“I don’t consider myself in the same category as the people in the National Portrait Gallery, even though other people do,” says the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has become the face of the pandemic, for better and worse. “You never really see yourself on that level.”
Fauci has been photographed too many times to count, and people have sent him dozens of paintings – including singer-artist Joan Baez, who called him and said, “I admired what you did . I have a portrait of you. The two became friends; Fauci was his date when Baez received the Kennedy Center Honors last year.
“You always think things don’t do you justice until you realize that your own image of yourself might be a little distorted from what the world sees,” he says. In Fauci’s mind, he is far more human than is often portrayed: “I don’t take that kind of personal vanity seriously. Brad Pitt played me on “Saturday Night Live”. I know I’m not Brad Pitt, no matter how much I’d like to look like Brad Pitt.
The gallery portrait is a decidedly modern take on the genre: artist Hugo Crosthwaite made graphite and charcoal drawings and adapted them into the animated video, which will be exhibited November 10, as part of the awards Portrait of a Nation from the gallery. (Other winners include José Andrés, Clive Davis, Ava DuVernay, Marian Wright Edelman, and Serena and Venus Williams.)
A successful pairing of subject and artist is a feat of creative pairing; as much about chemistry as about art. Gallery curators thought Crosthwaite, winner of its 2019 portrait competition, would be an intriguing complement to Fauci.
“They said, ‘You’re not going to believe this, but we’ve got someone for you who’s one of our real stars,'” Fauci recalled. “And then they said, ‘But he’s very unusual.’ And I said, ‘All right. I don’t know what that means, but it sounds interesting. ”
Crosthwaite recalls: “They proposed Fauci and I almost fell out of my seat. Yes, yes, definitely yes!”
The process began more than a year ago with an hour-long interview at Fauci’s kitchen table, where the artist asked him about his career. Then he returned to his Mexican home, where he created 19 black-and-white images depicting the two historic bookends in Fauci’s life: his role in the 1980s AIDS crisis and the 2020 pandemic.
Crosthwaite, whose works are intertwined with social issues, says he wanted to capture not just the man, but the times. He knew he wanted to make a stop-motion animation based on these drawings; the trick was to compress everything into a five-minute video.
In this private gallery room, surrounded by classic portraits of first ladies Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush, Fauci watches the final video, which will loop surrounded by seven of the drawings.
“The rhythm of the music draws you in right away because it’s proportional to the way it draws,” Fauci says. There’s the National Institutes of Health building where he’s based, his lab, his colleagues – then HIV victims, and the demand from AIDS activists that Fauci and the government do more.
The action quickly moves to a new virus – the coronavirus – attacking the lungs of a dying woman. “Here I am in the White House now with my famous palm on my head when the President [Trump] said something completely ridiculous,” he said. And then images of protesters against vaccines and masks.
Now a sketch of Fauci’s face – serious, pensive: “Here I am, getting a little older. Do you notice my eyes? It’s the first thing you notice; he looks infinitely sad.
This portrait is as much about suffering and death as it is about Fauci. What stands out for him are the differences between the vocal protesters from both eras: Activists for Act Up, a movement aimed at bringing more attention to the AIDS crisis, were trying to cure a disease, unlike anti-vaccine activists, who Fauci said were anti- reality and anti-common sense.
He respected and became a close friend of those 1980s activists – and remains so today. “They were good people and there was no way they were hurting me,” he says. “So I didn’t need the protection I have now with people who really want to hurt me.”
Fauci has no problem explaining this trip, but finds it harder to express how he feels. “You remember yourself when you were quite young in the beginning, and then you see what you’ve been through – and then you’re still kind of going through what’s going on right now with covid. So it’s a very poignant feeling.
“No, it’s poignant,” he said. “Proud is a funny word because it can be taken out of context. I’m proud of the things we’ve done. But what Hugo did was show, in a very interesting and subtle way, how complicated it all was.
He hopes gallery visitors in, say, 50 years – people who have never heard of him – might become curious: “Maybe someone wants to explore this story a little deeper, because those are really two very historic events that happened in the lifetime of us alone, not just me, but our generation.