Installation of “diane arbus: in the beginning” at The Met Breuer; courtesy photoinduced
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Let’s get the 800-pound gorilla out of the way. “diane arbus: in the beginning”—the lack of capitalization isn’t a typo, but a stylistic choice made by the grammarians at the Met Breuer—is a notable exhibition for a variety of reasons, not least its installation. Viewers expecting a polite array of photographs—arranged chronologically, perhaps, or by theme—can look elsewhere. Nor should they count on continuous wall space. Jeff Rosenheim, the Curator in Charge of the Department of Photographs, has opted to display the work on several rows of floor-to-ceiling panels set apart four feet or so; each panel has a single image displayed on both sides. The placement of photos is catch-as-catch-can, presumably to emphasize the open-ended nature of an artist working at the beginning of her career. This hall- of-mirrors approach is a distraction—what with the back-and-forth of museumgoers and our own shuttling around to get a lone peek at an Arbus picture. If Rosenheim’s intent was to establish a museological parallel with the borderline figures to whom Arbus was drawn, well—point taken. Still, isn’t a curator’s job to highlight an oeuvre rather than compete with it?
Arbus will survive the slight. How could she not? The oeuvre is cloistered and complete; it’s sharp, stark, and discordant enough to withstand extra-aesthetic intrusions. That’s certainly the case with the Arbus most of us are familiar with: the unsentimental-bordering-on-cruel chronicler of pock-marked patriots, Jewish giants, drag queens, and, in the case of Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park (1962), a boy being a boy in the most strenuous of manners. At the Met Breuer, maturity takes a backseat to the artist in formation. The hundred or so prints on display date from 1956–1962 and mark Arbus’s shift from commercial artist—she and her husband, Allan, had established themselves, and not unsuccessfully, as fashion photographers—to full-time fine artist. The majority of works are being exhibited for the first time. (Many weren’t inventoried until a good decade after Arbus’s suicide in 1971 at the age of forty-eight.) The pictures—a promised gift to the Met by the artist’s daughters, Doon and Amy—are a significant find and, in the end, not that revelatory. Arbus, we learn, was ever thus. “in the beginning” only goes to confirm a consistent and unseemly vision.
Diane Arbus, Jack Dracula at a bar (1961), gelatin silver print on paper; courtesy The Met Breuer
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And unseemly the work most assuredly is. If it weren’t, Arbus would be a less compelling figure; less popular, too. Rosenheim demurs, excerpting one of Arbus’s high-school essays that extols “the divineness in ordinary things.” He goes on to mention a list of P.C. nostrums that testify to the artist’s continuing relevance. And, sure, matters of “identity, gender, race, appearance and the distinctions between artifice and reality” are decisive components of Arbus’s fascinations. But the divine? When Arbus took her camera into Hubert’s Museum, a Times Square venue that trucked in human oddities, God’s light was the last thing on her mind. The oddball and eccentric, outcasts both voluntary and not—Arbus was drawn to marginal types and catalogued them with unrelenting dispassion. She was equally at home, and just as pitiless, in more respectable climes. Arbus brought the same fierce intensity to a fur-bedecked matron riding a city bus as to Hezekiah Trambles, a Hubert’s Museum regular known by his stage name “The Jungle Creep.” The lens through which Arbus’s eye alighted on the world brought along its own encompassing seediness. Arbus didn’t need a freak show to prove how freakish the mundane could be.
The unsavoriness of Arbus’s work is offset, at rare moments, by a grudging humanity. The title figure of Miss Storme de Larverie, the Lady Who Appears to be a Gentleman, N.Y.C. radiates dignity just as the elaborately tattooed Jack Dracula at a bar (both 1961) admits to vulnerability. These particular subjects thwarted the artist’s ministrations; the photos aren’t failures of aesthetic integrity, but they are exceptions to the Arbus rule. (Some personalities, it would seem, are stronger than art.) In one of her many notebooks, Arbus wrote that “the mistake is to think that people are sealed and absolute.” This is what separates her from August Sander, the German documentarian whose goal it was to inventory all strata of society, and whose photos were a pivotal influence. Arbus’s art admits to a certain elasticity, particularly when it came to social conventions and unspoken rules of deportment. But like Sander—whose photos, alongside those of Arbus’s contemporaries, can be seen in an adjacent gallery—Arbus is, if not a formalist per se, then uncompromisingly formal in her pictorial means. If anything redeems the mercilessness of her vision, it’s that kind of know-how. Let’s hear it for art for art’s sake.
Tod Papageorge, Diane Arbus in Central Park (1967); courtesy the artist
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The Met Breuer underlines Arbus’s know-how by including, albeit at a distinct remove, A Box of Ten Photographs, a suite of photos Arbus compiled and marketed in the early 1970s. A veritable greatest hits of imagery and motifs, the Box stands in stark contrast to the main body of the exhibition, primarily by format and focus. What separated Arbus’s forays into street photography—that is to say, the corpus of the exhibition—from similar efforts by Walker Evans, Garry Winogrand, and Lee Friedlander was a lack of subterfuge: her subjects knew they were being photographed. When Arbus moved from a 35 millimeter Nikon to a twin-lens reflex Rolleiflex, the shift in technology allowed for more meticulous resolution, as well as the signature square format and less spontaneity. The latter attribute, especially, accounts for the queasy stateliness of Arbus’s strongest work. No off-the-cuff shooting with the Rolleiflex; deliberation, on the part of both the photographer and her subjects, was called for. Posing—along with the artifice it implies—was key. Self-consciousness powers A Box of Ten Photographs, and its persistence is missing, if not absent, from the better part of “in the beginning.” As such, the exhibition goes down easier than one might expect, and perturbs all the same.
© 2016 Mario Naves
This review originally appeared in the September 2016 edition of The New Criterion.