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Making Believe for Real

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.

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)

In Arbus’ world, “normal” is an obsolete fiction, and a gaggle of retarded folk in Halloween costumes or a shaving-impaired transvestite is as radiantly human as a beautiful girl-child selling plastic orchids on the street, or a stately Jorge Luis Borges leaning on his cane in Central Park. Perhaps the most arresting example of this radically comprehensive vision is an early contact sheet from 1959 which alternates backstage shots of female impersonators with grisly autopsy photos: superficially a pair of freakish spectacles, but on a deeper level symbolic of the extremes of human imagination and creativity — expressed in the always difficult medium of flesh.

Another contact sheet points up the deliberateness of her editorial agenda. Child with toy hand grenade in Central Park NYC 1962 is another of her most famous images. While most of the other frames on the sheet show a typically jaunty 7-year-old voguing for the camera lady, the familiar corner shot, appearing to seethe with all the repressed anxiety of the Cuban Missile Crisis era and beyond, underscores Arbus’ instinct to excavate theatrical and mythic significance out of seemingly arbitrary encounters. The subjects Arbus chose to photograph, and the photographs she chose to print, are in some sense fragments of a prescribed story, illustrations of a dark but essentially utopian narrative, testified to by the voluminous rationalizations the artist left behind in her letters, diaries, notebooks and essays. It’s as if Arbus’ imagination and intellect were so busy and anxious to contain everything that she was never able to transcend them in order to experience the photography of engagement she seemed to yearn for so desperately. It’s an underlying note of frustration that permeates her photographs and writing, lending coherence to her oeuvre but stopping short of fixing the world.

Arbus, Fire Eater at a Carnival, Palisades Park, N.J. 1956 (LACMA)

Fans of Arbus’ work will have their conception of her range expanded and fleshed out, and I can only imagine the impact on a first-time viewer. “Revelatory” wouldn’t be inappropriate. The photos alone are enough to knock socks off, and the ephemera — installed in dim, museological splendor — is nearly overwhelming.

 

Revelations” is an exhibition of great historical import, and everybody knows it. Every art venue in Los Angeles seems to be jostling to associate itself with the big show. No less than 40 exhibitions of photography are set to compete with or expand upon the Arbus “Revelations,” including shows by Henry Horenstein at Paul Kopeikin, Annie Leibovitz at the Pacific Design Center, Robert Mapplethorpe curated by Catherine Opie at Marc Selwyn, Helmut Newton at Gagosian Gallery, Peter Beard at Fahey/Klein, Patrick McMullan at Earl McGrath Gallery, Paul Graham at Karyn Lovegrove, Keith Boadwee at Peres Projects, Hirsch Perlman at Blum & Poe, Jack Butler, Eileen Cowin and Grant Mudford at USC Fisher Gallery, Beat Streuli at LACE, Glen E. Friedman at Sixspace, and so on. And that’s just the galleries! Santa Monica Auctions has scheduled a special photo-themed sale this Saturday, Feb. 28, at 6 p.m. The Getty already has a show up of recent acquisitions by Eugène Atget, Brett Weston, William Garnett and Milton Rogovin, and on March 16 will open “Photographers of Genius at the Getty,” culling 38 photographers from its voluminous archives (including Arbus, August Sander and Weegee) in celebration of the photo collection’s 20th anniversary. The Long Beach Museum of Art is hosting a traveling Smithsonian exhibit entitled Women of Our Time featuring photographic portraits of notable women from the 20th century, ranging from Helen Keller to Janis Joplin and including such renowned photographers as Richard Avedon and Irving Penn.

Arbus, Two Girls in Matching Bathing Suits, Coney Island, N.Y. 1967 (MOCA)

But the two most intriguing Arbus spinoff shows are the most directly related and the most antithetical, respectively. “Street Credibility” at MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary is a complex thematic extrapolation of Arbus, her influences and her contemporaries guest-curated by Mike Kelley, while the Hammer’s “The Last Picture Show: Artists Using Photography, 1960–1982” covers a divergent stream of photographic practice, one largely concerned with photography as a tool to document ephemeral actions or conceptual gestures. As its rather imperious subtitle suggests, many of the artists included disdained the preoccupations of Arbus and other photographers using photography — namely, formal concerns of composition and timing, and a theatrical and journalistic engagement with the world.

