New York

Diane Arbus, Woman in a rose hat, N.Y.C. 1966, gelatin silver print, 10 3⁄4 × 10 1⁄4". Courtesy of The Estate of Diane Arbus.

Diane Arbus, Woman in a rose hat, N.Y.C. 1966, gelatin silver print, 10 3⁄4 × 10 1⁄4". Courtesy of The Estate of Diane Arbus.

Diane Arbus

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then late curator John Szarkowski (1925–2007) must be blushing. In 1972, he organized a major retrospective of Diane Arbus (1923–1971) at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. Fifty years later, David Zwirner New York, in collaboration with San Francisco’s Fraenkel Gallery, resurrected it picture for picture: 115 in total, including two pieces that were taken out of the original presentation. Titled “Cataclysm” in a nod to the astonishing impact of the original presentation, the reboot at Zwirner’s West Twentieth Street space attempted to recapture the exhilaration felt by the public half a century ago. 

By all accounts, the MoMA show was indeed explosive. Thrumming lines snaked around the museum as spectators clamored for their turn to see Arbus’s sideshow performers, nudists, drag queens, and adults with developmental disabilities. Journalists wrote pages upon pages of impassioned reviews, many reproduced in Zwirner’s excellent catalogue, Documents. For some, Arbus was a manipulator and poseur, a rich kid slumming it for thrills, whose pictures exploited vulnerable people. Others saw her as the opposite, a rare empath who advanced photography’s humanism. Snapping “misfits” with a similar—if not greater—level of compassion typically used to document the straight and square, she chipped away at the line separating “normal” from “abnormal.” It was for this exact quality, however, that Susan Sontag lacerated the artist in her 1973 essay “Melancholy Objects,” arguing that her equal-opportunity take on her subjects was cynical and politically vacant: “It is simply too easy to say that America is just a freak show,” she opined. “Arbus reflects a cut-rate pessimism, naive and, above all, reductive.”

The curators of “Cataclysm” displayed a selection of quotes about Arbus’s work—both glowing and ruthless—in the gallery’s entryway. In the show itself, they invited viewers to form their own response to the artist’s imagery. The walls of the exhibition space were scrubbed of text, with photographs presented in solemn and evenly spaced rows. A metaphorical blank slate, the minimal presentation sought to facilitate an unmediated encounter with the content of the 1972 show—a return to the primal scene of Arbus’s fame. Encountered anew, what does this body of work say to us? The answer remains complicated. On the one hand, time has made Arbus’s subjects less taboo. Everyone and their mother watches RuPaul’s Drag Race now, so the portrait A naked man being a woman, N.Y.C. 1968, in which the subject wears lipstick and eye shadow, genitalia demurely tucked between closed legs, didn’t shock as it may have decades ago. (Viscerally weirder, in fact, are the sartorial choices of the “normals,” represented in pictures such as Woman in a rose hat, N.Y.C. 1966—unflattering ghosts of fashion past with ratted-up hair and cat’s-eye glasses, starched suits, and furs.) On the other hand, time has added new dimension to critiques of Arbus’s ethics. Sontag criticized her freak universalism as “anti-humanist.” Today, we might take issue with the artist’s lack of intersectional awareness—with the way her oeuvre tends to conflate exclusion and rebellion, to equate systemic marginalization and counterculture. Are nudists the same as drag queens? Are drag queens the same as the disabled? Was Arbus interested in parsing the differences of “difference,” or was she content to merely capture anything she viewed as exotic, outré?

Whatever Arbus is, she must be “good art”—this reverent re-creation of a historic exhibition in a tony venue tells us as much. But seeing a body of work conceived as a middle finger to bourgeois good taste so comfortable in the middlebrow setting of a blue-chip gallery was palpably deflating. There was something was disingenuous in the “controversy” this show’s framing drummed up: It was a form of window dressing that begged the question of Arbus’s genius—a quality that already seems fairly well-established, and one in which Zwirner and Fraenkel have a major financial stake. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but in this case the adulation was more than a little self-serving. “Cataclysm” offered a wonderful opportunity to critically reevaluate Arbus’s work, even if that was not the only motive behind it.