Diane Arbus

NO ONE COMES TO DIANE ARBUS without a bushel of prejudices. She is the most demonized of the 1960s street photographers, so freighted by her reputation as bad girl and victimizer that it is almost impossible to truly look at her work. In “Pierre Leguillon features: Diane Arbus, A Printed Retrospective, 1960–1971,” recently on view at the Kadist Art Foundation in Paris, however, this is exactly what French Conceptual artist Pierre Leguillon attempted to make us do. To create the show, he trawled the Internet for issues of Esquire, Harper’s Bazaar, Nova, and other English-language magazines that employed Arbus during the ’60s. Leguillon then removed more than a hundred pages from the magazines and exhibited them in the foundation’s Montmartre storefront gallery. He thereby not only ingeniously circumvented the notoriously censorious Arbus estate but also allowed us to look beyond both the controversy surrounding her work and the backstory of her sexual adventures and 1971 suicide. If many of the images were uncannily familiar, they here appeared unburdened by the distinctly American critique of representation: We were invited to see the Arbus legacy at rest, returned to some idea of an original state, and quieted by the mundane scale and material qualities of the magazines themselves. As Arbus has herself been anointed a “freak” since her death, to use her own term for her favorite subjects, the endeavor was most welcome.

Layouts that surprised and delighted included photographs of Jorge Luis Borges and his wife in Central Park, accompanied by three of his poems (from Harper’s Bazaar, March 1969); urbanist Jane Jacobs and her teenage activist son Ned, their faces framed by identical horn-rimmed glasses (from Esquire, July 1965); and a portrait of artist Ad Reinhardt with accompanying essay by Annette Michelson (from Harper’s Bazaar, November 1966). Leguillon also sampled Arbus-related imagery, including the twins in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, a recent New Yorker cartoon, and photographs by Wolfgang Tillmans and Annie Leibovitz, portraitists with comparable clout and candor. This was decidedly the most opaque aspect of Leguillon’s project, which otherwise offered a means to reexamine the dividing lines between critique and authorship, biography and methodology, photography and its interpretations.

Leguillon deployed his collection as a conceptual art- work: It was the exhibition-as-medium. Driven by an interest in the genealogy of photographs, their reproducibility and portability—linked, he says, to artists such as Christopher Williams or Robert Filliou more than to Arbus herself—he mounted the magazine pages on the walls between nonreflective museum glass and plywood of roughly the same thickness as the original magazines. The arrangements were hung at various heights (as at a news kiosk) and echoed page layouts, while the original issues were stacked on the floor, their removed pages tabbed for restoration. A custom shipping crate evoking those in Marcel Broodthaers’s Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles, 1968–72, was offered as seating.

But the conceptualism of Leguillon’s display contrasted sharply with the content-laden magazine pages themselves. Reconstituted with their captions in illustrated press stories, Arbus’s images here found a revivified sense of authenticity and newsworthiness, allowing her once again to recede behind her subjects. The conceptual staging thus suggested a metadiscourse on Arbus as museum subject and Leguillon himself as appropriationist.

Leguillon has, in fact, been collecting other artists’ images and movies and sampling these in choreographed slide shows and screenings since 1993. In his roving events titled “La Promesse de L’Écran” (The Promise of the Screen) and his “Diaporama” (literally “slide show”) projects, Leguillon produces mash-ups of images, via their familiar reproductions (Carl Andre, Robert Ryman, Claes Oldenburg, Hans-Peter Feldmann); quotations from writers (Virginia Woolf, Paul Celan, Witold Gombrowicz, Jacques Derrida); and music (Sergei Prokofiev, Frank Sinatra, Sonic Youth). He gives us bookishness with a pop sensibility, the images presented as products of his own photography and punctuated by reflexive, baring-the-device shots of cameras and projectors. Indeed, many of Leguillon’s preoccupations are resolutely photographic—slides, reproduction, the archive, the magazine—and this is perhaps the most obvious tie-in between his previous productions and the staging of Arbus’s magazine work.

If Leguillon is proposing that we revisit the ideological debates of photographic representation in which Arbus was a prime suspect, then he is also suggesting that the ethics of representation are no longer bound to authorship, but to reception, dissemination, and ownership as well. Leguillon’s collection-based project brings to mind another collector-curator-artist, Ydessa Hendeles, and her sweeping, Holocaust history–laden exhibition project “Partners,” on view at the Haus der Kunst in Munich in 2003–2004. That carefully sequenced show and accompanying catalogue opened with a small self- portrait by Arbus, taken in 1945 when she was twenty-two and pregnant with the first of her daughters. Arbus made the photograph to send to her husband, Allan, who was stationed in Burma with the US Army. For Hendeles, Arbus’s self-portrait is forever linked with Anne Frank’s death of the same year: two young Jewish women of words and images tossed by diverging historical fates. “Partners” spins outward from there to catalogue the diasporas of peoples, images, and material culture evoked by Hendeles’s own voracious and refined collection.

Arbus became a kind of collector too: Hunting for trophy images was her great joy. In her personal taxonomy, as in that of any collector, with its idiosyncratic sets and smashups and lucky finds, we come close to a piece of true twentieth-century history. In the collection-based exhibition-as-medium project by Leguillon, as in Hendeles’s, we experience what is known but rarely seen: that biographies are subjectivities formed by history. And in each of their endeavors, Leguillon and Hendeles have one great intellectual resource in common: eBay.

“Pierre Leguillon features: Diane Arbus, A Printed Retrospective, 1960–1971” is on view through June 1 at the Centre Régional
de la Photographie Nord Pas-de-Calais, Douchy-les-Mines, France.

Moyra Davey and Jason Simon are New York–based artists currently living in Paris.