Diane Arbus: In the Park @Lévy Gorvy

JTF (just the facts): A total of 38 black-and-white prints, framed and matted, and exhibited against lavender walls on the ground and second floors of the gallery. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, dated between 1956 and 1971. The prints are sized either 14×11 or 20×16. Neil Selkirk printed 7 of the 17 images on the ground floor and 9 of the 21 on the second floor, in editions of 75. All are stamped by the estate and signed Doon Arbus for the Estate of Diane Arbus (on the reverse.) (Installation shots and individual images below, courtesy of Lévy Gorvy.)

Comments/Context: Central Park is so vital for life in New York that some writers have claimed the city would cease to exist without it. Urban dwellers as well as migrating birds depend on it as a refuge within the vast sterility of the concrete jungle. Like the boulevards of Paris in the 19th century, it’s also an observation post for monitoring the habits and wild varieties of one’s fellow beings.

Perhaps no species of artists ever took better advantage of the park’s special nature than American street photographers did during the 1960s and ‘70s. The fluidity and randomness of human encounters along its many conduits—Central Park is in some sense a city within the city—makes it a happy hunting ground for anyone in search of the anomalous or unexpected. Garry Winogrand discovered many of his canonic images in the Central Park Zoo as well as on the lawns and assembly areas where political groups and blissful hippies demonstrated. Joel Meyerowitz documented the magnetic draw of water for city residents, stationing himself around the park’s bridges, fountains, and ponds. Todd Papageorge’s magnum opus, Passing Through Eden (2007), is his diary of the sprawling carnival over 25 years.

Diane Arbus liked Central Park for other reasons. Rather than trying to capture the nervous rhythms of the swelling crowds, as her male colleagues were wont to do, she cut a few strays out of the herd and coaxed them to stand still. Looking through the lens of her twin-lens reflex, she hoped brief personal exchanges would spark an epiphany. These shared moments of intimacy were formal portrait sessions—just the artist and usually only one or two strangers—in a public space that she treated as an open-air confessional.

The first photograph in this fine show, produced in association with the Fraenkel Gallery, was taken along Central Park West in 1956, the year she dissolved her commercial partnership with her husband, Allan Arbus, and began numbering and dating her negatives. Done with a Rolleiflex at a time when she was mainly shooting with a Leica, it appears to be a frieze of seven adults seated on a park bench beneath a looming stony outcrop on a windy day. Only after more considered study does one notice what caught Arbus’s eye: a young couple in a tight embrace high atop the rock.

The distinction between the spooning teens and the detached group of grown-ups is compounded by the fact that the former is aware of the latter but not vice versa. Those who regard themselves as deeply in love, the picture suggests, have the right to look down on those who aren’t.

Romantic irony is more familiar in the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson or Robert Doisneau than in Arbus. She was usually not as interested in voyeurism, in layers of seeing and being seen, as she was in peeling back and exposing indecisive moments of human frailty—tentative signs of vulnerable emotion, an opening up or a receptivity that the subject may live to regret but that once offered to the camera can never be withdrawn or denied.

Such heartbreaking moments abound on the first floor. The two lean cross-dressing women (Two friends in the park, N.Y.C. 1965) are a couple in love. They probably have come here because it was one of the few public spaces in the city where their feelings could be openly expressed without parilyzing fear. One is a head taller than the other but both have their hands cockily hooked in the top pockets of their trousers: Arbus had clearly won their trust and responded in kind, without condescension. A young man and his girlfriend with hot dogs in the park, 1971 is another portrait of youthful ardor. The boy wears an Army fatigue jacket over a shirt and t-shirt; the girl is in denim. What unites the couple is their slovenly ’60s Americanness, traits that include a shared enjoyment of cheap American food that you can carry and eat in a park. The eleven boys of various races and ethnicities with gloves, bats and balls that populate Baseball game in Central Park, 1962 are acting up for the camera, no doubt at Arbus’ instigation. She is getting off on their coiled energy and they are digging her encouragement at their antics. It’s a performance and a collaboration.

Her empathy with the gawkiness of children, especially girls, can be seen in Girl hunching shoulders, Central Park, 1958, Girl with a doll standing in the grass, N.Y.C. 1962 and Two girls in identical raincoats, Central Park, 1969. Arbus loved to make lists so one can imagine her cataloguing these different kinds of bewilderment or unhappiness, the way a birder would keep a notebook of sightings. In her 1969 portrait of Jorge Luis Borges the blind writer leans on his cane and stares ahead, as if he were already a statue amid the trees. Less respectful is her contemporaneous portrait, Woman on a park bench on a sunny day, N.Y.C. 1969. Her skin too tan, her hair too stiffly coiffed, her pearls and dress too upscale to be on display among New York’s throngs, she’s a sad figure, shipwrecked by the ‘60s. Arbus’ shadow encroaches on her arm. Arthur Lubow’s biography reports that a year after the picture was taken the woman committed suicide.

