Diane Arbus, In the Absence of Others @Cheim & Read

JTF (just the facts): A total of 12 black and white images, framed in white and matted, and hung against grey walls in a single room gallery space. Only 1 print in the show is a vintage gelatin silver print; the rest of the prints are posthumous gelatin silver prints made by Neil Selkirk. The negative dates range from 1961 to 1971. All of the images were printed 20×16 or reverse, most ending up square; the later prints were made in editions of 50, or more often 75. (Installation shots at right.)
Comments/Context: The legend of Diane Arbus has been told so many times and in such depth in recent years that it seems hard to believe that there might be anything more to uncover in her story. This small show doesn’t try to compete with the major Arbus retrospectives that still linger in our memories, but takes a tightly edited, lesser known slice of her work (the kind of images one might blow by in a larger exhibit of her more famous works) and gives it some spotlight attention. While Arbus‘ intimate portrait work is easily her most recognizable, these images give quirky man-made spaces and offbeat interiors the same sensitive treatment that is her hallmark.
While Arbus often pointed her camera at some of the more marginal and eccentric members of human society, it is clear that she also found the oddities of our constructed environments (unoccupied by people of any kind) equally worth close investigation. Painted murals in hotel lobbies, deserted amusement parks and movie theaters, and empty living rooms are found to be unsettling and surprisingly abnormal, the peculiar details becoming more weird and absurd under more intense scrutiny.

This small show is proof that Arbus applied the same talent for getting underneath the surface of her portrait subjects to the overlooked strangeness of our own places, discovering the unexpected that is often left hidden in our peripheral vision. While this show won’t move the needle on Arbus scholarship or change the trajectory of the overall Arbus narrative, it is at least a welcome reprieve from the now-hackneyed display of her best known works.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced between $16000 and $65000. Given the popularity of Arbus for both photography and contemporary art collectors, her work swirls through he secondary markets with significant regularity. Prices range anywhere from perhaps $5000 on the low end to nearly $500000 on the high end. Both vintage and later prints are almost always available, with the posthumous prints gaining in popularity to such a degree that they too often reach into six figures. While none of these works is a particular fit for our collection, I enjoyed digging into the gloomy House of Horrors (an image I don’t remember looking closely at before), silently empty of squealing visitors.
Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)

Transit Hub:

  • Revelations @SFMOMA, 2003 (here); @Met, 2005 (here)
  • NY Times reviews, 2005 (here) and (here)

Diane Arbus, In the Absence of Others
Through February 13th

Cheim & Read
547 West 25th Street
New York, NY 10001

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