PRINT December 1984


Diane Arbus: A Biography, Diane Arbus: Magazine Work, Botero, Comme des Garçons Ca-ta-logue, Cindy Sherman and Georgia O'Keeffe

PATRICIA BOSWORTH’S FAILURE TO gain the cooperation of several who knew Diane Arbus especially well, including her two daughters, her ex-but-only husband, and close colleagues such as Richard Avedon and Marvin Israel, has resulted in a very strange and quite memorable biography. Arbus’ brother, the poet Howard Nemerov, and her often-slighted younger sister, did agree to talk. More surprisingly, so did their mother, perhaps because she had so little to say—a poignance, of course, in itself. In absorbing detail we hear about Diane-the-boss’-daughter, Diane-the-student, Diane-my-first-flame, Diane-who-understood-me, Diane-who-ruined-my-marriage, Diane-whom-I-adored, Diane-the-weirdo, and, not to be forgotten, Diane-the-photographer.

A vivid leitmotif runs through this book concerning many people’s strong, initial reactions to the subject. I am reminded here of a letter from Virginia Woolf deploring the writer Katherine Anne Porter’s “civet”-like effect. Bosworth also manages an evocative picture of the haut bourgeois retailing world in Manhattan between the wars, the world of Arbus’ parents. Such wealth of secondary sources and information from left field might not have accumulated had more leading players been willing to speak. However, compensation and even excellent reportage have their limits—evidenced here by weak insights on the question of artistry and its development. Though Bosworth is interesting and convincing when it comes to Arbus’ working habits, her reliance on presumably aged former high school art teachers for esthetic appraisal strikes one as inordinate. When Bosworth starts grabbing at straws, she sometimes comes up with a red herring, for instance that Arbus “loved swimming because it was a mysterious activity and faintly sinister.” Arbus may have killed herself, but unlike Woolf, she didn’t do so by strolling into a river.

Patricia Bosworth, Diane Arbus: A Biography (New York: Knopf), 396 pp., 25 black and white photographs.


PHYSICAL BEAUTY, ENHANCED BY obvious and long-standing wealth, were, perhaps ironically, garlic to this vampire. The unaware and lovely young Mrs. Dagmar Patino (at the opera), the seriously attractive Mr. and Mrs. Howard Oxenburg, the blond and unassailable Mrs. Herbert Von Karajan—all look just fine, a little guarded but fine. There is some erotic discomfort in these portraits, but none of the satire we find in Weegee’s society shots, and none of the magnetic tension we see in her other subjects. Artists—among them James Rosenquist, Frank Stella, Roy Lichtenstein, Agnes Martin—mostly look like variations on the theme of Van Gogh’s clogs. Marcello Mastroianni looks off-balance, and uniquely available. Children, in Sunday Times fashion-supplement finery, all look like the “Bad Seed.” Coretta Scott King looks like a garden-variety holy roller. Gerard Malanga looks like an image on a retablo from a Guatemalan cult, ditto James Brown—but maybe from a Mexican one. Tokyo Rose looks like a senile clothespin. Fat pubescent girls at a reducing camp are photographed en masse, from and at the derrière. Nudists sag and poor people visibly rot. The heartrending cross on Jayne Mansfield’s trussed up chest evidently didn’t double as a weapon. Born “freaks” and other such practiced oddities (including a few intellectuals) don’t fare too badly, considering. This corroborates Arbus’ personal theory about twin and polar “aristocracies.” It is nonetheless vaguely cheering to learn that she was once denied access to a midgets’ convention, whose officials assured her that they had found a “little person” of their own to photograph them.

