Through A Lens, Oddly Exhibition

| 25 Jul 2016 | 02:19

“I hate the idea of composition. I don’t know what good composition is,” Diane Arbus once said. That certainly doesn’t come through in “Diane Arbus – In the Beginning” which just opened at the Met Breuer. She also said that she was drawn to the unusual, to the mysterious in life. That does come through.

Over 100 photographs are included in the exhibition curated by Jeff L. Rosenheim showcasing the woman Thomas Campbell, director of the Met called, “one of the most provocative artists of the 20th century.” About two-thirds of the works have never before been exhibited or published, and the exhibition also includes a small number of works by contemporaries and the full set of “A Box of Ten Photographs,” some of her most famous shots.

A chance to learn more about a major artist is always welcome, and a trove of boxes stored in her Greenwich Village basement, unopened till more than a decade after Arbus’ death, gives us just this opportunity. Her daughters, Doon and Amy Arbus, gifted the work to the Met, and the museum chose to focus on the iconic photographer as part of the inaugural season of the new Met Breuer.

The installation is inspired. A phalanx of staggered strips of wall, each holding a single image on each side, allows a sweeping view from a few feet back, but a decidedly personal experience up close. What we encounter is an idiosyncratic vision and a unique way of laying bare the world as Arbus saw it.

The New York native was the daughter of a well-to-do department store owner. When she married in her teens, her husband gave her a camera, and together they embarked on a career doing fashion shoots. After years of unsatisfying success, Arbus left the studio and took to the streets. She returned with a roll of negatives marked #1. It was the beginning of her life as an artist.

The exhibition presents work from the first seven years of post-commercial work, 1956-1962. In them we find an eye drawn to the unusual. It’s all her own, but encouraged by her mentor. “It was my teacher, Lisette Model, who finally made it clear to me that the more specific you are, the more general it’ll be,” she said. Arbus depicted a wide swath of humanity with startling specificity. Drag queens putting on makeup, socialites behind furs, angry school kids, circus performers and dwarfs, arguing couples, teenagers, suburban families, nudists at camps, wrestlers and Cha-Cha dancers - bedazzled or bedraggled, they were lionized by her camera.

It’s no surprise her breakout show at MoMA in 1967 was a hit and made her an instant star. Beyond provocation, her photographs are poetic, elegant, and surprisingly formal. A circus clown leans against a dark wall, bathed in light from and unseen source at the top left. His face both emerges from and recedes into the black background, the white of his shirt and makeup defining him. He’s carefully posed, captured in a frozen moment. But for the pancake makeup, it recalls Vermeer’s Milkmaid or a Rembrandt self-portrait. Photographs of triplets and twins deal with the same idea of multiples Degas employed years earlier in his monotypes and Warhol explored later in his screenprints. The difference was she pictured multiple copies of an individual rather than an individual multiple times.

Unlike other photographers who shielded themselves with the camera, shot from distances, or hid the camera completely, Arbus faced her subjects head on. She engaged with them, and they in turn engage with the viewer, and that’s part of her brilliance: coaxing her subjects to reveal themselves. We see people in unguarded moments. A remarkable gaze meets the camera in a little girl crossing the street. It’s a symphony of balance. She exists between black and white; neither darkness nor light engulfs her. She stands at the edge, but as she does, she glances with suspicion. To see such wariness from one supposed to be the embodiment of innocence is startling.

Both revered and reviled, Arbus’ work has always been a lightning rod for strong opinions. When I first discovered her work, decades ago, it was compelling because of its shock value. Now, I find it compelling for just the opposite reason. A tattooed man? How ordinary. The human pincushion? The kid next door might have more piercings. A transvestite putting on makeup looks like anyone else putting on makeup. A boy with a toy hand grenade making faces? What’s surprising in that? Arbus’ carefully collected, curated oddities seem more ordinary today, more human. They’re just people being themselves.

Perhaps beyond her imagery, this is the greatest work Arbus left behind. Forcing us to look at oddities and putting them on the display on the vaunted walls of museums changed the way we see the unusual, the unapologetically non-conforming. Our responses to Arbus’ images are an indication that we’ve changed.

Arbus, herself, may have been caught between worlds, not outside enough to live comfortably on the fringe, and certainly not conforming enough to fit in the society in which she was born. She committed suicide at age 48.