Richard Avedon, Nothing Personal @Pace

JTF (Just the facts): A total of 50 black-and-white photographs, matted and framed in white, and hung against white walls in the foyer and the three rooms of the gallery. All but one of the prints are gelatin silver and all but 7 are vintage. The works date from 1955-1964, with the majority done in 1963. Most were printed on 16×20 paper, with one as small as 5×7 inches and one as large as roughly 48×59 inches. Additional archival materials (appointment diaries, a high school yearbook, contact sheets, notated work prints, magazines, correspondence) are found (with captions) in four white wooden vitrines. (Installation shots below.)

The book from which the exhibition earns its title, has been republished in 2017 by Taschen (here). Hardcover, 160 pages, 11 x 15 inches, with a new essay by Hilton Als. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Last summer’s Richard Avedon’s America, mounted at Guild Hall in East Hampton, NY, under the auspices of the Richard Avedon Foundation, was the most joyous show of his work I’ve ever seen. Presented without the fanfare or self-seriousness he was prone to when allowed to oversee an installation, the retrospective was concise (fewer than 100 pictures) but comprehensive (despite the absence of any photo murals.)

Willowy fashion models mixed with DAR dowagers in sashes; Neo-Nazi white supremacists stood with a Black Power leader; a pregnant Viva exposed her belly as did Andy Warhol, with a stitched up gut; Tina Turner shimmied in a micro-skirt between Jackie Kennedy and Gloria Vanderbilt; Ronald and Nancy Reagan shared a wall with Simon and Garfunkel; and the high-school-aged Lew Alcindor palmed a basketball on a New York playground next to the floating head of real estate developer Donald Trump.

It was the first time that Avedon’s photographs convinced me that he had channeled the grotesque and the sublime of his era with unique passion and skills. No American photographer in the second half of the 20th century had more panache, ordered as many famous, powerful, beautiful, and talented people to perform for him, moved as effortlessly between their disparate worlds, and ended up with as rich an archive of telling impressions of their lives and his times.

Simple, unpretentious, and a blast, the show also offered further proof, if any more is needed, that artists are sometimes not the best judges of their own best work.

Perhaps the most egregious example of this pitfall in Avedon’s mid-career was Nothing Personal, his 1964 collaboration with the writer James Baldwin. Designed as a book and never as an exhibition, it is presented as one now by Pace and Pace/MacGill in conjunction with the Richard Avedon Foundation. The prints are mostly vintage and plentiful background material fills four vitrines.

Baldwin was a teenage friend of Avedon—they went to DeWitt Clinton High School in the South Bronx—and they had often spoken about working together. The book, according to Hilton Als’ essay for a new edition of the book, was Avedon’s idea. Rather than strategize on ways to bring words and images into counterpoint, however, they seem to have allowed each other the freedom to pursue independent lines of thought.

Both men were already celebrities in their respective fields. Baldwin was acclaimed as a novelist when he began to publish personal essays in The New Yorker (first, “Letter from a Region in My Mind” in 1962, and then “Down at the Cross” in 1963) expressing his deep pessimism about the future of integration in the U.S. and his anger at the unwillingness of Americans to own up to the sin of slavery. As Civil Rights moved to the front pages of every newspaper every week, Baldwin was chosen for the cover of Time—the epitome of mainstream prominence in those days.

Avedon was doing less fashion in the early ’60s and taking a walk on the wild side of American life as a portraitist, finding more of his subjects downtown than on the Upper East Side. He was also involving himself in the Civil Rights movement and would later use his photography against the Vietnam War.

As Als writes in his essay for a new edition of the book: “Avedon brings together four important aspects of American life and culture: civil rights, the rise of black nationalism, our mental-health system, and the old Hollywood guard giving way to rock ’n’ roll.”

