“Excruciating to Behold”: The Art of Diane Arbus

Diane Arbus - People and Other Singularities

Diane Arbus, A Castle in Disneyland, Cal. (1962), gelatin silver print, 20″ x 16″, courtesy the Estate of Diane Arbus

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My review of “diane arbus: in the beginning”, an exhibition currently on display at The Met Breuer, will be appearing in an upcoming issue of The New Criterion. In the meantime, here’s my take on “Diane Arbus: Revelations”, a show mounted by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2005. The review was originally published in the March 21, 2005 edition of The New York Observer.

The photographer Diane Arbus (1923-1971), on the evidence of “Revelations”, a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was incapable of taking a bad picture. Each and every photograph on display is, in its own way, riveting and, for that matter, definitive.

Arbus’ photos of drag queens, Jewish giants, James Brown and acne-scarred patriots are the stuff of legend–a fact fostered, in part, by her suicide in 1971. The work has become startlingly ubiquitous. (As someone who doesn’t consider himself an Arbus aficionado, I was surprised by how many of the photographs I was familiar with.) The mere mention of her name instantly brings to mind images that are clinical, unseemly and grotesque. Arbus’ fascination with the marginal and the dispossessed, with artifice, ethnicity and sex, is part of our culture’s common currency.

Diane-Arbus-1949.jpg

Allan Arbus, Diane Arbus (a film test), c. 1949

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Unlike August Sander or Walker Evans, two photographers without whom Arbus’ work is inconceivable, she is an identifiable type, a personality. The work, though distant, is aggressively individual. Arbus employed her subjects–however various, bizarre or banal–as a mirror to the self; she was, essentially, an expressionist. All the same, there are fine gradations to the art. A pair of photographs at the Met stand out as examples of everything that makes her a significant figure and everything that makes her a troubling artist. You can trace the sad and subtle arc of Arbus’ career from A Castle in Disneyland, Cal. (1962) to an untitled picture from 1970-71 of a woman from a “retarded school” with an attendant

Disneyland is a richly atmospheric picture. Arbus’ Disneyland is toy-like and rickety, a doll’s home, not a place for human beings. The quality of displacement is emphasized by diffuse, theatrical lighting–it’s as artificial as the title subject. Rather than commenting upon Disneyland’s cheesy allure, Arbus divines within it wisps of not unwelcome emotions. The photo has the temerity to suggest that illusions can embody longings that all of us–each of us–require to get by. Disneyland, though equivocal, is an unexpectedly merciful image.

Diane Arbus, Jewish Giant, taken at Home with His Parents in the Bronx, New York (1970), gelatin silver print, 19-7/8″ x 16″; courtesy The Estate of Diane Arbus

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And so it is with Arbus’ early photographs devoted to burlesque comediennes, persons of indeterminate gender, human pincushions and four Santas from Albion, N.Y. In each of them, Arbus acts as an enlightened voyeur and is dispassionate in her curiosity. In the process, she engenders within the viewer acceptance, if not outright sympathy, for what are often literally freakish personages.

Almost imperceptibly, however, a sharper tone enters the work. Arbus’ photographs become willful in their focus on the extremities of type and behavior. We become conscious that her subjects are less persons to be engaged than objects for exploitation. Who is looking through the camera lens is more important than the “who” being photographed. In the process of making herself the center of attention, Arbus purges her models of individuality. They are pegs upon which to hang the prerequisites of obsession. It’s no wonder the catalog superimposes an Arbus self-portrait over a scene of New York City–the artist, not the art, is predominant.

arbus_5.jpg

Diane Arbus, Untitled (7) (1970-71), gelatin silver print; courtesy The Estate of Diane Arbus

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The aforementioned photograph from 1970-71 is an example of this disconcerting phenomenon. The alarm we read in the face of the older woman as she walks with her disabled companion is heartbreaking. Open-mouthed, she jerks her head upward, rendering it a blur. Her ward looks toward Arbus (and, by fiat, us), distracted. The photographer, we realize, has violated their privacy–and, worse, their humanity. The photograph is excruciating to behold.

At some point in Arbus’ development–it’s hard to tell when, given the Met’s non-chronological installation–this dull strain of cruelty takes over and, in the end, overwhelms the work. The curators know this: That’s why the walls and lighting in the final gallery are brighter–some measure of uplift is necessary. It doesn’t work. Arbus, having come to the conclusion that life is cheap, cheapens us in the process. Walking into “Revelations”, you’re likely to think her status as a major artist is deserved. Walking out, you’ll despair that Arbus, whether through artistic choice or psychological need, had so thoroughly misapplied her gift.

© 2005 Mario Naves

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