Unfinished welcomed visitors to the Met Breuer earlier this year, examining the unintentionally unfinished in visual art – think plague, war, a horrific explosion that renders the artist incapable of completing his painting – alongside the unfinished aesthetic, concepts of perpetual decline and growth (see: Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled [Portrait of Ross in L.A]), the infinite, and the ever-changing. The show spans the Western canon, periods, and movements in a tour-de-force show that almost leaves the viewer with vertigo from the sheer ambition and scope of the project. Now, one of the most anticipated exhibitions of the season is upon us, here to educate the public on one of New York City’s most monumental photographers.
Born Diane Nemerov to a wealthy Jewish couple, David Nemerov and Gertrude Russek Nemerov, who owned famed Fifth Avenue-based Russek’s, Diane Arbus received her first camera at the age of 18 and started her career by creating advertisements for her parents’ department store. Following World War II, she and her husband, Allan Arbus, began working for high-profile publications such as Glamour, Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, though ‘they both hated the fashion world.’ This revulsion is perhaps best demonstrated by the fact that Arbus is highly acclaimed for her work with the city’s marginalized, rather than the conventionally beautiful. And yet, despite her subsequent stature and legacy in the art world, not much is known about Arbus’ beginnings as a photographer of both the ordinary and the surreal. At least, not until the Met Breuer’s current exhibition.
In 1956, Arbus labeled a roll of 35mm film #1, which marked the point of departure for diane arbus: in the beginning. The seven-year period of 1956 through 1962, the exhibit’s focus, was perhaps one of Arbus’ most productive – she created nearly half of her work during this phase, primarily with a 35mm camera. This demonstrated an early interest in the motifs that would later become her signature. Featuring over 100 photographs, more than half of which have never been exhibited or published, diane arbus offers an unprecedented look into the genesis of one of the 20th century’s most iconic photographers.
‘The Backwards Man in his hotel room.’ ‘Kid in a hooded jacket aiming a gun.’ ‘Lady on a bus.’ ‘Female impersonator holding long gloves.’ These are the titles of some of the works on display. Next to the labels, we see, respectively, an ostensibly ordinary man in a dim hotel room, yet his torso faces one way and his feet the other. We learn that he is a contortionist upon reading the panel. A child pointing a gun at the camera; a stern-looking woman in a fur coat gazing directly at the viewer; a bare-chested man in full makeup. This combination of such extremes – the ordinary and the freakish, the aged and the innocent, the mundane and the verging on the surreal – speaks to the potency of Arbus’ work; hers was a talent that could find the humanity in the bizarre, the quiet beauty in the commonplace. To encounter a photograph by Diane Arbus is to encounter a moment of introspection, a glimpse of the self.
But more than anything, Arbus was an expert in the art of separation, in more ways than one. The blatant stares of her subjects, their bodies angled towards the camera lens, suggest a directness to Arbus’ work that was unusual for the time; during a period in which her peers and instructors alike sought the candid, the swarming and overwhelming, Arbus focused on the individual, isolating him or her from the hordes and throngs of New Yorkers, the anonymity of metropolis. Her subject matter, as well, often dealt with the idea of not belonging (or, in stark contrast, belonging entirely too much): transgender people, dwarfs, giants and circus performers were amongst her favorite models.
‘The camera is cruel,’ Arbus once said, ‘so I try to be as good as I can to make things even.’
diane arbus: in the beginning will be on view until November 27, 2016. Unfinished is on view until September 4, 2016.
The Met Breuer, 945 Madison Avenue, New York, NY, USA +1 212 731 1675