The book was a disaster—“it was met with scathing criticism from all corners,” as the wall text rightly notes—and quickly went out of print. Two of the people whose opinions Avedon respected most—Alexey Brodovitch and Lincoln Kirstein—hated the selection and sequencing of the photographs. Marvin Israel, who designed the book and was perhaps Avedon’s closest friend, is reported to have privately called it “an ill-considered, highly politicized diatribe…a totally absurd polemic.” Most public and brutal of all was Robert Brustein, who dismissed Avedon-Baldwin as “show-biz moralists” in the New York Review of Books, a new intellectual journal at the time. Despite an eloquent defense of his friends on the letters page by Truman Capote, and a few other less hostile reviews, Avedon was so crushed by the response that he stopped making “serious” photographs for several years.

Brustein was a bizarre choice to review the book—his background is in theater, not in art—and his words were cruelly hurtful. But his judgment wasn’t wrong. The book is a failure. The four parts don’t reinforce each other, they don’t even make chords that can be heard as an original dissonance. Civil Rights marchers risking their lives in the South, aging Hollywood stars, a defeated Presidential candidate, a pilot on the Enola Gay, a former slave, and hospitalized patients with mental disorders don’t have much to say to each other.

The parts don’t make any more sense here on the walls, when detached from the rigid format of the two-page spread. (Four photographs in the book—the politicians Norman Thomas and Adlai Stevenson; the labor leader John L. Lewis; and one of the portraits of George Wallace—are not in the show.) As usual with Avedon, individual prints are arresting: the grainy photo of a man on a beach in Santa Monica holding a baby over his head; Marilyn Monroe looking as low and downcast as her low-cut dress (a photograph that has become an icon); the square jawed and defiant face of sworn segregationist George Wallace; the blurry face of Malcolm X, as if he were arguing or hovering like an angel. (He was assassinated the following year.)

Avedon gives each of these luminaries his or her own gestures and style. The Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell is photographed as if he were a singer or a snake-hipped dancer on stage, his left hand tucked under the elbow of his right arm which is outstretched nonchalantly, a small cigar held between two fingers. His eyes are narrowed, his lips pursed. He could be crooning the emotional refrain of a song or trading ripostes with William F. Buckley, Jr. at a cocktail party. It’s a portrait of a politician as a performer, and a suave one at that.

All of these personalities might be said to belong together in the crazy salad of American life in the early ‘60s.

But then Avedon makes the mistake of thinking he needs to remind us what a soul-scouring photographer he can be—not a social butterfly or slave to fashion—by including a section portraying patients in a mental health hospital. Made in response to his sister’s recent institutionalization for schizophrenia, the series might deliver a powerful impact if published in its own volume. It’s not that Avedon’s images of disordered minds aren’t sincere—although the ghostly grain is too self-consciously arty for my taste—it’s that in the book they are as fenced off and isolated from American life as they were in the hospital. They’re a conscience-stricken afterthought. This installation, where they are all confined to the last room, doesn’t help matters.

The wall text would have us believe that Nothing Personal is “now recognized as a unique and major work in the history of photography” and that “as a record of American culture, its underlying complexities, subtleties, and interwoven themes and messages have only grown more uncanny and relevant over the course of half a century.”

I disagree. In retrospect, the book seems even more out of date now than when it was published. It neither does a credible job recording the many strains that were breaking the U.S. apart in 1964, nor was it prescient. Failing to note the chasm opening up in the country in 1963 with the JFK assassination, Avedon’s photographs don’t in any way anticipate the conspiratorial mind-set, distrust of authority, and paranoia that would dominate the end of the ‘60s.

Take, for instance, music. I’m not sure what Als means when he talks about the “Hollywood old guard giving way to rock ‘n’ roll.” Avedon’s selection of youthful personalities is woefully square and out-of-touch. Nothing Personal was published a year after the release in the U.S. of Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, and the same year as Meet the Beatles, seismic events in popular music. Although Avedon had already photographed Dylan and would later be commissioned to do the Beatles portraits for the so-called White Album, they aren’t here. Nor are there any black musicians.

So whom does Avedon choose to highlight instead?! The Everly Brothers and Fabian—presumably as a satire of white America. But I have to believe that neither Avedon nor Baldwin imagined that rock ‘n’ roll could be an instrument for social or political revolution. A youthquake tsunami with epicenters in New York, London, and L.A. would soon engulf the world, and the book seems clueless that it was heading their way.

