Cataclysm: The 1972 Diane Arbus Retrospective Revisited @David Zwirner

JTF (just the facts): A total of 115 black-and-white photographs, framed in white and matted, and hung against white/grey walls in 4 connected rooms on the first floor of the gallery, and 3 connected rooms on the second floor.

The following works are included in the show:

Floor 1/Room 1

  • 11 gelatin silver prints, 1956/later, 1963/later, 1965/later, 1966/later, 1967/later, 1968/later, 1969/later, 1970/later, 1970-1971/later (by Selkirk), sized roughly 9×6, 14×14, 14×15, 15×15 inches, in editions of 75
  • 7 gelatin silver prints, 1956/1956-1958, 1958/1958-1960, 1960, 1965/1965-1967, 1965/1969-1971 1968/1968-1970 (by Arbus), sized roughly 9×7, 10×6, 10×10, 13×12, 15×16 inches

Floor 1/Room 2

  • 11 gelatin silver prints, 1960/later, 1963/later, 1964/later, 1965/later, 1967/later, 1970/later, 1970-1971/later (by Selkirk), sized roughly 9×6, 14×14, 14×15, 15×15 inches, in editions of 75
  • 7 gelatin silver prints, 1962/1965-1967, 1963, 1965/1965-1967, 1967/1967-1969, 1968/1968-1970, 1970, 1970/1970-1971 (by Arbus), sized roughly 8×8, 9×7, 10×10, 14×13, 16×15 inches

Floor 1/Room 3

  • 12 gelatin silver prints, 1961/later, 1962/later, 1963/later, 1968/later, 1969/later, 1970/later, 1970-1971/later, 1971/later (by Selkirk), sized roughly 9×6, 10×9, 11×9, 14×14, 15×15 inches, in editions of 75
  • 6 gelatin silver prints, 1962/1962-1963, 1963/1967-1969, 1963/1969-1971 1965/1967-1969, 1966/1966-1969, 1967/1970-1971 (by Arbus), sized roughly 9×8, 11×11, 13×13, 14×15, 15×15 inches

Floor 1/Room 4

  • 13 gelatin silver prints, 1956/later, 1963/later, 1964/later, 1967/later, 1968/later, 1970/later, 1970-1971/later (by Selkirk), sized roughly 10×7, 10×10, 13×13, 14×14, 14×15, 15×14, 15×15 inches, in editions of 75
  • 8 gelatin silver prints, 1958/1956-1960, 1962/1962-1964, 1962/1962-1965, 1962/1963-1965, 1963/1963-1964, 1963/1966-1969, 1965/1965-1967, 1970/1971 (by Arbus), sized roughly 8×8, 9×6, 9×7, 11×11, 15×15, 16×15 inches

Floor 2/North

  • 9 gelatin silver prints, 1962/later, 1963/later, 1966/later, 1967/later, 1968/later, 1970-1971/later, 1971/later (by Selkirk), sized roughly 10×10, 14×15, 15×15 inches, in editions of 75
  • 8 gelatin silver prints, 1961/1966-1967, 1963/1965-1966, 1963/1965-1967, 1965/1967-1970, 1966/1966-1967, 1966/1969-1971, 1966/1970-1971, 1967/1967-1968 (by Arbus), sized roughly 10×9, 10×10, 11×8, 11×10, 14×14, 15×15 inches

Floor 2/Main

  • 13 gelatin silver prints, 1965/later, 1966/later, 1967/later, 1968/later, 1969/later, 1970/later, 1970-1971/later, 1971/later (by Selkirk), sized roughly 10×10, 12×15, 14×14, 14×15, 15×13, 15×14, 15×15 inches, in editions of 75
  • 5 gelatin silver prints, 1963/1968-1970, 1965/1965-1967, 1966/1966-1969, 1968/1970-1971, 1970/1970-1971 (by Arbus), sized roughly 10×10, 14×14, 14×15, 15×15 inches

Floor 2/South

  • 3 gelatin silver prints, 1963/later, 1970/later, 1970-1971/later (by Selkirk), sized roughly 14×14, 15×15 inches, in editions of 75
  • 2 gelatin silver prints, 1965/1965-1967, 1967/1970-1971 (by Arbus), sized roughly 10×10, 16×15 inches

(Installation shots below.)

The exhibit is accompanied by the publication Diane Arbus Documents, jointly published by David Zwirner Gallery and Fraenkel Gallery (here). Hardcover with exposed spine, 8.5×11 inches, 496 pages, with 69 texts in facsimile and 400 illustrations. (Cover shot below.)