Washington Square Park, where half-a-dozen other photographs here were taken, is a more compact space, with no lush greenery to speak of and no hidden corners. Despite serving Greenwich Village’s bohemia for more than a century, it is, paradoxically, less diverse than Central Park in the socio-economic crowds it attracts and more symmetrical in its architectural plan. Stanford White’s triumphal arch frames Fifth Avenue at the northern end and a large fountain commands the center.

Arbus lived not far away in the 1960s but preferred the open spaces of Central Park, both as a mother with two children in need of exercise and as a photographer in need of a safari park stocked with more sorts of game. As a drug market in the ‘60s, and a roofless bandstand for aspiring folk guitarists and singers, WSP had an over-determined nonconformist air that had been beloved by local photographers for too many years. She required more of a challenge in hunting for pictures.

Arbus’ 1965 portrait of Susan Sontag on a bench with her son, David Rieff, was taken in WSP, not far from their home. Never exhibited before, the photo captures the endearing-to-the point-of smothering bond felt between a mother for her only child. Arbus responded most sensitively to people who weren’t yet blasé about being photo-graphed, which may be why this portrait isn’t a complete success. Sontag projected a glamour that invited the camera to bask in her aura. (She had become an intellectual force a year earlier with her 1964 essay, “Notes on Camp,” and a year later would become a New York celebrity with her collection, Against Interpretation.) Arbus seems to have been intimidated or stymied.

Less composed are a couple of one-on-one encounters. In Blonde Girl, Washington Square Park, 1965, Arbus is like a vampire, her camera watching the childish beauty drain from a young woman’s bangs-fringed face. The opposite process seems under ways in Black Boy, Washington Square Park, N.Y.C. 1965. She can’t help staring in awe at the perfect beauty of his lips, wavy hair and smooth skin. After spending so much time with so many kinds of people in so many different arrangements, Arbus must have developed a sense of herself as a fortune teller, her photographs predicting the fate of her subjects. If so, what was the future in store for the couple and their unborn child in Young man and his pregnant wife in Washington Square Park, N.Y.C. 1965?  Perhaps she didn’t like to contemplate these matters for too long.

The qualities of light in Arbus’s pictures deserve more praise than they usually receive. To capture Two ladies walking in Central Park, 1963, she kept herself at a remove from her subjects and let the atmosphere of place and time do the work. It could be morning in late winter or early spring. The park is deserted except for an adult and child in the hazy distance. Long shadows criss-cross the gray concrete paths as two well-dressed middle-aged women plod toward us. Their dark, round-shouldered, barrel shapes and stiff gaits are in contrast to the bare spindly arms of the trees and the rigid iron lamppost between them. Their expressions are suspicious and the weighty handbags they carry indicate that they have gone through life with a grim purpose that’s altogether comic in the eyes of the mischievous Arbus, who wants nothing more from this chance meeting than to take their photograph and dance away.

This show doesn’t offer a lot that’s new or unfamiliar. Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. 1962 is one of the most famous photographs of the 20th century. Except for the Sontag-Rieff portrait, almost everything here can found in Revelations or other publications. What’s impressive is not only the unprecedented range of her sympathies across every sexual, racial, and ethnic barrier at that time, but also her ability to break the skin and wound us. The hundreds of times that she pulled off this feat, making remarkable portraits out of her own curiosity that invite us to snicker or shudder—and force us to react to her complicated treatment of her fellow humans—is one reason she has never been out of favor or irrelevant since her death. Her subjects may stand still; she remains elusive.

Collector’s POV: The gallery does not provide a print-by-print breakdown of the show and not all of the photographs are available for sale. The ones that are available range in price between $15000 and $150000. Arbus’ 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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One comment

  1. Pete /

    Elegant idea for a show and interesting thoughts about it.

    Just to add my take, generally, and to paraphrase Cohen, Arbus was ugly but she could take photographs, (and in the vein of Lou Reed). Merciless and observing only her own rules of engagement, these are not collaborations with her subjects, they are theft. ‘Sympathy’ is not a word that fits her approach. If she had been a bloke she’d almost certainly have been ostracised by the art world for her seriously exploitative and voyeuristic bad-assness. She was fucked-up, super-intelligent and, most importantly, the often brutalising pictures she took mattered more to her than people thinking she was a nice and decent human being. Well done, Diane Arbus.

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