San Francisco

San Francisco

“Diane Arbus: Revelations”

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)
151 Third Street
October 25, 2003–February 8, 2004

What apples were to Cézanne, society’s rejects were to Diane Arbus. For an oeuvre featuring identical New Jersey twins, a Jewish giant in the Bronx, pasty retired nudists, the “developmentally challenged,” and trannies, what most astonishes is that it never seems to exploit its often creepy subjects. The new retrospective of the photographs of Diane Arbus (1923–71) is the first since the Museum of Modern Art’s posthumous full-career survey in 1972. Organized by Elisabeth Sussman (who brought the show to the West Coast after she left the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1998) and Sandra Phillips, SFMoMA’s senior curator of photography, “Diane Arbus: Revelations” presents some two hundred haunting images—many never before shown publicly—in the context of Arbus’s life. Lots of contact sheets, cameras, letters, and notebooks promise to “reveal the artist’s working method” and formation.

If Arbus’s life story were the plot line of a biopic (Hello, Madonna?), one would bristle at all the time-honored Woman Artist clichés: Boho princess escapes privilege (and early marriage to fashion photographer) for self-discovery as an artist by communing with freaks, within a few years produces intense oeuvre, then kills herself. Coming of age on the cusp of Women’s Lib, she survived a cushy Jewish upbringing (educated at Fieldston, she was the daughter of prosperous garmentos at home on Park Avenue and Central Park West). Post-divorce, she found an empowering female mentor (Lisette Model) and blossomed as an artist, cheered on by supportive colleague/lover Marvin Israel.

After collaborating with her husband for years as his “glorified stylist,” Arbus pulled what we now recognize as the classic fashion move of seeking art and “realness” via weirdos. What is today predictably hip was for Arbus new territory: She was magnetized by misfits, as if they could puncture the comfy bubble that sheltered her from authenticity. “Most people go thru life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience,” she wrote. “Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.”

Posterity can thank Arbus’s correspondence for an intimate record of her thoughts during her full flower as an artist. Earnest, poetic, sublimated love letters address Israel as an epistolary mirror of her self-discovery: “You invent what I discover,” writes the photographer to the former Seventeen art director and painter. She comes across as strikingly unsoiled by bad conscience about the oddballs she cultivates intimately, often gaining access to their sordid bedrooms. Sensing the inherent aggression of representing people, she grapples with the eternal conflict between decency and artistic rigor—sort of: “This photographing is really the business of stealing. . . . I feel indebted to everything for having taken it or being about to,” she confesses in a 1960 postcard to Israel.

Her apparently graced life ended luridly. Despite all the personal material brought to bear on her work here, the question remains whether the show will shed new light on Diane Arbus’s puzzling suicide—a story that needs to be told with the same stunning lack of schadenfreude she brought to her photographs.

“Diane Arbus: Revelations” will be on view at SF MoMA, Oct. 25–Feb. 8; travels to Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum Folkwang, Essen; Victoria and Albert Museum, London; and Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.