The photographer Diane Arbus (1923-1971), on the evidence of Revelations, a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was incapable of taking a bad picture. Each and every photograph on display is, in its own way, riveting and, for that matter, definitive.
Arbus’ photos of drag queens, Jewish giants, James Brown and acne-scarred patriots are the stuff of legend-a fact fostered, in part, by her suicide in 1971. The work has become startlingly ubiquitous. (As someone who doesn’t consider himself an Arbus aficionado, I was surprised by how many of the photographs I was familiar with.) The mere mention of her name instantly brings to mind images that are clinical, unseemly and grotesque. Arbus’ fascination with the marginal and the dispossessed, with artifice, ethnicity and sex, is part of our culture’s common currency.
Unlike August Sander or Walker Evans, two photographers without whom Arbus’ work is inconceivable, she is an identifiable type, a personality. The work, though distant, is aggressively individual. Arbus employed her subjects-however various, bizarre or banal-as a mirror to the self; she was, essentially, an expressionist. All the same, there are fine gradations to the art. A pair of photographs at the Met stand out as examples of everything that makes her a significant figure and everything that makes her a troubling artist. You can trace the sad and subtle arc of Arbus’ career from A Castle in Disneyland, Cal. 1962 to an untitled picture from 1970-71 of a woman from a “retarded school” with an attendant.
Disneyland is a richly atmospheric picture. Arbus’ Disneyland is toy-like and rickety, a doll’s home, not a place for human beings. The quality of displacement is emphasized by diffuse, theatrical lighting-it’s as artificial as the title subject. Rather than commenting upon Disneyland’s cheesy allure, Arbus divines within it wisps of not unwelcome emotions. The photo has the temerity to suggest that illusions can embody longings that all of us-each of us-require to get by. Disneyland, though equivocal, is an unexpectedly merciful image.
And so it is with Arbus’ early photographs devoted to burlesque comediennes, persons of indeterminate gender, human pincushions and four Santas from Albion, N.Y. In each of them, Arbus acts as an enlightened voyeur and is dispassionate in her curiosity. In the process, she engenders within the viewer acceptance, if not outright sympathy, for what are often literally freakish personages.
Almostimperceptibly, however, a sharper tone enters the work. Arbus’ photographs become willful in their focus on the extremities of type and behavior. We become conscious that her subjects are less persons to be engaged than objects for exploitation. Who is looking through the camera lens is more important than the “who” being photographed. In the process of making herself the center of attention, Arbus purges her models of individuality. They are pegs upon which to hang the prerequisites of obsession. It’s no wonder the catalog superimposes an Arbus self-portrait over a scene of New York City-the artist, not the art, is predominant.
The aforementioned photograph from 1970-71 is an example of this disconcerting phenomenon. The alarm we read in the face of the older woman as she walks with her disabled companionisheartbreaking.Open-mouthed, she jerks her head upward, rendering it a blur. Her ward looks toward Arbus (and, by fiat, us), distracted. The photographer, we realize, has violated their privacy-and, worse, their humanity. The photograph is excruciating to behold.
At some point in Arbus’ development-it’s hard to tell when, given the Met’s nonchronological installation-this dull strain of cruelty takes over and, in the end, overwhelms the work. The curators know this: That’s why the walls and lighting in the final gallery are brighter-some measure of uplift is necessary. It doesn’t work. Arbus, having come to the conclusion that life is cheap, cheapens us in the process. Walking into Revelations, you’re likely to think her status as a major artist is deserved. Walking out, you’ll despair that Arbus, whether through artistic choice or psychological need, had so thoroughly misapplied her gift.
Diane Arbus: Revelations is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street, until May 30.
I’m going to make a prediction: 10 years from now, the artist Tim Hawkinson will install a public work of art in Central Park. It will encompass the entirety of the grounds, from 59th to 110th streets. It will compel a vast amount of tourists to visit our fair city. It will garner glory for the politician who seeks to sponsor the event. It will provide a ray of saffron-I’m sorry, light-to a dreary winter season.
Sound farfetched? Given the doodads, gewgaws and thingamajigs whirring, spinning and oozing at the Whitney Museum of American Art, you might think so. Mr. Hawkinson’s stock-in-trade is compulsive excess. He’s made an elephant skin from tinfoil, a fleshy self-portrait from a latex balloon and a saint from a worn rubber tire. He makes labyrinthine drawings of intestines that chart (or so we’re told) “the rise and fall of world powers, kingdoms, dynasties and empires.” Death is a recurring theme; bodily decay its attendant leitmotif. Mr. Hawkinson’s art is over-the-top and morbid, hermetic and antiseptic. It’ll never play to a broad audience.
Right. The fact is that Mr. Hawkinson is currently playing to a very broad audience. The day I attended the exhibition, the crowd at the Whitney was filled with all sorts of New Yorkers-all generations, too. Grandparents, taking their grandchildren by the hand, oohed and aahed over Pentecost (1999), a monumental installation composed of a huge ersatz tree, the rat-a-tat-tat of mechanical drumming and multiple, life-size figures crafted from polyurethane foam. Mr. Hawkinson’s work can be icky, true, but it’s icky in a lighthearted and jokey way-like plastic doggy-doo, only with a bigger budget and an extension cord. Duchamp Mark XVII, it turns out, is suitable as family fare.
It’s worth remembering that Christo, pre–Jean-Claude, was Duchamp Mark III or IV. Wrapping an object in cloth and obscuring its identity, engaging in a willfully perverse game of hide-and-seek-that was his initial M.O. It was a small idea that has, over the years, been amplified to elephantine proportions. What is Mr. Hawkinson’s small idea? Amplifying his own cunning.
An ingenious technician with a sense of humor-be grateful for that, at least-Mr. Hawkinson creates diversions incapable of delivering the big themes they advertise. Stimulating in the short term, the things ultimately don’t register as anything. Mr. Hawkinson is nothing less than clever, but cleverness can only take you so far in art. In spectacle, as we have seen with The Gates, it can take you all the way. Before Mr. Hawkinson festoons Central Park with God knows what, visit the Whitney for an afternoon’s amusement. Then ask yourself when we, as a society, started asking for so little from art.
Tim Hawkinson is at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street, until May 29.
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