JTF (just the facts): Two exhibitions running simultaneously at gallery locations in Chelsea and the Lower East Side.
Portraits and Landscapes (shown at 536 West 22nd Street in Chelsea; closes 3/5): a total of 32 color photographs, framed in black and unmatted, and hung against white walls in four rooms of the gallery. All of the works are pigment prints, made between 2012 and 2015. Physical sizes range from 24×18 to 77×51, with the majority being 33×25 inches. The portraits are titled, the landscapes untitled, and all are available in editions of 5.
700 Nimes Road (shown at 201 Chrystie Street in the Lower East Side; closes 2/20): a total of 50 color photographs, framed in white and matted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the entry foyer. All of the works are pigment prints, made between 2010 and 2011. Each print is sized 16.5×22, and the entire set of 50 prints is being sold as a portfolio, in an edition of 25 (a vitrine containing the boxed portfolio is on view in the center of the gallery space). This exhibition has a companion book (12×12 inches, 148 pages, 129 color photographs) published by DelMonico Books/Prestel in 2015 (here), with essays by Hilton Als, Tim Mendelsohn, Ingrid Sischy, and the artist herself. $60 hardcover.
(Installation shots below, for both venues, as well as cover/spread shots for the book.)
Comments/Context: Catherine Opie gained her initial burst of acclaim in the ‘90s from critics in the art world who normally don’t take much notice of humanist photography but who get excited about issues of sexual identity and social estrangement. Her forthright portraits of LGBT intimates and acquaintances in San Francisco and L.A., and of lesbian parents and their children, touched on the idea of community, self-definition, ostracization, insularity, and home. Done from inside a setting closed to most observers, the photographs were neither sentimental nor tainted by voyeurism, earning her rightful comparisons to Sander and Arbus.
Her landscapes from the first decade of the new millennium, especially those of Minnesota ice-fishing huts and California surfers, were more overtly formal. But as she has pointed out, even in their explorations of the horizon line, these pictures were also social studies of communities that would assemble for a season or for a day along a stretch of water and then drift apart.
Opie can no longer pretend to be a marginal figure. A pillar of the L.A. art scene, a tenured professor of photography at UCLA who has also taught at Yale, she is represented by blue-chip galleries on both coasts and has received a Guggenheim Fellowship as well as a retrospective at the museum.
To her credit, her new show does not try to pretend that she is still on the periphery. She qualifies as royalty in the art world by now and her photographs here depict some fellow members of the court. All are her friends and thus identified by one word: Matthew <Barney>, Kara <Walker>, Lawrence <Weiner>, Chuck <Close>, John <Waters>, Ryan <McGinley>, Ron <Athey>, Glenn <Ligon>, Hilton <Als>, John <Baldessari>, Raymond <Pettibon>, and Cecilia <Brown>. Also included are several friends we have seen before (Pig Pen, Idexa) along with a few celebrities (the swimmer Diana Nyad, the writer Hamza Walker, the dancer Elizabeth Streb) new to her social circle.
What is startling about the show, however, is not the prominence of these characters but Opie’s decision to glorify them with Rembrandt lighting. A deliberate break with her former pellucid Neue Sachlichkeit approach, this tenebrous aesthetic signals a healthy restlessness to expand her technical repertoire. It must have felt liberating for her to think as she was shooting these portraits that her fans would be taken aback.
Pictorialism is a not a smart choice to pair with these subjects, however, unless she was going for camp, and that’s never been Opie’s intent. In photography, the spotlighting of faces and hands in pools of warm modulated light, heads silhouetted against a looming darkness, is associated (best case) with early Steichen and (worse case) with Karsh and Bachrach Studios. The style is supposed to look expensive and can be so labor-intensive that it often is. Boston bankers and Middle-European conductors in the 1950s liked to promote themselves in this fussy, ostentatious style and now it’s too counterfeit even for them.
Opie has crafted some splendid portraits nonetheless, just rewards for the obvious hard work and psychological profiling that went into them. She captures the intensity on the face of Barney. Only the hint of an arched eyebrow across the taut surface of his brow indicates that he may be a trickster, too. McGinley is shirtless. Although not a street kid, he clearly presents himself as someone who identifies with street kids. Baldessari’s head floats as if he were a hologram or Zeus (as played by Olivier.)
The rumpled majesty of Als is conveyed in his slouch and in an unpressed white shirt and a striped jacket, worn without undo attention to sartorial detail. The pen slanting out of his top pocket indicates where his priorities lie. The oval frame for Walker’s half-length portrait is fitting for an artist who has revived the cameo. She wears a sleeveless dress, her gaze just off center, one arm reaching across to clasp another. The only hue not black or brown is a red beaded bracelet and even that is the color of dried blood.
Blood is a motif in the show, both with the inclusion of Athey, whose self-cutting is the basis for his performances, and with two vampiric portraits of women kissing, blood streaming from their lips.
