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Making Believe for Real 

The Revelations of Diane Arbus

Thursday, Feb 26 2004

What can you do? People like to look at pictures of people doing stuff. It’s one of the few incontrovertible laws of aesthetics. But with the advent of Modern Art, everything had to be all abstract, and for a while the people weren’t getting what they wanted. Even in photography, where you’d think it would be okay to have a person or two, you had to be all “Wow, dig the geometry of these receding telephone poles” or something. But when the taboo finally broke, it broke first for photographers. Painters had to make too much of an effort in order to produce convincing illusions, plus they were saddled with all that history. Photography didn’t have to bear the hubris of producing representational imagery — it was built in, mechanical. And by the 1960s,

when Diane Arbus began publishing her full-frontal portraits of American quirkiness in Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar, photography had accumulated just enough of its own history to blow off the stately decorum of high modernism and do things its own way.

Arbus, A Young Man in Curlers at Home on West 20th Street, N.Y.C. 1966 (LACMA)

Arbus, whose massive retrospective, “Revelations,” opens at the L.A. County Museum of Art this weekend, showed people doing stuff like never before, with an eye informed by the technical virtuosity demanded by the fashion and magazine industries, intimate familiarity with the avant-garde fine arts, and a passionate social and spiritual vision embedded beneath a veneer of cool, clinical detachment. This combination of sociological curiosity and creative license allowed her entrée to a dizzying array of subcultures, ranging from the über-innocuous (Santa Claus schools and ballroom dance competitions) to her better-known explorations of the seamy underworlds of female impersonators, nudist communities and carnival freaks — the whole spectrum of people she once referred to as “making believe for real.” Her work was immensely influential to subsequent generations of photographers (as well as lending retroactive credibility to tabloid master Weegee), and her impact on popular culture runs the gamut from several entire eras of advertising photography to Stanley Kubrick’s homage to her famously creepy Identical Twins, Roselle, N.J. 1967 in his movie The Shining.

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Still, the art world has dragged its collective feet in awarding Arbus a place in the canon — in parts due to the prejudice against unalloyed portraiture, her roots in the fashion industry, and her popularity. After Arbus did herself in with the razorblades-and-barbiturates-in-the-bathtub number in 1971, and MoMA posthumously gave her her first (and until now, only) major museum retrospective, and Aperture published an enormously successful monograph of her work, she became an icon to just about every liberal-arts college student in the free world. Can’t get enough of that ever popular tortured-artist effect, or midgets for that matter. It hasn’t helped that previous revelations, most notably in the form of Patricia Bosworth’s semi-lurid 1984 biography (which speculated on the artist’s sexual escapades with her subjects and documentation of her own suicide with a time-delay shutter), did more to reinforce Arbus’ “decadent voyeuristic” sound-bite persona than to delve more deeply into her work or consider it apart from its frisson of glam martyrdom.

Arbus, A Child Crying, N.J. 1967 (LACMA)

Arbus’ daughter Doon has understandably kept strict control over her mother’s legacy, and “Revelations” is clearly a presentation that has been meticulously crafted to address these misconceptions and establish Arbus as an Important Artist once and for all. Designed as both a comprehensive survey of her work and as a detailed exegesis of Arbus’ careening biography, “Revelations” — which originated in a highly successful run at SFMOMA under the aegis of Sandra Philips and guest curator Elisabeth Sussman — is certainly more material than can be taken in during a single viewing. Even those familiar with her work will find amazing images they’d never suspected, and the wealth of ephemera — letters, journals, contact sheets, newspaper clippings, bulletin boards, even the appointment book with pages mysteriously torn out the day of her suicide — combines to create the most complex and compelling portrait of bipolar creative genius I’ve ever encountered.

Arbus fits the diagnostic criteria for a manic-depressive artist to a tee: churning, visionary invention and an unquenchable appetite for new faces and experiences, followed by bouts of crippling despair, self-doubt and withdrawal. Yup. The amazing thing about manic-depressives is their incredible ability to bend reality by sheer force of will; and the feeling I get from “Revelations” is one of almost messianic inclusiveness — Arbus seemed to believe that her photography could transform the world. Those familiar only with her investigations into the more disparaged cultural boondocks can be expected to suspect her of exploitative motives. But the breadth of subjects — from celebrities to street people — each regarded with the same intensity, dignity, engagement and respect, suggests that Arbus saw everyone as equally eccentric, equally peripheral to the vacancy at society’s center.

Arbus, 42nd Street Movie Theater Audience, N.Y.C. 1958 (LACMA)

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