New York

Duane Michals

School Of Visual Arts

Duane Michals’ photographs demythologize on a double front. First, with their ghostly presences, they undercut the medium’s claim to an objective recording of an external appearance. Next, by making the technical origin of those presences so clear (double exposure, camera motion, superimposition of negatives) they call into question the traditional notions of appearance in the spirit world: surely, he implies, if ghosts are just blurry humans then ghosts as we conceive of them can finally be said not to exist. His conclusions in both cases may not be final, but they do leave his images suspended between two forms of disbelief. Michals creates a Conceptual vacuum. The interest of his work is in his manner of filling it, that is, in the nature of the imagery to which he turns when large questions of spiritual and empirical reality have been solved or at least put to one side. He presents familiar, fashionable personages (Jeanne Moreau, David Hemmings, Christopher Isherwood) and an elegant “world-weary” view of life that show a stylistic rapport with these famous names. In Violent Act (1966), a series of four photographs, the “ghosts” are two naked men blurred by the impact of a physical attack. Another series, The Bogeyman (1972), shows a spooky overcoated figure abducting a little girl. The implied sexual assault is clarified (though not made explicit) in other images of exhausted but beautiful nude women. A notable aspect of Michals’ use of serialized narrative is the dependence of the single image on the preceding frames. Without this dependency the image seems merely fanciful but in the sequential context it takes on logical definition.

The Spiritual Portrait of Christopher Isherwood shows his head surrounded by a bleached-out area which stands for a halo, an ironic tribute to the subject’s personal eminence and to the persistence of spiritualizing clichés in defiance of such obvious worldliness as Isherwood’s. In Michals’ art the spiritual world and the world of advanced photographic technology—Magritte’s world in fact—are made to provide the decorative trimmings for an urbanity whose standards of sex, violence, and personal fame are, he suggests, fundamental to everything else.

Carter Ratcliff