Irving Penn: Centennial @Met

JTF (just the facts): A total of 190 black-and-white and color photographic prints—dye transfer (8); gelatin silver (103); platinum-palladium (78) and chromogenic (1)—framed in black or white wood, matted, and exhibited on gray walls in Gallery 199 on the first floor of the southern wing of the museum. Seven of the eight rooms are divided by partitions on which material is arrayed on both sides. Additional displays include a Rolleiflex Twin-Lens Reflex Camera (dated 1961-64); 21 copies of Vogue magazine; a silent 8 mm. film (dated 1971) converted to video; and a canvas backdrop (8ft. 6 in. wide). The exhibition is co-organized by independent curator, Maria Morris Hambourg, and Curator-in-Charge of the Department of Photographs, Jeff Rosenheim. (Installation shots below.)

A companion catalog, published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2017 (here), features 372 pp., 365 color, tritone, and quadtone illustrations, a chronology, index, and essays by Hambourg, Rosenheim, Alexandra Dennett, Philippe Garner, Adam Kirsch, Harald E.L. Prins, and Vasilos Zatse, $70 hardcover.

Comments/Context: The career of Irving Penn (1917-2009) has been catalogued so thoroughly by now that judgments about the merits of one exhibition over another rest mainly on one’s feelings about the ordering of the material, emphases placed by curators on specific bodies of work, and which canonical pieces have been deleted—an inevitability with an artist this prolific and generally superb.

The last 40 years have seen four Penn retrospectives (with substantial catalogs) at major American institutions: John Szarkowski’s at MoMA in 1984; Colin Westerbeck’s at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1997; Merry Foresta’s at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 2015-16; and now Maria Morris Hambourg’s and Jeff Rosenheim’s at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This list doesn’t count smaller monographs: Hambourg’s on the 1949-50 nudes (2002); Sarah Greenough’s on the platinum prints (2005); and Virginia Heckert’s and Anne Lacoste’s on the Small Trades series (2009).

What’s more, Penn edited his own large volumes (1991 and 2001) on his life’s work. Only last year his long-time dealer, Pace/MacGill Gallery, mounted its own mini-retrospective of the photographer’s personal work (reviewed here.)

The Met curators, therefore, had no easy time if they expected to deliver startling originality and, it must be said, although the scholarship is impressive, with much new biographical data and technical details about his printing, the walls contain few surprises. Penn apparently left behind no secret stash—no body of previously unknown landscapes, no intimate portraits of his wife and son or friends—that he wanted released only after his death. What has been exhibited or published already is, it seems, the bulk of what we are likely ever to see.

The familiarity of so much of the material underlies my only disappointment with the show: it conforms to what we already know about Penn and doesn’t substantially alter the standard view of him as a master of printing and restraint. The presentation is chronological and doesn’t risk including more than one of the hundreds of ads (the lubricious Mouth, for L’Oréal, 1992) that he made over several decades. The deletion of examples from this side of his enormous output is no doubt because both the Met and the Penn estate prefer to highlight him as a fine artist rather than a commercial one.

As a result, however, other than in the catalog—and not even there—we aren’t able to appreciate the remarkable unity and tensions in his career: the formal patterns and ingenuity and discipline with which he approached any assignment, whether for Alexander Liberman and the Vogue Christmas issues or for Clinique and Issey Miyake, or the trade-offs that go with a pampered life in the New York court of Condé Nast.

The decision to present a blockbuster show in print gallery spaces rather than more open surroundings also has good and bad consequences. When the rooms are uncrowded, the chance to stand close to prints of such subtlety and texture is nourishing, almost life-affirming, if you relish the art of photography; however, when the narrow gaps between one wall and another are blocked by as few as half-a-dozen other people, the frustrations can be just as profound. (I experienced both extremes. My advice: Go very early.)

The Empty Plate (1943), probably my favorite Penn photograph, is in the catalog but not the show. The simplicity of the black-and-white scene—a diner’s head-view of a white plate, crossed with a knife and fork, beside a crumpled white napkin, on a bistro table sheathed in white paper—exemplifies what his classical temperament often sought to achieve: richness by reduction. Almost every other magazine photographer of food at the time—and every Instrammer today—would show us the meal before it was eaten, the repast of delicious colors and textures spread across the restaurant’s groaning board—a harmonious Martha Stewart spectacle of upper middle-class affluence.

