles about the crowd, informing his guests that he sold the painting just hours before. You can’t blame him for his giddiness: At the last show in which the work appeared, things didn’t go quite so well.
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That was in 1993 at the District of Columbia Arts Center. Alongside Barry, that show featured portraits of family members, friends, and prominent locals such as Washington Post restaurant critic Phyllis Richman. Beforehand, Blum had contacted Barry, then in political exile, for permission to paint him and for reference photographs. “He said, ‘Oh yeah….Do a portrait of me!’” Blum recalls. Barry’s enthusiasm led the artist to think that he might have not only a subject but a buyer, too.
But when Barry came to the opening with his retinue, it quickly became clear he wasn’t in the market. “He comes in…and sees the portrait of him,” Blum remembers. “He basically gives me a disgusted look [and says], ‘You’re making fun of me. We’re not staying here.’ Then he left….I was tongue-tied.”
From Barry’s reaction, it’s pretty clear he wasn’t familiar with Blum’s painterly MO. The Rejected Portrait of Marion Barry, like the majority of the artist’s portraits, portrays its subject semicranially. In other words: If you commission a Blum, don’t expect to see a chin.
Working from the cheekbones up has been a remarkably successful formula for Blum. Virtually every weekend since 1992, the Northwest D.C. native has sold his paintings and prints on the plaza just outside Market 5. From there, his portraits, most famously of Sesame Street stalwart Bert (“Say Goodnight, Bert,” Artifacts, 11/13/98), turned into the rare Washington art sensation. Blum now lives in Brooklyn and does foreheads of mostly rabbis and dogs, but he maintains a considerable following at Eastern Market, selling his prints by proxy.
Still, when Blum moved north in1999, the Barry went with him. “No one,” he says, “really wants a Marion Barry portrait in their house.” He seems to be right: The piece was purchased for $2,000 by Fritzi Cohen, owner of Dupont’s Tabard Inn. Cohen’s son, Jeremiah, who is the Tabard’s general manager, says the painting will join a host of epic figures—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, the Kennedys—in a yet-to-be-determined spot on the inn’s walls.
“He is the icon of D.C. politics for the past 30 years,” Jeremiah Cohen says. “[The painting] does capture his eyes really well, and the lines under his eyes—some of the pain he’s gone through.” Not that he’s the biggest Barry fan: A younger classmate of Blum’s at Wilson Senior High School in the mid-’80s, he still smarts from the time Barry was late for an appearance at his graduation—it was, he says, a “major letdown.”
As for Blum’s own letdown, if words hadn’t failed him the last time he and Barry met, he would have assured the politico he wasn’t ridiculing him. “I kind of like Marion Barry,” he says. “I tried to put him in the best light possible. I don’t know that he knew that.” —Mike DeBonis
Blum’s portraits are on display to Sunday, May 8, at Market 5 Gallery, 7th Street and North Carolina Avenue SE. For more information, call (202) 543-7293.