Many of us are already familiar with Arbus’ eye and have formed our own opinions. But this book of assignments—mercenary jobs for Esquire, New York, Harper’s Bazaar, etc.—offers two jolting reminders. The first has to do with how much bolder magazine editors were up until about twelve years ago, the second with Arbus herself. She was an astonishingly good writer. The flat-out essays she wrote to illustrate her pictures can be comically disingenuous, or sadder than Edgar Lee Masters. This is from her “Notes on the Nudist Camp”:

Sometimes you begin to wonder. There is an empty pop bottle or a rusty bobby pin underfoot, the lake bottom oozes mud in a particularly nasty way, the negroes are not there, most people don’t look so good, some guy asks, “What kind of bees give milk?” and answers, ’boobies,“ the outhouse smells, the woods look mangy. It is as if way back in the Garden of Eden, after the Fall, Adam and Eve had begged the Lord to forgive them; and God, in his boundless exasperation, had said, ”All right, then, STAY Stay in the Garden. Get civilized. Procreate. Muck it up."And they did.

Diane Arbus: Magazine Work, ed. Doon Arbus and Marvin Israel, essay by Thomas W. Southall (New York: Aperture), 176 pp., 141 black and white photographs, 15 illustrations.


BLACK AND BLUE. TOTEMIC FASHION portraits that relay nothing. A mine full of clues that appear to describe the shape of old age, the responsibility of the soldier, the flatness of anonymity, the pleasure of a simple black bag—covering your face. This is the most uningratiating, dramatic, ambitious concept to find its semiotic way into the rag trade. Photographs by Jumonji Bishin; styling by Michiko Kitamura; concept by Rei Kawakubo with Dianne Benson.

Noh theater, Nagasaki, X rays, shadows, are somehow but not explicitly present; as might be Yukio Mishima, as he appeared necklaced by a garden hose in Eikoh Hosoe’s Ordeal by Roses. For those soldiers of fashion still fighting the French and most committed to the idea of dressing as a daunting intellectual enterprise.

Rei Kawakubo with Dianne Benson, Comme Des Garcons Ca-Ta-Logue (Tokyo: Comme des Garcons Co., Ltd.), 16 pp., 16 color plates.


RECENT WORK BY THE WONDERFUL Botero makes for a honey-bunch of a picture book, a Babar and Celeste for adults, wherein one is introduced with Rabelaisian flourish to the not-so-discreet charms of the Colombian bourgeoisie. These warm, bawdy paintings are drenched with experience, sensual detail, and the deep formality of all things Hispanic. Botero lives mostly in Paris now, but is the only living Latin American painter to enjoy a major international reputation. This is reason enough to pay him more mind; he is reason enough to hope for many others. In the meantime we may already have noticed Botero’s expansive influence on these inflationary times. Pierre Restany’s journal-style essay reflects his subject’s worldliness and humanism, as well as his daffy machismo.

Pierre Restany, Botero, trans. John Shepley (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.), 140 pp., 2 black and white illustrations, 64 color plates.


CINDY SHERMAN’S PICTURES (SELF-PORTRAITS, though the artist doesn’t use this term) make public the secrets of many former girls. This methodical book includes 89 chronologically ordered reproductions, a substantial representation of Sherman’s work from 1977 through 1983. What differentiates it from a similar book published in 1982 by the German firm Schirmer/Mosel is Peter Schjeldahl’s generous and blustery introductory essay, and what Schjeldahl refers to as the artist’s recent “costume dramas.” These last images, “staged and stagey,” along with Sherman’s 1982 series of brooding, Old Masterish studies-with-red-bathrobe, are grand. They have the sweep and formality of Victorian photography, especially the portraiture of Julia Margaret Cameron.

Cindy Sherman, introduction by Peter Schjeldahl, afterword by I. Michael Danoff (New York: Pantheon Books), 197 pp., 39 black and white photographs, 50 color photographs.


RESEMBLING MOTHER THERESA, GEORGIA O’Keeffe is photographed reverentially by her old friend, Todd Webb, as she wafts through the New Mexico landscape. But what is she searching for? Perhaps something got between her and her Calvins. Bruce Weber’s recent ad campaign for Klein, in which the designer lounges about O’Keeffe’s house, though far cleverer, must have been inspired by these lugubrious images, mostly from the ’60s. This expensively produced book, printed on beautiful, cool, uncoated stock, is a bore.

Todd Webb, Georgia O’Keeffe: The Artist’s Landscape (Pasadena, Calif.: Twelvetrees Press), 97 pp., 40 black and white photographs.


Lisa Liebmann contributes frequently to Artforum.