Penn chooses instead to give us the mortal residue of a meal. Every object—plate, knife, fork, napkin, table covering—is smeared with juices or flecked with stray bits of food. We never see what was consumed, only that it must have been fully enjoyed. The dried swirls on the plate suggest that bread has mopped up every last drop of tasty fluid, particulars that indicate the manners, class, and gender of this trencherman. The dirty plate and soiled napkin have a funkiness that one doesn’t commonly associate with the fastidious Mr. Penn, as his employees called him.

But as he demonstrated with his Underfoot series, schmutz sometimes excited his imagination. His mind was happy in the gutter, provided his assistants were picking up the trash on the street and bagging paper cups and cigarette butts for his inspection. Photography was a way for him to meditate on death, framing the rot and wilt and stink of life with clinical precision.

One could do a wondrous show of his food pictures alone. (The orality of so many Penn images deserves further study.) Unlike almost any other Condé Nast photographer, he wasn’t genteel about the pleasures and the price of eating. His photographs remind us that somewhere in the process before anything can be devoured, living things—plant or animal—must be dismembered or killed. The gravy on that dinner plate was essentially blood.

His first cover for House and Garden (1943), in the first room here, is another unconventional shocker. It’s a color still-life of a raw red beef shank in a copper pot surrounded by a couple of leeks, an onion, a carrot, and some pepper corns in a wooden spoon: the ingredients of a basic hearty stew during a time of meat rationing.

The ingredients for this recipe, though, also include a meat cleaver, sharp end out, and an illustration of a steer—the creature that had to be sacrificed before this meal could be prepared. To have conceived such a scene and published it for a women’s magazine in the middle of WWII—which wives and mothers already knew had become a butcher shop for their husbands and sons—was audacious. I feel certain that neither photographer nor editor intended for this cruel association to enter the minds of readers. It is nonetheless there on the page, a byproduct of Penn’s unsentimental eye and his fondness for the often brutal realism of the Dutch still-life tradition.

What distinguishes the Met retrospective from MoMA’s and SAAM’s is the sturdy scholarly apparatus that supports it, especially the amount of new biographical detail in the catalog essays. This accent is signaled by the cover, a self-portrait from 1948. Leaning against his draped view camera in his Cuzco studio, Penn is dressed in a tie and fur-collared bomber jacket, like someone not far removed from military service. Drafted in 1943 but classified 4-F because of childhood rhematic fever, he drove an ambulance for the AFS in Italy until coming back to NYC in late 1945.

The choice of a self-portrait is unexpected, a departure from the reproductions of iconic photographs that have graced earlier tomes, including Penn’s own. Until seeing it, I hadn’t realized that he may be one of the least recognizable great artists of the last 100 years—and must have wanted to keep it that way. I can’t think of a single famous photograph of him by others. Shunning the celebrity limelight, he preferred to aim the lens away from himself. (It’s too bad that neither the show nor the catalog reproduce his late distorted self-portraits, done with a camera of his own design, two examples of which were at Pace/MacGill last year.)

The curators have noted Penn’s second-generation immigrant Jewish roots—this could be the first retrospective sponsored by the Met of an artist named “Irving”—which neither Szarkowski nor Foresta mentioned. Penn’s parents divorced when he was only 8. His father, Harry Penn (born Chaim Mendelsohn), later trained as a watchmaker and loved both fishing and smoking. He died of cancer in 1942. Hambourg reports that the loose tobacco and burnt matches at the foot of a Philadelphia apartment stoop in a Penn photograph from 1938 were trash from Harry’s pockets. (She doesn’t need to note how some of these objects became motifs in Penn’s later oeuvre.)

The exhibition also offers a peek of Penn at work inside his portable studio tent. The silent 8 mm. film, shot by his wife, Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn, documents him and his assistants arranging his models—the covered-up guedras as well as the bearded men (along with a goat or two)—in the windblown courtyard of a Moroccan town in 1971. Many of the images that resulted were first printed in color in Vogue and only later seen in their more familiar form, in black-and-white. (The Met helpfully gives us both versions to compare.)

The essays about Penn’s artistic developments by Hambourg and Rosenheim don’t stray far from standard accounts. Penn always acknowledged his chief debt was to the aristocratic painter-photographer-teacher Alexey Brodovitch. Szarkowski regarded the Russian (and art directors) with much less reverence and viewed the extravagance of Condé Nast (and fashion magazines) as vaguely ridiculous. More decisive on Penn’s austere style, the MoMA essay argued, was Walker Evans.

Hambourg and Rosenheim side with Penn’s own assessment of his forebears, and place Brodovitch as the defining figure on the young photographer’s sensibility. (Rosenheim cites Edward Weston, too.) That Penn was married from 1940-42 to an English student, Nonny Gardner, and that they traveled in Mexico and the American South for many months in 1941 is another new biographical nugget.