Comments/Context: Given how fast fortunes change in the realm of contemporary art, a span of fifty years is more than just a lifetime or a generation (or two) – it’s approaching something like the long arm of “history”. Over a period of five decades, most of the conflicts and controversies that initially surrounded any artist or body of work get ironed out, the debates get passionately argued and then assimilated, the durably important get gradually (and sometimes mistakenly) sifted out from the unimportant, and the critical history gets written with more definitive agreement than might have been at all apparent in the beginning. But unless we can time travel back to those heady early days, and leave our contemporary selves behind, we can’t really even approximate what it felt like to come face to face with the previously unseen work of a transformative artist. Now effectively blinded by the benefit of hindsight, we can hardly fail to see why even highly unexpected “history” happened the way it did.

This expansive gallery show essentially offers us a precious ticket back in time, to the Diane Arbus retrospective hosted at MoMA in 1972; it replicates the checklist from that John Szarkowski-organized show, and if we can forget what we know about how the story has turned out, it offers us a chance to imagine seeing this summary of Arbus’s work with fresh eyes.

To understand the tremendous impact of the original exhibit, it’s worth remembering a few of the key points of chronology. In 1967, Arbus had been included in an influential three person photography show at MoMA with Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand (titled New Documents), and a few years later, in 1969, she started work on her “A box of ten photographs” portfolio, which discouragingly to Arbus wasn’t as immediately successful as she’d hoped (in terms of sales). Eventually images from that portfolio found their way to Artforum in the spring of 1971, the first time the magazine had featured photography. But Arbus committed suicide later that summer, only to have those same photographs then selected for the American pavilion at the Venice Biennale in the spring of 1972, the first time photography had been shown at that prestigious fair. The MoMA retrospective was organized after her death and opened in the fall of 1972, coincident with the publication of an Aperture monograph; the response to the exhibit was unprecedented – at the time, it was the most attended one-person show in the museum’s history.

The critical reaction to the original exhibition was essentially all over the map, ranging from the passionately enthusiastic to the scathingly dismissive; the only thing this flood of attention wasn’t was indifferent, and in the decades since, the controversies and arguments around her work have continued, creating a voluminous archive of writings, interpretations, and responses (a new survey of some of these texts and essays, titled Diane Arbus Documents, has recently been published to coincide with this new exhibit.) Even joining the critical party several decades later, we at Collector Daily have spilled plenty of digital ink wrestling with Arbus and her work, from reviews of both her early and later images (in the form of the In the Beginning museum show in 2016, reviewed here, and the “Untitled” series gallery show in 2018, reviewed here) to in-depth readings of her various biographies (by Alexander Nemerov in 2015, reviewed here, and by Arthur Lubow in 2016, reviewed here), not to mention reviews of a parade of other gallery shows and photobooks going back to 2010. It seems we (and that’s the broadly collective we) never seem to tire of actively thinking about Arbus and her work, in a sense trying to come to terms with imagery that continues to challenge us even today.

But rather than rehash all those earlier arguments and polarized positions, some of which have been memorialized on the outside walls of the exhibit as short (and often provocative) pull quotes, this exhibit asks us to try again anew, and in this way, there seem to be two potential paths – first imagining (if we can) what it might have felt like to be faced with these photographs for the first time back in 1972, and then assessing how we see these pictures now, with our contemporary eyes, knowing full well about all of the water that has traveled under the proverbial bridge in the years since. This recreated exhibit makes no effort to change the accumulated scholarship or narrative around Arbus; instead it simply opens the door to the past and encourages us to draw our own conclusions.

Wandering through these rooms and trying to transport myself back to that earlier time, the primary thing that stood out for me is how these images must have felt like a radical, energizing, and shockingly personal transformation of portraiture. Much was written at the time, and in the years since, about Arbus’s choice of subjects, of the so-called “freaks” she selected and embraced, from nudists, transvestites, dancers, and circus performers to midgets, giants, babies, and the mentally disabled, not to mention the everyday strangeness and eccentricity she found in people from all walks of life in the streets and parks of New York city. But painters going back centuries had depicted versions of marginalized, overlooked, and grotesque people – the lightning strike from Arbus was that they were no longer anonymous, approximated, imagined, or somehow allegorical; they were real, in the flesh people who had opened themselves permissively to her camera, and their varying human vulnerability is palpable. This must have felt astonishing, unnerving, and revolutionary, especially on the heels of a conservative cultural tide that was in the process of being brashly upended on many fronts.

What I recognize now is that what was so engrossing in this exhibit was this new kind of seeing, which happened to also be photographic, which likely muddied things a bit. Arbus’s portraits were original not because they were photographs, but their medium contributed essentially to the innovative vantage point she had nurtured and developed. Their acceptance by the wider world of art was again not first and foremost because they were photographs, but because these artworks did something we hadn’t seen before from portraiture (and in some cases, it shook us to our bones), and that very fact provided an adjacent legitimizing effect on the wider medium.

