Richard Avedon: MURALS @Met

JTF (just the facts): A total of 3 larger-than-life-sized black-and-white photographic murals and a selection of supporting black-and-white photographs, installed against white walls in a divided gallery space on the second floor of the museum.

  • 8 gelatin silver prints, 1955, 1969, 1970, 1971
  • 1 set of 5 gelatin silver prints, 1971
  • 1 set of 3 gelatin silver prints, 1969
  • 1 set of 3 gelatin silver prints, 1969
  • (vitrine): 9 gelatin silver prints, 1969, 1970
  • (vitrine): 3 inkjet prints, 1971; 3 gelatin silver prints, 1969

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: For photographers who successfully build careers that last four, five, or even six decades, what often gets passed over during the summation of such a life in art are the inevitable ebbs and flows that underly any sustained creative endeavor. By skimming across the tops of the waves, we misunderstand and overlook the frustrated, stuck, and fallow periods, where the ideas didn’t come fast, furiously, or with anything approaching ease. In many cases, some kind of frame-breaking change was required to push the artist out of his or her paralyzing rut – a change of location, or process, or subject matter, or even in the artist’s personal life may have been the underlying catalyst that led to somewhere new.

For Richard Avedon, the late 1960s were just such flat spot in a career mainly filled with highlights. Discouraged by the harsh critical reception of his Nothing Personal project with James Baldwin in 1964 (recently reviewed here), Avedon went into a treading water period for much of the late 1960s; while he continued to make some fashion and celebrity work, aside from a set of psychedelically solarized color portraits he made of the Beatles in 1967, there was little in the way of aesthetic innovation going on.

So in 1969, he deliberately changed things up, in terms of the equipment he was using, and therefore the way he was approaching the making of photographs. Avedon put aside his trusty handheld twin-lens Rolleiflex, which had allowed him to energetically move around (while looking down into the viewfinder), and took up working with a large format camera placed on a tripod (which required longer exposures and was placed in a fixed location). The casual movement and lively interaction of his fashion days were intentionally traded for more sober, stationary, and rigorous engagement, essentially reinventing the mood of his studio.

But Avedon wasn’t just in need of a disruptive camera technology change. He wanted to make images that reflected the tumultuous cultural and political moment of the later 1960s and early 1970s, but knew that his earlier approach to such subject matter had somehow missed the mark. And yes, a different camera would lead to a more direct relationship with his sitters, but that wasn’t enough – he wanted to rethink how to make portraits of not just single individuals, but of the larger groups that represented some of the polarized and often conflicting perspectives and interest groups of the day. And so he started to experiment with images of standing groups of people, some of which he then decided to print as multi-image panoramas at a much larger scale (which the precise detail of the large format negatives allowed without becoming overly grainy or blurred.)

This tightly-edited show gathers together three of these large scale murals (Avedon only ended up making a handful), some of the outtakes and supporting materials from those shoots, and a selection of other group images from this narrow window of work made between 1969 and 1971. Since these same three murals were recently featured in a 2012 gallery show at Gagosian (reviewed here), we might reasonably wonder why these works need to be shown in New York again so soon. The answer lies in the 100th anniversary of Avedon’s birth, which happens to occur in 2023, and perhaps in the desire to try installing these unusually massive photographs (some as wide as 35 feet) in the high ceilinged space of the Met’s gallery typically dedicated to contemporary photography.

Even just a few steps into the gallery, it becomes immediately apparent just how monumental these photo-murals are. The effect is transformative, in that in such a space, we are used to being the ones looking at the artworks – but at this scale, it feels like the figures in the images tower over us, reversing the looking so that we the observers are now being observed. The narrowness of the gallery amplifies this feeling – we want to step back to get out from underneath the oversized images (and to renegotiate our spatial relationship with the pictures), but we can’t, without bumping into others doing the same if the gallery is at all crowded. So we are in a sense trapped, looking up at these larger-than-life figures as they stare down at us with imposing heft and presence.

One mural is filled with what looks like mid-century American corporate executives or bankers, nearly all in dark suits and ties, a few with their coats off, folded over their arms; they stand around as if waiting to join a meeting to review finance figures or manufacturing division reports. Avedon has arranged them in a loosely unbalanced frieze, a little like a police lineup, with each man standing with understated efficiency in the unflinching featureless whiteness. The outlier in the group is one older man in military fatigues, placed in the center; when we are discover that this is General Creighton Abrams, who assumed command of the US forces in Vietnam in 1968, and that this group includes a selection of ambassadors, chiefs of staff, economic advisors, embassy officials, and other so-called “architects” of the war in Vietnam (the image was taken in April of 1971), the resonance of the portrait changes. Avedon’s picture shows us an unpopular war run by dispassionate bureaucrats, economists, and diplomats, making far-reaching decisions in distant Saigon conference rooms, which makes the mundane clarity of the situation (and its implications) all the more provocative and unsettling.