Penn’s photographs of celebrities forced into the acute angle of a stage set (1948) have often struck me as needlessly one-sided and almost cruel. Hambourg calls them “Existential Portraits,” and says that Penn imagined the encounters as like a fencing match. If so, he wielded the heavier and sharper blade. Joe Louis, heavyweight champion of the world, is hunched miserably into a corner—never a place a boxer chooses to be. Georgia O’Keeffe looks existententially bored. Spencer Tracy wears the false grin of someone who is barely tolerating the man contorting him. The only person here successfully playing this chess match of confinement and control is the lean and watchful Marcel Duchamp.

The portraits of personages seated on carpet remnants are more of a fair fight. There is freedom and humor in the contrast between the lumpy landscape of fraying threads and the bodies of a duded up Le Corbusier or the anvil-like bottom of a dour Alfred Hitchcock.

Penn’s photographs from the late ‘40s into the ‘50s of thin women in fashionable clothes look even more thrilling now in their rejection of fashion norms than they must have when first published. There is a severity to the shifting patterns of solids and voids that he carves from sleeves and waistlines on the page. As Philippe Garner writes in his essay, the photographs “dispensed with staging—there would be no fiction of grand hôtels particuliers, no romantic narratives, no props, and no distractions from the essence of the clothes them-selves.”

One of the few unfamiliar images in the show is Modern Family—the Broken Pitcher (1947). A tableau with Surrealist elements, it depicts a wealthy but spiritless husband slouched in a chair, his expensive dressing gown open below. His wife in a formal gown sits on the floor reading a book next to their daughter who has just finished breaking a white pitcher with a hammer. A white x-legged table on the left holds a Picasso bronze head, a Calder sculpture, and a potted plant. Not a little awkward in its resolution, this satire of a young spoiled Upper East Side nuclear family is interesting chiefly because Penn seems never to tried anything quite like it again.

More telling in the exhibition are the four variants for Girl Drinking (1949). Spanning 1960 and 2000, they show him reinterpreting his negatives with rigorous abandon. The wide discrepancies in his treatment of the woman’s face—in early prints it’s like a half-moon, in others a dark silhouette—indicates that, as the wall label reads, for Penn “there could be many versions of ‘perfect.’”

The selection here of the enlarged cigarette butts is the most bracing I have seen anywhere. The experience is magnified by the chance to be in a small space with so many examples and inspect their silvery textures up close—each faded company logo, thin crumpled torn or dimpled paper, the coffee and weather stains. These phallic drug delivery systems that were once routinely consumed have, by the time Penn and his team picked them off sidewalks, been burned down to the tip and thrown away, the contemptible worthless butt ends of someone’s momentary bliss.

The Met has a far larger selection of the ethnographic photographs, in Cuzco (1948), Dahomey (1967), and New Guinea (1970) than either of the previous two retrospectives. The essays tip-toe around questions of exploitation and whether Penn had the right to fly into these places, photograph them for a few days, and publish these nameless individuals as exotica in the pages of Vogue. Most curators have agreed that Penn’s intentions were honorable and in keeping with the times. As Foresta wrote in her catalog essay: “If they at all serve as commentary, these photographs suggest that the definition of difference—Western or non-Western, fashion or decoration—is only a matter of artistic context.”

Foresta’s selection may be the most wide-ranging of the three. She floats the notion, first proposed by Rosalind Krauss, that Penn was as much of a collagist as he was a modernist. The cover of the SAAM catalog, Head in Ice (2002), is one of his most futuristic and “impure” photographs, almost a mixed media image of sculpture crossed with print making. It didn’t make the cut of either the Met exhibition or catalog.

Foresta also alone included Penn’s New York Child (Juliet Auchincloss) from 1949. Chosen by Steichen for The Family of Man, it’s something of an anomaly. (Did any major 20th century photographer make fewer pictures of children and pets? The popularity of Cuzco children only underlines how seldom this sweet theme appears elsewhere.)

Steichen was not the most discerning judge of Penn’s gifts: he advised the younger artist to abandon his series (begun in 1947) of large, imperfect nudes which, as Hambourg has persuasively argued before, rank among Penn’s lasting contributions to 20th century art. The room at the Met holding these eerie forays into the abstraction of flesh and photographic tonality is another of the show’s peaks.

