The notion of portraiture is challenged in “This Is a Portrait If I Say So: Identity in American Art, 1912 to Today.” The exhibit in the Bowdoin College Museum of Art (BCMA) features a wide range of portrait interpretations, including works by iconic American artists Marsden Hartley, Gertrude Stein and Roni Horn, among others.

Portraits, in the traditional sense, focus on the depiction of a person’s face or body. However, in the early 20th century, artists began to explore new, non-traditional ways of expressing the human form.

Hartley’s “One Portrait of One Woman,” a 1916 rendering of Gertrude Stein and an item in the BCMA exhibit, is representative of this change in portraiture—there’s no face, just a teacup set among a vibrant display of abstract shapes.

“These new strategies...were developed to create a sense of an authentic self at a particular moment in time when inherited traditions no longer felt adequate,” said Anne Goodyear, co-director of the Museum.

The artists showcased in the exhibit experimented widely, often representing their human subjects through geometry and inanimate objects. To the uninformed viewer, their works appear to be abstract. However, Goodyear explained there is much more below the surface.

“[Abstraction] provides means to attach specific ideas to color, form, shape, line, which means that artists...can describe things that we can’t necessarily see in the world around us but that we feel to be true to our experience,” she said.

As a supplement to the show, the Museum hosted Sarah Greenough, senior curator and head of the department of photographs at the National Gallery of Art, on Tuesday evening in Kresge Auditorium. Greenough shared her thoughts on this form of portraiture through the lens of Georgia O’Keeffe, whose abstract portrait, “Green-Grey Abstraction,” is on display. O’Keeffe painted pieces titled as portraits but did not include any human forms.

“When O’Keeffe says that her paintings are portraits of people…[she is] talking about a picture that captures an experience she had, which encapsulated her feelings for that person,” Greenough said in her lecture. “She’s making portraits of feelings and experiences more than people.”

Like O’Keeffe’s paintings, other works in the exhibit differ from the accepted notion of what a portrait should look like. Some examine identity from a biological perspective, like Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle’s DNA portrait, while others explore it through the lens of sexuality, like a portrait on LGBT identity by transgender artist L.J. Roberts. Exhibit viewers are thus forced to confront what sort of identities these depictions represent.

By curating this exhibit and bringing speakers like Greenough to the College, the Museum hopes to continue a campus-wide and nation-wide discussion on personal identity.

“We happen to be living in a historical moment where questions of identity have perhaps a particular urgency, largely because we are living in a moment in time when identity has become both increasingly fluid and, in some senses, increasingly politicized,” said Goodyear. “[The exhibit] becomes an opportunity for students at Bowdoin to both engage with important questions...about the way in which we represent our own identity [and] also historical strategies that artists have adopted precisely when they felt that inherited strategies were not adequate.”

“This Is a Portrait If I Say So: Identity in American Art, 1912 to Today” is on display until October 23.