Critics’ Picks

Duane Michals, The Illuminated Man, 1968, gelatin silver print, 20 x 24".

Duane Michals, The Illuminated Man, 1968, gelatin silver print, 20 x 24".

New York

Duane Michals

The Morgan Library & Museum
225 Madison Avenue
October 25, 2019–February 2, 2020

Duane Michals is a drama queen. Best known for black-and-white photographs featuring hand-scrawled marginalia, Michals’s fantastical images—staged, unabashedly gay, and frequently revealing of the mechanisms involved in their creation—eschew photographic veracity in favor of folly. And now, in what feels tantamount to a last act for the eighty-seven-year-old, Michals plays curator for a retrospective exhibiting his own work alongside items the artist has chosen from the Morgan’s permanent collection, in what is nothing short of a grand epilogue.

“Illusions of the Photographer” spans six decades of the artist’s work and is divided into ten categories—among them, “Nature,” “Time,” and “Immortality.” Michals, ever the stage director, heralds each change in theme with varying wall colors. Included in the “Love and Desire” section is Michals’s Chance Meeting, 1970, a grid of six photographs that reenact a scene of back-alley cruising. Hanging nearby is Charles Demuth’s Study for Two Acrobats, 1918, a pencil sketch depicting two male performers passing one another as they glide through the air. Taken together, the works—of bodies propelled by gravity and desire—offer a wry meditation on homosocial interactions. Elsewhere, Michals’s The Illuminated Man, 1968, an intentionally overexposed portrait that transforms the subject’s head into a radiating orb of light, is shown alongside theatrical set designer Eugene Berman’s Curtain Design, Bearded Man, 1945, a gouache study of a man’s head whose features are hidden by an abundance of hair, à la Cousin Itt. The pairing, in Michals’s “Illusion” section, brings to mind Schopenhauer’s quip: “No one reveals himself as he is; we all wear a mask and play a role.”

Taking his cues from the greatest tragedians, the artist ends the exhibition with “Death.” Self-Portrait Asleep in a Tomb of Mereruka Sakkara, 1978, depicts the somnolent Michals inside the fabled Egyptian tomb, surrounded by ancient murals dedicated to the vizier of King Teti. Monumentality and pageantry, central to Egyptian funerary practices, seem to suit the artist’s eye for theatrics and, ultimately, make for the perfect exit.