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Diane Arbus Proves That All the Freaky People (Still) Make the Beauty of the World

Diane Arbus: Miss Venice Beach, Cal., 1962. © The Estate of Diane Arbus. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.
Diane Arbus: Miss Venice Beach, Cal., 1962. © The Estate of Diane Arbus. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.

"Diane Arbus: People and Other Singularities" opened last night at Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills, and, whether due to the allure of several photographs that had never been exhibited before, or simply to the return engagement of the enduringly popular New York portraits (the giant, the twins, the goofy patriot, etc.), last shown together in L.A. in 2004, the fine feathered freaks were out in force for the occasion.

There were loads of people who looked for all the world like they just stepped out of an Arbus frame themselves. God bless ladies of a certain age who rock the sequins, Louise Brooks eyeliner and perma-styled wigs. God bless men with long gray ponytails and skinny leather jeans (the gallery did not allow photography of the event).

These and the normals mixed freely throughout the night, and in a refreshing change from common gallery-opening behavior, people were looking at the art even more than at each other, crowding up to it and pushing to get closer. No image was left without an admirer, except perhaps in the upstairs gallery dedicated to the rather difficult photographs taken in 1969-71 at institutions for the developmentally disabled. Though occasionally sweet, and not particularly solemn, these pictures can really clear a room.

Back down in the main space, everyone had a checklist in hand, and there was none of that standing in the middle of the floor idly chatting that typically goes on at art openings. As for the never-before-exhibited pictures, many of those were taken when Arbus left New York City, especially in the early 1960s, on cross-country trips that took her to, among other places, sunny Southern California. The Venice Boardwalk in particular must have been fertile ground for an artist of her sensibility, and it is treated with the same the precociously modern, dark humor as her images of a depopulated Disneyland shrouded in kitsch and shadow, taken around the same time.

Besides the delight taken by locals at seeing ourselves reflected in the lens of this sophisticated and insightful artist, there was plenty for gallery-goers to mull over in trying to figure out when these particular images were printed and by whom. Over the course of the night, a few tentative whispers turned into a chorus of inquiries as to whether or not many of these photos, all of which were listed without either traditional edition run-size numbers or other record-keeping details, were in fact printed by Arbus herself (she died in 1971). Turns out that several of the prints were made quite recently -- from her official negatives and according to her instruction, under the watchful eye of her estate, but still it was noticeable. The finer points of what effect this arrangement might have on the connoisseurship and commercial value of these prints versus those made by the artist's own hand can be argued, but what remains of course, is the work -- which, if the grandes dames in attendance tonight are anything to go by, will only continue to get better with age.

(Note: The gallery will be posting installation shots on their website later this week.)


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