This practice of defining art by what it is not isn’t as dry as it might sound, although about a third of the artists in “The Last Picture Show” definitely should have laid off the always inauspicious coupling of the Phenomenology 101 reading list and the bong. The rest of the show breaks about evenly between the funny (Fischli & Weiss’ LOL 1979 “Sausage Series”) and the can’t-make-boring-ugly-art-even-by-trying (Bernd and Hilla Becher’s deadpan industrial architectural grids, or Sarah Charlesworth’s April 21, 1978 comparing allocation of newspaper space to the kidnapping of Italian politician Aldo Moro). There’s some great art here, too: an original copy of the fake newspaper published by Yves Klein which first disseminated his signature Leap Into the Void performance/photograph of 1960, Ed Ruscha’s Every Building on Sunset Strip and Various Small Fires books, and Giovanni Anselmo’s Entering the Work, which stood out in MOCA’s “Zero to Infinity: Arte Povera 1962–1972” just 17 months ago. Nonetheless, the curatorial premise of “The Last Picture Show,” which originated at the Walker Center in Minneapolis, is vague and unconvincing. There’s plenty to look at and think about, but the suggestion that such work was part of a Zeitgeist that culminated in the ho-hum ’80s appropriations of Richard Prince, Sherrie Levine and Barbara Kruger is insulting to both artists and audience.

Theo Ehret, Unknown Wresterrs, 1970 (MOCA)

Mike Kelley’s “Street Credibility” at MOCA is more precisely curated. The show arranges more than 200 photos by Arbus, Larry Clark, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander and other like-minded “post-documentary” photographers (including “apartment” wrestling photographer Theo Ehret, subject of Kelley and Cameron Jamie’s ridiculously monumental Taschen book Exquisite Mayhem) into a series of overlapping thematic sequences. In falling short of transcending Otherness in the world, Arbus left behind a daunting catalog of sociopolitical observations dealing largely with power relationships between her subjects, and between her subjects and herself. This complex network of imbalances can be traced through the locked, shifting, veiled or averted gazes of the people in her pictures, and Kelley uses these visual signals to map out 17 distinct motifs in Arbus’ work and the work of her forebears, contemporaries and successors.

Kelley groups together surprisingly similar works by different artists, using such associational connections as mirrors, television sets, transvestism and exaggerated gender signals, “candid” photos at social events, living spaces, displays of possessions, nudity, unwilling subjects and so on. The result, abetted by the uniformity of the scale and presentation of the black-and-white photos, is an unusually coherent group show that flows with the compelling nonlinear narrative of experimental found-film makers like Bruce Conner or Arthur Lipsett. Additionally, it serves as a crash course in how to look at these kinds of photographs, and as such might be a better place to start than the Revelations exhibit itself.

Danny Lyon, Sparky and Cowboy (Gary Rogues), Schererville, Indiana, 1960 (MOCA)

Diane Arbus’ legacy is immense and far more art-historically significant than her popular image suggests. Most of the conceptual concerns addressed in the works in “The Last Picture Show” can be found in a more formally generous and humanistic package in her work, and many of those issues are unraveled over the course of “Street Credibility.” Ultimately, though, the factor that causes all these concurrent L.A. exhibitions to refer back to Arbus’ Revelations, whether they want to or not, is the visionary intensity and imagination manifested in her work and writings. Not only did Arbus stretch the parameters of acceptable subject matter in photography, she changed how other photographers thought about their art, and how all of us look at the world — and particularly at one another. Even if she couldn’t single-handedly overcome the postwar alienation of America, she was able to infect whole generations with the germ of her vision. It’s a kind of pathology we could use more of.

Hannah Wilkie, S.O.S. Starification Object Series, 1974–1982 (Hammer)

Eugène Atget, The Tavern the Lapin, Rue des Saules, 1926 (Getty)

Charles Ray, Plank Piece I, 1973 (Hammer)

DIANE ARBUS REVELATIONS | Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles | Through May 31

STREET CREDIBILITY | MOCA at the Geffen Contemporary, 152 N. Central Ave., downtown | Through June 7

THE LAST PICTURE SHOW: ARTISTS USING PHOTOGRAPHY, 1960–1982 | UCLA Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood | Through May 9

See Calendar listings for other shows mentioned.