The same behind-the-beat tempo applies to sports. There is a close-up of Joe Louis’s fist but no photograph of Cassius Clay who, although not yet Muhammad Ali, was already defining himself in loud opposition to the accommodating image of Louis and other black athletes. It wasn’t as if only Clay/Ali was known only to the boxing cognoscenti. He had won the Gold Medal at the 1960 Olympics and defeated Sonny Liston in Feb. 1964, perhaps the most momentous sports upset of the century.

American fiction writers were reimagining the novel in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. But none of them are portrayed, not Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Kurt Vonnegut, John Rechy, James Jones, or William Styron. Instead, Avedon has portraits of figures who rose to prominence in the ‘20s (Bertrand Russell), ‘30s (Dorothy Parker), and ‘40s (Arthur Miller.)

The Feminine Mystique was published in 1963. Why does the book register not the slightest tremor from the women’s movement? Or the environmental movement of Rachel Carson? Or the new urbanism of Jane Jacobs?

Baldwin’s influence on the selection of photographs may have been more indirect than direct, with Avedon hoping to please his friend. The book was ahead of the times in featuring Malcolm X, who represented a new kind of black leader, cool and hot at once. As a Civil Rights speaker and writer, he was unafraid to challenge the NAACP as well as Jim Crow. But the exclusion of Martin Luther King, Jr. seems unfair, considering what he had just helped accomplish (the Civil Rights Act of 1964). The inclusion here, instead, of his then 5-year old son, Martin Luther King III (his skin in the print bleached almost white) feels like a score-settling insult to MLK Jr. and not a reflection of the dynamic forces at play in 1963-64.

Avedon/Baldwin were up against it in attempting a book that would capture their uneasy times. It was smart of them to leave out images of JFK or his family or the events in Dallas. They probably decided they didn’t need to publish any. By the end of 1964 Americans had been deluged with memorial photographs on TV and in magazines.

The negative reaction to the book, though was justified. Baldwin’s political stance was as clear as his biting words. Avedon’s contribution to their dialogue was more ambiguous. Some of his portrait targets were easy and familiar—the ladies of the DAR and racist Southerners had been caricatured by American artists since Grant Wood—but his attitude toward, say, Marilyn Monroe was harder to read. What’s more, the sequencing throughout the book was so elliptical and everyone so aestheticized that whatever message both men may have tried to signal together—as old friends, one white, one black—was scrambled. The book didn’t reflect its times, except superficially; it wasn’t “relevant,” to use a slur of the ’60s. The Vietnam War was ramping up—the level of U.S. troops rocketed from 23,000 at the end of 1964 to 184,000 at the end of 1965—another shock in the lives of the rock ‘n’ roll generation that the photographs don’t allude to.

Avedon did not have an encompassing view of America—if he left New York City or the East Coast, it was commonly to visit Paris—and when he photographed the inhabitants of states beyond the Mississippi through a social lens, as he did most ambitiously with In the American West, the results seldom added up to anything except a display of his technique. Compare the feeling for the perilous lives of others in Nothing Personal to, say, Danny Lyon’s Message to the Future or Philip Jones Griffiths’ Vietnam Inc. and you see the difference well-meaning confusion and tough-minded empathy.

Don’t believe the revisionists, unnamed here by the gallery. The book was a major stumble for Avedon in 1964 and moves no more gracefully in 2017 as an exhibition. No way was it then, nor is it now, a “major work in the history of photography.”

Collector’s POV: The works in this show range in price from $15000 to $150000. 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. The white glove Avedon sale at Christie’s Paris in 2010 (detailed results here) is probably the best proxy for the current market. In that auction, a print of Dovima with elephants, Evening dress by Dior, Cirque D’Hiver, Paris, August 1955, 1955/1978, set a new auction record for Avedon at €841000 (just over $1100000).

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Read more about: Richard Avedon, Pace Gallery, Taschen

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by MACK Books (here). Hardcover, 17 x 21 cm, 192 pages, with 87 color and black-and-white photographs. Includes texts by the artist and ... Read on.

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