Fame is hell.
In the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition entitled Fame After Photography , there wasn’t even enough room to accommodate the life-size cutout of Mike Myers as Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me that stands in the office of the show’s co-curators, Carole Kismaric and Marvin Heiferman.
“That’s just our mascot. It’s not going in the show,” said Mr. Heiferman on June 24. You have to draw the line somewhere when you’re dealing with a topic as large as fame.
Following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, the pair, partners in Lookout, a firm that organizes museum shows and publishes books on pop culture, art and photography, was hired by Museum of Modern Art’s photography curator, Peter Galassi, to accumulate hundreds of images for an exhibition about the modern fascination with photographs of the famous. Since December, they have been sequestered in a tiny office in a brownstone on West 53rd Street, without phone or fax, poring over piles of pictures. The show, entitled Fame After Photography , opens on July 8.
The exhibition is concerned with, but not condemning of, our celebrity-obsessed culture. ”We live in a world in which there is so much need for photographic imagery. Fame is how you communicate what you would like people to think is going on,” said Mr. Heiferman. “When fame gets out of control, when pictures get out of control, then fame is threatened, basically.”
Fame as merchandise seems to be one of the show’s guiding principles; there are photographic images from practically every medium that has been used to sell something. The curators assert that fame needs new images every day to keep it going, feeding on itself in often self-destructive ways, as the world saw in the ghoulish documentation of the tragic death of the Princess of Wales. They try to show how fame was changed by the invention of photography.
“We wanted to show who becomes famous and how they get famous,” said Mr. Heiferman.
There’s a peek at how fame was addressed prior to the invention of photography with some early images of George Washington and a small mounted photograph, known as a carte de visite, of Alexandra, an earlier Princess of Wales, that sold more than 300,000 copies in the mid-19th century. The show also includes celebrities whose fame did not outlive them, such as Mary Anderson, the most photographed person in the world in 1882.
Ms. Kismaric and Mr. Heiferman are both especially fond of Hollywood ephemera. They pointed excitedly to a “light box” by Bernard of Hollywood of Lili St. Cyr, a stripper famous for taking a milk bath at Ciro’s nightclub. “She would emerge from the bath to reveal that she was completely naked,” Mr. Heiferman said.
Other sources are Life , Vogue and the original Vanity Fair . One ad from Vogue shows Eleanor Roosevelt selling a mattress. “It was common for women of her class to endorse products and give the money to a charity,” said Ms. Kismaric.
The ephemeral nature of fame made it hard for the pair to find some of the show’s images. “It was really difficult to find the old tabloids,” she said, pointing triumphantly to a wall of vintage tabloids with screaming headlines alerting people to such important news as “Rhinelander Weds Negress.” A poster of Mark Spitz in his American flag swimming trunks with gold medals draped around his neck, which is today a collector’s item, was especially hard to locate.
The show’s power is derived from its accumulation of disparate imagery. There are early movies of Annie Oakley shooting at targets, Charles Lindberg receiving a hero’s welcome. There are also clips from Andy Warhol’s screen tests of Lou Reed, Edie Sedgwick and Susan Sontag. Mr. Reed and Sedgwick are deadpan but Ms. Sontag hams it up for the camera.
There is a television clip of Dinah Shore singing the Chevrolet theme song, Edward R. Murrow in a Person to Person interview with singer Julie London in which she reveals sadly, “I am not a really good singer. We spend more time at the record company worrying about the pictures on my album cover than I do about recording the record.”
A fame-meets-fame shot from I Love Lucy shows Lucille Ball going to Hollywood and finding William Holden at the Brown Derby. Nearby, a clip from Wayne’s World is playing: In a dream sequence, Garth and Wayne go to Madonna’s bedroom and Wayne makes out with her. There are clips of Martha Mitchell, wife of then-U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell, pointing the finger at everybody during the Watergate hearings and of Charles Van Doren being questioned about the quiz show scandal.
Also, there is a clip from the TV show Queen for a Day , in which an ordinary person went on TV, was crowned and awarded a lot of appliances.
The final part of the exhibit is subtitled “Fame for Everyone.” There are shots of Tinseltown Studios, a theme restaurant in Anaheim where you dress up like a movie star. There are examples of people who make themselves famous on the Web. Besides Warhol, there are examples of the work of current artists who are “responding to the environment of fame,” as Mr. Heiferman puts it: Richard Prince, David Robbins, Larry Johnson, Cindy Sherman, Karen Kilimnick, and Yasumasa Morimura, a Japanese artist who dresses up as Marilyn Monroe.
Notwithstanding the death of Diana, which was the catalyst for the exhibition, the question that emerges from all of this flotsam is, How can you argue with fame?
“There is a deep psychological need for fame,” said Ms. Kismaris. “As well as it being a social commodity.”
Faith Ringgold Is a Rolls-Royce
On June 21, at a reception at Matthew Marks Gallery in Chelsea, artist Faith Ringgold received a Making a Difference Through the Arts award from City Arts, a nonprofit program that brings art into neglected areas of New York.
“A few years ago, I thought maybe I could buy a work by Faith Ringgold,” said Mary Schmidt Campbell, dean of the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University and a friend of Ms. Ringgold’s, who delivered the award. “I was going to buy a car and the kind of car I was thinking of was a Jeep Cherokee. So I went to the ACA Gallery on East 57th Street and I said, show me something in the category of a Jeep Cherokee. The gallery’s director made it very clear to me that this lady’s art was in the category of a Rolls-Royce. So I did not leave the showroom that day with a new model.”
Ms. Ringgold, who is best known for her quilts that treat African-American subjects, laughed heartily.