Tuesday, July 12, 2016

New York Fashion Cool-Aid ®

Diane Arbus: In the Beginning Debuts at The Met Breuer

Diane Arbus
 © copyright 1949 by Allan Arbus

In her relatively short life, (she died by her own hand at the age of 48), Photographer Diane Arbus managed to earn a place in history as one of the most influential and provocative artists of the 20th century. Although she initially worked with her husband as a stylist in their fashion photography business, her interest in the medium took more of a street style form with most of her photos shot in and around her native New York City.

Boy stepping off the curb, N.Y.C. 1957–58
© The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved 

The genesis of her idiosyncratic flair is on display and evident here as she was "developing her language" in her first seven years photographing on her own (1956-1962). Her work has obviously become quite important and shows up on any short list in which one explores the role of the camera in society. Yesterday I attended the press preview and cocktail reception for Diane Arbus: In the Beginning at The Met Breuer which opens today and will be on view until November 27. The exhibition is made possible by the Alfred Stieglitz Society with additional support by The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation and the Art Mentor Foundation Lucerne.

Thomas P. Campbell
Photo: Laurel Marcus

This landmark and long awaited exhibition during The Met Breuer's inaugural year, features more than 100 photographs taken with a 35mm camera (she later switched to a Rolleiflex) including more than two-thirds of works that have never before been exhibited or published. "It is a rare privilege to present an exhibition this revelatory, on an artist of Arbus's stature," said Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of The Met. "We sincerely thank the Estate of Diane Arbus for entrusting us to show an unknown aspect of this remarkable artist's legacy with the camera." These early photos were actually undiscovered in a corner of a basement for years and were not even inventoried until a decade after her death.

Photo: Laurel Marcus

Jeff Rosenheim, Curator in Charge of the Department of Photography mentioned that this exhibition is distinguished from any others of Arbus's work as these photos were all printed by her. He described the maze-like display which according to the wall text "does not make use of any sequential galleries, nor is it organized thematically" on the second floor: "The pictures are presented on their own walls (or columns) like individuals." In fact much of her work was of a portrait nature favoring awkward, creepy or odd- looking waifs, adults often on the fringe of society, dwarfs, midgets, female or male impersonators, circus performers, gang members, even corpses with toe tags. I actually found some of the scenes which were absent a human subject such as "Xmas Tree in a Living Room in Levittown, LI 1962" to be the most haunting and evocative.

Jack Dracula at a bar, New London, Conn. 1961
© The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved 

"All of her contemporaries secreted their cameras staying mostly detached from their subjects however she wanted to engage with her subjects," Rosenheim said. He read an interesting and wacky descriptive passage from a letter that Arbus had written (The Met was gifted with Arbus's entire archive of datebooks, journals, correspondence and other writings in 2007 by her daughters Doon and Amy) to illustrate that she had a way with words as well as pictures. "She saw the differentness and uniqueness -- 'I see the divineness in normal things,'" he quoted her. "Her work is as controversial today as it was fifty years ago." He likened the fact that her work serves to "makes us uncomfortable" much in the way that Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary does.

Stripper with bare breasts sitting in her dressing room, Atlantic City, N.J. 1961
© The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved 

One thing that surprised me upon viewing the gallery of her work here is the small size of the 6 x 9 format used but it makes sense when you realize that this is the size that Arbus had printed. According to Rosenheim "we have lost the ability to look at small things." He credited the Met Breuer building with giving him the opportunity to do this exhibition. I agree that this would probably not fly in the actual Met given the intimate nature in which only maybe one or two people can comfortably view individual photos of this size.

Elderly woman whispering to her dinner partner, Grand Opera Ball, N.Y.C. 1959
© The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved 

After winding through the columns and perhaps playing hide and go seek (ha)you will find a room featuring a tribute to some of Diane Arbus's predecessors such as her mentor/teacher Lisette Model and August Sander, the German typological portraitist; as well as her contemporaries. These include Walker Evans, Helen Levitt, Robert Frank and Garry Winogrand. Each staked out similar terrain including pedestrians in Times Square, bathers at Coney Island, street fairs in Little Italy -- yet each had a distinct way of working, with only Arbus seeking a direct personal encounter fueled by her longing to know a subject's hidden nature.

Woman with white gloves and a pocket book, N.Y.C. 1956
© The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved 

Beyond that there is a room displaying her 1970 "A box of ten" photographs -- a treasure of postwar American art -- her limited-edition portfolio ($1,000 at the time) of which about a dozen were printed with only four having been sold and distributed in her lifetime. Known purchasers included Richard Avedon who bought two (one as a gift for Mike Nichols); Bea Feitler, an art director at Harper's Bazaar (now in the collection of the Smithsonian), and Jasper Johns who bought it through the West Coast art dealer Irving Blum. Nine of the ten photos were of her later works (including the iconic Identical Twins photo taken with the Rolleiflex) while the aforementioned Christmas tree photo is the only one from the earlier time period and is therefore featured in the general exhibition.

Jeff Rosenheim, Judith Glickman Lauder, Leonard Lauder
at the reception
Photo: Laurel Marcus

I later came back to the museum to check out the opening cocktail reception which included a horn player dressed in a jazzy harlequin suit, as well as attendees milling around on the ground floor, the lower level courtyard, and of course, viewing the second floor exhibition. Many guests in the mature, arty crowd wore black and white with polka dots as a particular motif -- interesting since I had just purchased an Agnes b. frock on sale, which I then "spotted" on a woman at the party.

- Laurel Marcus

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