Across from this frieze of powerfully anonymous middle-aged white men, Avedon’s portrait of Andy Warhol and various members of the Factory feels like an exact opposite, in both mood and message. Unlike the centrally-placed Abrams, with the rest of his team flanked beside him, presumably signaling some invisible relationships and arrangements of influence, Warhol is placed at the far right of his entourage, holding a microphone with distracted boredom and looking off camera. His associates vie for attention in various states of undress, the doubling of a few figures creating a strange time-shifted moment where some people are in two places at once. Avedon’s spacing is lyrical and open, with figures clustered into momentary gatherings and almost classical poses, the composition feeling like a rhythmic dance of ever morphing celebrity and self-promotion, our eyes flitting from one attention grabber to the next. The outtakes from Avedon’s sessions with Warhol (seen in a nearby vitrine) document the unstable chaos of the scene, with a bed, a movie camera, and countless combinations of bodies and personas being tested and tried on.

These two powerhouse murals, and the dissonant friction that is created between them when they are hung in such close opposition, doesn’t leave much air in the room, which places the third mural in the show (on the other side of the divider) in a secondary position. It captures the Chicago Seven, a ragtag gathering of anti-war protestors who were accused of inciting violence at the 1968 Democratic National Convention being held in Chicago. What the mural does well is capture the reality that these rumpled activists weren’t a group exactly, in fact they hardly knew one another and hadn’t ever been photographed together; the empty space in the lineup was left intentionally by Avedon to represent Bobby Seale, the chairman of the Black Panthers, who had already been sentenced to four years in prison. The odd heterogeneity of this bunch is what sticks out, visually reinforcing the various points of view that had come together in distrust and protest.

The far wall of the exhibit brings together four more modestly sized images Avedon took in Saigon in 1971, when he was there to photograph the military leaders. Each pushes on the human complexities of the situation there, from the close relationship between a pair of New York Times reporters and their Vietnamese interpreter to a Western social worker surrounded by a group of Vietnamese street boys displaced by the war. More harrowing is an image of a pair of “tiger-cage prisoners”, one with a wounded eye, the other leaning on a cane from being confined in a space too small to stand; this kind of torture was apparently carried out on political opponents, pacifists, and persecuted minorities in subterranean cells run by the South Vietnamese (with American support). And even more awkward is an image of three US servicemen with two Vietnamese women, the men in their fatigues and the women in short cocktail dresses; while one woman stands with a degree of self confidence, all the rest of the people in the group shot look away in denial or embarrassment, the reality of the transactional sex work and the associated power imbalance indelibly written in their poses and expressions.

As a potential answer to the question “what’s the most dramatic thing we can do with our Avedon holdings to celebrate the photographer’s birthday?”, this exhibit certainly delivers plenty of visual spectacle. But it also digs into some thornier issues, ranging from how Avedon reinvented ideas around photographic group portraiture to how photographs of participants in polarized political and cultural events can be given the space to tell their stories. This is a room that has been overstuffed with expansiveness, in both the scale of the imagery and in some cases, the scale of the personalities, and what we’re left with a sense of simmering tension that doesn’t really dissipate. In the murals and the other supporting works on view here, Avedon offers images that deliberately linger in their complexity, which is in part why they have aged so well. Instead of offering us easy answers to the stresses and anxieties of the late 1960s, they ask us to wrestle with the inherent contradictions of that moment, their very human complications presented in stark, oversized, and indelibly jarring black and white.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum exhibition, there are of course no posted prices. The estate of Richard Avedon is represented by Pace Gallery in New York (here), Gagosian Gallery in New York (here), and Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco (here). Avedon’s work is routinely available in the secondary markets, as many of his most famous images were made in editions and portfolios of 50, 75, 100, and even 200 prints. The artist’s fashion images and portraits are relatively equal in price at this point, with the iconic images generally finding buyers in six figures, and most other images priced in five figures. A new auction record for Avedon was set in 2020 with a print of Dovima with Elephants, Evening Dress by Dior, Cirque d’Hiver, Paris, selling for $1815000.

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Read more about: Richard Avedon, Metropolitan Museum of Art

One comment

  1. Pete /

    Informative review.
    Particularly liked the paragraph that began, ‘Even just a few steps into the gallery…’ for an impression of being in that space.

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