The sumptuousness of this color feast is ultimately too syrupy, however, when these art and writing stars are viewed as a group. Even harder to digest are her blurry landscapes of Niagara Falls, the Rocky Mountains, snow at night, and sunsets. I don’t know how to read them in this company. Were they taken by her? Or did she re-photograph postcards or paintings? So unfocused that the outlines of objects dissolve into swatches of woozy color, these scenes might make more sense in another context. Here they are inarticulate and add an unfortunate note of aesthetic preciousness.
* * * * *
The style of her photographs taken at Elizabeth Taylor’s house in Los Angeles is the opposite of the one found in the portrait show. Shot mainly in natural light, airy and pastel-laced, various and unforced, they illustrate Opie’s nimble intelligence in solving the problem of documenting the personal space of a Hollywood legend.
Active in AIDS charities since the 1980s, Taylor was for decades a heroine to the arts community and met Opie in this Los Angeles milieu. What begun in 2010 as a commission from the actress, ended in 2011 shortly after her death and became a memorial. The 3,000 photographs shot over two years, edited to 129 for the book, are in effect a surrogate portrait of someone as reflected in the possessions she left behind.
Inspired by William Eggleston’s nocturnal images of Graceland, Opie wanted her daily work at 700 Nimes Road to be in dialogue with the posthumous records of the King’s tomb in Memphis. Hers are not as darkly satiric as Eggleston’s; their humor lies in the relentless femininity of Taylor’s taste, a risible challenge to Opie’s “identity as a butch woman,” as she writes in the book, and, of course, to her status as an ordinary mortal.
The exclusive community of Bel-Air, where 700 Nimes Road is located, is prized by those who don’t want to be attract notice to their wealth. What we see in Opie’s photos is the modest California Ranch-style house of an elderly woman who valued her privacy and surrounded herself with relics from her past.
As Taylor was a three-time Oscar winner who had been a movie star since the age of 10, married eight times, given birth to four children, met every major Hollywood actor of her era as well as every President, and was an intimate friend of other celebrities, including Andy Warhol to Michael Jackson, the keepsakes and photographs on her shelves were not ordinary.
Opie’s camera at first stays at a respectful distance in the public areas where many of these mementoes (including the Oscars) were displayed in nooks, and where the walls were covered with small paintings by Modigliani, Renoir, Van Gogh, and many lesser-knowns. She lets the light from outdoors illuminate these suburban spaces. In the room where rows of Taylor’s shoes were stored, and a sink and chair installed for washing her hair, the sun on the lavender expanse of plush carpet creates a strange chromatic harmony with the greenery outside the windows.
But Opie can’t help moving in close to show us Taylor’s medals from the French government; notes from Andy Warhol and from her goddaughter, Paris Jackson; boxing gloves signed by Sugar Ray Robinson; a pair of red baby shoes on a chair; a copy of Dreiser’s two-volume An American Tragedy (the basis for A Place in the Sun); the leather interior of her Maybach and the beige pillow that cushioned her back; and, of course, photos of her and Richard Burton. In wider shots are glimpses of telling details, such as People and Life magazines with Taylor on the cover, her MacBook Air and the instruction pamphlet for operating a TV remote.
When Opie rummages through Taylor’s closets, the color of the photographs is naturally turned up by the fabrics on hangers, the cowboy boots, purses, and perfume bottles, and of course by the famous jewels that her husbands bought her and that she bought herself.
This last section of the book, done after Taylor’s death, is a series of close-ups of the labeled boxes and their luminous contents as they were being prepared for a Christie’s auction. The packing up of a dead person’s things, as Emily Dickinson noted, can be “solemnest of industries/Enacted upon Earth.” The photographs record the systematic dismantling of a life, and not just any life.
Meeting Taylor for the first time, Opie writes in the book that she was ushered into the living where she was served an icy Coke on a silver tray. As she photographed in Taylor’s closets, among stacks of designer heels, she would often look at her own scruffy sneakers in disbelief that she was there alone in the home of Elizabeth Taylor. Opie balances her own giddy incredulity with a sense of duty not to squander a unique opportunity.
She wants us to experience this hermetic world. There are no axial views of the house and the book has only a few outdoors images, a lovely one at night of lights in a tree, another of koi in a fountain, and two of the graves where she buried her dogs. Most of the photographs are static and full of silence, except for a spontaneous one of Taylor’s gray cat walking among five pairs of Chanel pumps.
While the photographs may seen straight-forward, as if others might have done them, it takes self-effacement and discipline to produce photographs that are this clear and affectionate. Taylor’s private life played out on the front pages of the press for her entire adult life. To see the mundane reality—this is in some ways just the home of another rich L.A. housewife—and to contrast the banks of high heels and shelves of tschotskes with the indelible screen image of the actress in our minds—as Angela Vickers, Cleopatra, Maggie the Cat, and Martha—is both touching and grimly hilarious.
Collector’s POV: The prints in these two shows are priced as follows. The prints in Portraits and Landscapes are priced according to size, ranging from $25000 to $55000. The prints from 700 Nimes Road are sold in a portfolio of 50 for $100000. Opie’s work has started to show up in the secondary markets with more regularity in recent years, with prices ranging between roughly $2000 and nearly $300000.