The fragile trust and permission equation between artist and subject that underlies Arbus’s portraits was incredibly important, and with fifty years now passed, that equation feels like it has shifted to some degree. Looking back, it feels like Arbus was breaking new ground when she approached different kinds of people, her efforts to build easy going comfort, closeness, and connection with her sitters leading to portraits that bridged vulnerabilities and celebrated identities. Some writers and critics have posited that Arbus’s portraits of others were in a certain way portraits of herself, but regardless of that potential for psychological transference, it is clear that Arbus was particularly adept at fostering trust and empathetically allowing people to be, and show, themselves.

But half a century later, the environment of at least partial openness that Arbus leveraged is now much more fortified; cameras are now ubiquitous, and even the most sheltered or vulnerable of us knows well about the dangers of their intrusive glance. Arbus’s most memorable portraits are rooted in a frank openness of personal exchange that would now be much more difficult to elicit; culturally, we are much more guarded and wary (particularly of relative strangers), and portrait photographers have to work that much harder to get us to show even ephemeral flashes of our true selves. Those that have followed in Arbus’s footsteps, and there have been many, have had to go further and further into subcultures and hidden worlds, and have had to generate new methods for both building trust and capturing people with their guard momentarily down (like Rineke Dijkstra’s portraits of exhausted and bloodied boxers just after their fights, or new mothers just after giving birth.)

Similarly, in the fifty years or so since these photographs were made, our collective cultural perspective has shifted meaningfully toward increased awareness and acceptance of our differences and broader inclusiveness toward those less like ourselves. As a result, Arbus’s pictures shock much less than they perhaps used to, if only because we have become more accustomed to seeing, accepting, and indeed celebrating the diversity of humanity in a place like New York city. Their power as penetrating portraits undeniably endures, and their historical documentation of a specific moment in time remains entirely valid, but I highly doubt that today’s visitors will be quite as surprised or unsettled by what Arbus has to show them; in some cases, her works still push on limits and taboos, particularly when she was making pictures of those too vulnerable to object, but images of those confidently asserting racial, sexual, or various other forms of personal identity or image making now feel less than entirely provocative – she broke down so many barriers, and so many others followed and expanded on her engaged image-making approach, that the resulting conversation has evolved.

With more than one hundred photographs on view in this show, what I found happening as I circled that galleries was a kind of inevitable sifting – the most recognizable images becoming pictures to tick off as now recognized icons that almost aren’t really seen anymore they are so famous (and they are all here; one person I know referred to them as trading cards), and the lesser known works somehow coming forward as glorious unearthed discoveries, where my gaze shifted from the quirkiness of the now dated subject matter to how and what Arbus was doing and seeing. And it was the consistency of even these subtle, more unassuming engagements that will linger with me from this restaged event – even in pictures I had ostensibly never seen before or had forgotten, there was an evident sparkle of concentrated photographic engagement, the stare or the face locked in and ready to tell a compelling personal story seemingly just for me.

And while this ably organized echo of a retrospective hasn’t upended the cultural and artistic world like the first iteration did, it has likely succeeded on several fronts, including cementing Arbus’s reputation, bringing her work back into the contemporary dialogue around portraiture, and introducing (or re-introducing) her pictures to those who were less aware of her lasting importance or impact. My hope is that many of the younger artistically-inclined visitors will now see that Arbus actually sits at the headwaters of an entire frothing river of contemporary portraiture that places at its core a deep, trusting, mutual risk-taking engagement with the sitter. My biggest takeaway is that Arbus actually jumped the parochial fences of photography more forcefully than I had realized; I now see her aesthetic fingerprints not only on plenty of photographic portraiture, but on the ways many artists since, of all kinds and genres, have embraced and expanded on her radically sensitive way of seeing.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced in two different tranches. Lifetime prints made by Arbus are priced between roughly $60000 and $475000, while posthumous prints made in large editions by Neil Selkirk are priced between roughly $10000 and $45000. Arbus’s prints are ubiquitous at in the secondary markets, both in the photography and contemporary art sales. Recent prices have ranged from roughly $5000 (lesser known images/posthumous prints) to nearly $800000 (vintage icons).

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Read more about: Diane Arbus, David Zwirner

One comment

  1. Peter /

    Great review, thanks. Just wish you’d contrasted this solo MoMA photography show of 50 years ago with the Tillmans mega photography show on at MoMA presently. The laser focused power of Arbus vs the scattershot Pinterest anything goes approach of Tillmans.

    One gives us a line of near identical images free of distraction, so you can *see* what the artist was striving for. The other uses every trick in the book – XXL, XXS, pinned, taped, tacked, unframed/ framed, in camera/ camera free, not to mention voluminous buttressing essays and interviews, to generate a swirl of smoke n mirrors, through which its hard to perceive what, if anything, is being achieved.

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