The checklist of this retrospective, when added to those of its predecessors, illustrates the remarkable consensus about Penn’s classic images. My informal count is that the following have appeared in at least two of the four shows and, in some cases, in all of them:

Beef Still-Life (1943); The Empty Plate (1947); Salad Ingredients (1947); Theatre Accident (1947); New York Still-Life (1947); After Dinner Games (1947); Glove and Shoe (1947); Dusek Brothers (ca. 1948); Ballet Theater (1947); Balthus (1948); Joan Miro and Daughter (1948); Ballet Society (1948); Marcel Duchamp (1948); The Tarot Reader (1949); Kerchief-Glove (1950); Balenciaga Sleeve (1950) Sculptor’s Model with Arms Raised (1950); Woman with Roses (1950); Girl with Tobacco on Tongue (1951); Large Sleeve (1951); Eye in Keyhole (1953); Tom Wolfe (1966); Saul Steinberg in Nose Mask (1966); Camel Pack (1975); Paper Cup with Shadow (1975); Vionnet Harness Dress (1974); and Mouth, for L’Oreal (1986).

All four retrospectives have sampled the Peru, New Guinea, Dahomey, and Morocco ethnographic series, as well as Small Trades, Cigarettes, and Flowers. The only celebrity whom Penn photographed three times was Truman Capote. Szarkowski included all the versions (1948, 1965, 1979); Foresta had two (1948, 1979) as do Hambourg/Rosenheim (1948, 1965.) Why the writer and gossip should have been a favorite subject for Penn—their personalities could not have been more different—I can’t surmise.

What I missed at the Met was a summary somewhere that would have brought together the strands of his career and elucidated the braided ties between his commercial and independent selves and his process of solving a picture problem. (The last room, the only one to include his sketches, makes a gesture in this direction.) He could not have produced many of his most indelible images if not for the largesse of Alexander Liberman and Condé Nast, especially its travel budget. Penn earned considerable amounts of money and spent many years in advertising. It is often said that he yearned to be free of these commercial ties—and the negative reaction to his nudes forced him to work on his own—but he obviously took some degree of pride in seeing his photographs printed in magazines.

The Met never lets us see how much Penn enjoyed solving problems, whatever the client, and setting new formal challenges for himself. From the 1940s until his death, he relied on the frieze to organize people and things, whether it was the Twelve Most Photographed Models of 1947, a New York City ballet company, a group of New Guinea tribesmen, a gang of Hell’s Angels, or a backlighted medicine cabinet arrayed with Clinique products. The horizontal ordering confers a equality to each object as it joins them together.

Cubism and off-kilter modern graphic design was another touch-stone. The blocks of defrosting blueberries, raspberries, corn kernels, lima beans, asparagus spears, and melon balls in Frozen Foods (1977) and the three stacked cheeses Italian Still Life (1981) are constructed along the same sculptural principles, as are the still-lifes of fragmented bone, metal, and plumbing pipe, in platinum-palladium. As Szarkowski wrote of these 1980s still-lifes: “Penn has discarded all references to the conventional pleasures of the good life and to the comforts of deception.”

Hambourg quotes Cecil Beaton’s observation that there was some-thing of the “monk” in Penn, and she sees much of his work as an attempt to “redeem what was shallow, separate, and temporary in the world.”

His wasn’t a warming vision of what’s in store for us, and for all things, which may be one reason it has retained its salubrious, admonishing sting. Penn’s photographs are stone-cold clear about the fact that we are becoming wilted flowers and cigarette butts, and it’s that invigorating clarity that suggests his art will last.

Collector’s POV: Irving Penn is represented by Pace/MacGill Gallery in New York (here) and Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco (here). Pace/MacGill has a tightly edited show of Penn’s work (all from the single year of 1950) on view now (here). Penn’s prints are ubiquitous in the secondary markets, with dozens of examples available every season. Prices have ranged from roughly $5000 to $460000 in recent years, with prices steadily increasing since the artist’s death in 2009.

Send this article to a friend

Read more about: Irving Penn, Metropolitan Museum of Art

One comment

  1. Andy /

    I bought the catalogue as I won’t be able to see the show (I’m in Sydney, Australia) so appreciated the comprehensive installation shots and review. I agree about the gaps in the show but have to say the catalogue is beautifully crafted and printed

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

Recent Articles

Auction Results: Photography and Contemporary Art Day, December 1 and 2, 2023 @Lempertz

Auction Results: Photography and Contemporary Art Day, December 1 and 2, 2023 @Lempertz

A little too much softness in the results of lots estimated above €10K dampened the numbers from the Photography and Contemporary Art sales at Lempertz in Cologne last week. While ... Read on.

Sign up for our weekly email newsletter