What’s With That Painting?

The Head of College portraits in Yale dining halls don’t usually register as art. Nobody shows up looking for them. Nobody gazes at them, trancelike, for whole minutes at a time. They’re just there, ubiquitous and inevitable. Like midterms or Yale Granola™. As is the case with so much public art, they have become part of the landscape.

One striking exception is the 2001 portrait of former Head of College Harry “Skip” Stout in the Berkeley College dining hall. By the admittedly staid standards of its brethren, it’s a radical piece. It has none of the standbys of the genre: no doctoral robes, no muted color palette, and certainly no slavish devotion to realism. Stout’s face is done in pastel pinks and greens, the paint so sheer that the pencil tracings underneath are visible. The background is a stark black, broken up only by a wobbly green stripe across the top of the painting. A trio of projectile Berkeley shields race towards Stout’s head, complete with speed lines, resembling nothing so much as nuclear warheads.

In my experience, the portrait’s social good is its role as a reliable conversation starter between awkward first-years. But student opinion remains divided on its particular merits:

ANONYMOUS SILLIMAN SOPHOMORE: “That shit is whack.”

MOLLY ONO ’20, STILES: “Hey, I like it.”

BERKELEY STUDENT WHO LATER RETRACTED HIS IDENTITY: “Honestly, just say whatever bad thing you want about that painting and give me credit for it, because it’s probably true.”

The painting has fascinated me ever since I came to Yale. Who painted it? Why is it so different from all the other portraits? Why the green stripe? Why the flying shields? And why is it so…well, ugly?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the painting wasn’t done by a professional portraitist. It was painted by Richard Beggs, an Academy Award-winning sound designer known for his work with two generations of Coppolas on films such as Apocalypse Now and Lost in Translation. While Beggs trained as a painter, receiving his MFA from the California College of the Arts, he quickly became disillusioned with what he saw as the hypocrisy, pretension, and infighting of the art world. He spent a portion of his MFA grant money on audio equipment and more or less never looked back. By the time Stout asked him to do his official portrait, Beggs hadn’t painted seriously in years. So why did Stout specifically request him? “It wasn’t about his art, per se,” said the former Head of College.

A year before Stout became Master of Berkeley in 1990, Beggs’s daughter, Samantha, died in a car accident in the summer before what would have been her sophomore year. (The annual Samantha Landau Beggs Prize, awarded to a “first-year student whose presence is profoundly felt throughout the Berkeley community,” is named in her honor.) Beggs was made an Associate Fellow of the College and would visit each year, staying in the guest suite of what is now the Swensen House and striking up a friendship with Stout along the way.

Eventually, Stout returned the favor, visiting Beggs at his home in San Francisco. The way Beggs tells it, Stout was impressed by a series of portraits of well-known composers Beggs had done during his grad-student days. But Stout remembers it differently: “I was struck when I got to his house that there were all of these half-finished paintings…He said they were unfinished portraits of his daughter, signifying her unfinished life.” After learning about his formal training in painting, Stout asked Beggs if he would do the official portrait, a custom at the end of a Berkeley Head’s tenure.

At first, Beggs thought Stout was joking; he was even more surprised when he found out how much money the Berkeley Fellows had raised to pay him for it. “I was like, are you fucking kidding me?” Beggs recalled.

But Stout wasn’t kidding, so Beggs took on the project. He was given very few constraints beyond making Stout recognizable in the portrait. In his early years as a painting student, Beggs drew inspiration from Abstract Expressionist and neo-figurative painters such as Richard Diebenkorn and Francis Bacon. His take on Stout’s portrait was never going to be conventional. “I couldn’t do it any other way, and if they’d asked me to I would’ve said no,” he said.

Stout remembers his reaction when he first saw the finished painting: “Who is that guy?” But he wasn’t disappointed. He doesn’t claim to know what the general reception was among the other Fellows, but the response from Duncan Robinson, art historian and then-head of the Center for British Art, stuck with him. “He said to me, ‘Skip, you’re going to appreciate this more and more over time.’” Stout grins. “And I do appreciate it. It did grow on me.”

Through my conversations with Stout and Beggs, I finally know why the green stripe is there (to break up the black, and as a subtle nod to Stout’s love for golf). I understand the shields, at least somewhat (they add dynamism and movement to the painting, and, at least according to Stout, evoke Star Wars).

And, more than I did before, I understand the portrait’s appeal. We’re okay with art that is strange and shocking being placed in museums. But because Beggs’s portrait is showcased in a dining hall, it’s branded as “ugly,” an oddity. But if Jeff Koons gets to stack two vacuum cleaners on top of each other and have people flock to MoMA to see it, then shouldn’t we be a little more open-minded about an unusual Head of College portrait? And maybe, in the end, the dining hall is the best place for the painting. At a gallery, it might be lost amid all the strangeness, but in Berkeley, it’s distinct, even endearing. After talking with Beggs and learning the human story behind the painting, I felt I appreciated it more. Maybe Duncan Robinson was right—the portrait seems to be growing on me.

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