New York

Richard Avedon

Marlborough | Midtown

Though photography shows have been turning up quite often recently, they rarely attract large-scale public attention; their intimate ambience is not conducive to crowds, and they maintain, for the most part, a low profile. Richard Avedon, known to the fashion world through his work for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, assaulted this conventional diffidence when he crashed the gates of the art scene with a retrospective of portraits inaugurating Marlborough’s venture into photography. And quite a crash it was.

The installation alone was enough to disrupt traditional expectations, for whereas most photographs are merely “hung,” these were conscientiously “installed” for maximum impact, taking cues from ’60s painting. Three wall-sized murals stunned the viewer with their sheer size and assertiveness; even the smaller photographs contain such bold images that they could easily be read from some distance. The overall effect was one of overpowering presences.

The issues with which Avedon concerns himself are essentially ones of scale, not just physical scale, which is immediately evident, but that involving fame (or notoriety), personal image, celebrity status, the position of photography vis à vis painting and ultimately, one suspects, Avedon’s conception of his own achievement. His subjects are famous people, each known to the world through a carefully orchestrated public image. Avedon is determined to strip away this trimming; not, however, by affording any glimpses into the private person, but by staring at him, an exercise reminiscent of the post-office mug shot or the passport photo. The characteristic head-on view, blank stare, flood-light squint and slouch, which he presents as revealing of true character, are more likely nothing more than the record of a weary or disinterested moment. He catches people at their worst, and harbors a particular fascination for older people, whose appearance is most vulnerable to his method of scrutiny. Moles, hairs, wrinkles, peeling skin and rheumy eyes, often enlarged to several times actual size, document with relentless detail those physical flaws inherent in the aging process which are transcended by even the most casual acquaintance. But Avedon never allows us to make that acquaintance, and we are left in many cases with a ravaged facade, handed to us as the reality behind the public persona. His is a carefully calculated strategy, but one which slides all too easily into formula, substituting a photographic artifice for that which he claims to strip from his subjects.

The radicalized concept of the celebrity that has led both to Avedon’s choice of subjects and his large-scale technique has been discussed perceptively by Hilton Kramer (N.Y. Times, Sept. 21, 1975). The lionizing of the antihero which informed ’60s Pop culture surfaces here in Rose Mary Woods, the American Mission Council to Vietnam, the Rosenbergs’ sons, the DAR, etc., strategically sprinkled among the arts types. And due homage is paid to Andy Warhol, who appears twice in the show; once in a mural of his “Factory” personalities and again as an immense, scarred torso, whose seams and creases are echoed in the leather jacket which surrounds it.

The format of the photographs emphasizes Avedon’s no-frills rhetoric. Black film edges, complete with negative numbers and markings, call attention to the photographic “process” and quote the unstretched canvases of much recent painting. They also recall a technique used by photographers to indicate that an image has not been cropped, though with Avedon’s seamless backdrops such information seems somewhat gratuitous. And much of his work relies heavily on intentional cropping. All the multi-panel group portraits show a partial image of a person at the side of each panel who is repeated in full in the next section. The smaller double portraits invariably position the subjects at the sides of the picture, often showing only half of each. Many also extend beyond the top and bottom—feet and tops of heads rarely remain intact. Though undoubtedly brought about by explorations into questions of scale, the technique is used with such predictability that it ceases to be provocative, ending up as a rather studied mannerist eccentricity.

All this is not to say that Avedon is a bad photographer. Quite the contrary. But he is extremely ambitious, and the task he set himself in this exhibition is not as clear-cut and easily soluble as he seems to think. Technically the scale question remains problematic, for he does not address himself to the implications of the blow-up—the dichotomy between the hyper-reality of the image and its simultaneous distortion. His subjects’ inability to withstand his brutalizing treatment has nothing to do with the durability of their public image. And the fact that the show broke all attendance records at Marlborough says more about public appeal than about the ultimate importance of the work.

Nancy Foote