A fresh look at the Diane Arbus exhibition, 50 years later

Diane Arbus exhibited her work only once during her lifetime, as part of the two-room photography exhibition in 1967 with Lee Friedlander and Gary Winogrand called The New Documents at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Arbus had a whole room to herself and showed 32 photos. One of them was a smiling elderly couple, completely naked, at a New Jersey nudist camp. Another caught a boy in Central Park, holding the camera with a toy grenade. Arbus received sporadic critical praise for the show—it was a “one-woman revolution,” according to Newsweek—but it was poorly attended and astounded many reviewers. “Sometimes, we must add, the borders of the picture are close to bad taste,” states a New York Times review titled “People look curious. Friedlander called it, “the most influential photography exhibition that no one has ever seen.”

In May 1971, Artforum published a small Arbus purse, and one of her works featured on the cover – an image of a stone-faced boy in a straw hat, marching in support of the Vietnam War. Several other photos published in the magazine are now among her most famous, including one of Eddie Carmel — a “Jewish giant,” according to Arbus’ comment — at his Bronx home with his smaller parents, and a frightening 1966 photo of a pair of identical twins. Arbus presented the wallet with a vague note, describing a dream she had on a “gilded and cupid” ocean ship that caught fire and slowly sank. “There was no hope,” Arbus writes. “I was so cheerful. I can shoot anything I want.” Two months later she killed herself. The following year, she had her second exhibition at the Museum, also at the Museum of Modern Art.

“MoMA thought this was going to be another show,” said Jeffrey Frenkel, the dealer who co-represented Arbus’ ownership. But “it was an earthquake,” was a once-in-a-generation moment. This week, on its 50th anniversary, the Fraenkel and David Zwirner Gallery is re-displaying the exhibition at Zwirner’s West 20th Street location in Manhattan. They are also publishing a 500-page book on Arbus called “documents. “

It’s rare that we remember a 50-year-old art show with such enthusiasm, and rarely do you try to recreate one down to the last work. (Nearly half of the photos in Zwirner will be the same prints that appeared in MoMA.) Reblogging is called, in a less subtle way, “disaster. It was, at the time, the most attended solo show in MMA history. Lines stretch for a block around the block. “People were really lost in front of these images, and they were stunned,” said David Lieber, Partner at Zwirner. When he saw the photos that appeared with Robert Hughes’ review of the show in Time magazine, “It was like lightning going through my body,” he remembers.

Since then, MoMA’s Arbus show has taken on an element of myth, but The Docs also chronicles a major backlash. “Seldom have I read so much nonsense as the cult semi-pastoral aura that covers Diane Arbus’ work at the Museum of Modern Art,” Lou Stettner wrote in the photography magazine Camera 35.

The Arbus family owns a department store on Fifth Avenue called Russeks. Her future husband, Alan Arbus, worked in the advertising department of Rossex. I started taking pictures for the family business. In 1956, she began studying with Lisette Model, a street photographer known for her candid depictions of people in unguarded moments, who told Arbus, “Never photograph anything that you are not passionately interested in.” Soon, she separated from her husband and stopped working for her parents.

She supported herself with editorial assignments and became a freelancer on demand, notably at Harper’s Bazaar and Esquire. But Arbus only sold a few pictures alive, for less than a hundred dollars each. Fraenkel believes that a MoMA security guard purchased one of the works from the “New Documents” gallery. (“My radar has been for this security guard for years,” he says.) Arbus printed her purse “a box of ten photographs” in an edition of eight. Four sold. Buyers are: Pia Fettler, Artistic Director of Harper’s Bazaar. Artist Jasper Johns. and photographer Richard Avedon, who bought two, donated one to director Mike Nichols. (Arbus said at the time: “Buyers are out of who it is.”)

As she became more serious about her practice, her concerns changed. As A.D. Coleman wrote in an obituary in the Village Voice, Arbus was concerned with the “atrocity of normalcy and the return of dread to normal.” About the 1972 show, Coleman wrote in The Times, “I was drawn to the themes we group under the heading ‘freaks’…not because of any decadent search for chaos but because she saw them as heroes.”

MoMA’s show has been controversial. Two jobs have been removed. One of the photos, “Two Girls in Identical Raincoats,” a fascinating study of contrasts captured in Central Park in 1969, was removed from the wall when the father of one of the young women threatened the museum with a lawsuit; Arbus, Frankl put it, “made his daughter look lesbian.” The other photo, a 1968 photo of Andy Warhol collaborator Viva Hoffmann, made her subject so upset that she later told New York Magazine, “A lot of terrible things have happened to me, but I consider it the worst.”

Among the topics on the MoMA show, Susan Sontag wrote, “Do they see themselves, the viewer wonders, like who – which? Do they know how awful they are? There is still something disturbingly mysterious about Arbus. Did she take the dignity of people who have been unfairly marginalized or was she simply staring at them? After the artist’s suicide, Harold Hayes, her editor at Esquire, noted, “Only those whom I portrayed know what it is.” The magic you have to use to convince such confrontations.”

Leave a Comment