A Fresh Look at Diane Arbus | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
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A Fresh Look at Diane Arbus

A new retrospective featuring an unprecedented number of the troubled photographer's images makes the case for her innovative artistry

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Diane Arbus’ work was included in only a handful of museum exhibitions before she died, by her own hand, at the age of 48 in 1971. Nevertheless, she had already gained renown with a series of unforgettable images—a “Jewish giant” looming over his bespectacled parents, an elderly couple sitting naked in a nudist-camp cabin, a grimacing boy clutching a toy hand grenade—that seem to reflect our deepest fears and most private wishes.

The first major retrospective of Arbus’ work was held in 1972, a year after her death, at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City, where she lived for most of her life. The show drew huge crowds and praise for the humanity and formal beauty of her work. But some found her images disturbing, even repellent: critic Susan Sontag, for example, called her portraits of “assorted monsters and border-line cases. . . . anti-humanist.” Arbus’ work, Sontag wrote, “shows people who are pathetic, pitiable, as well as repulsive, but it does not arouse any compassionate feelings.”

Today Arbus, who once said her pictures sought to capture “the space between who someone is and who they think they are,” has become one of America’s best-known photographers and one of its most controversial. But her achievements as an artist have been somewhat overshadowed by her suicide and by the disturbing strangeness that wells up out of her pictures. Famous as a “photographer of freaks,” she has been regarded as something of a freak herself.

Now a new generation of viewers and critics is debating the meaning and significance of Arbus’ compelling, unsettling images, thanks to “Diane Arbus Revelations,” an exhibition of nearly 200 of her pictures on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through May 31. The first Arbus retrospective since the 1972 MOMAshow, “Revelations” places her at the center of 20th-century American photography.

“To cast Arbus in the role of a tragic figure who identified with freaks is to trivialize her accomplishment,” says Sandra S. Phillips, senior curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), where the show originated. “She was a great humanist photographer who was at the forefront of what has become recognized as a new kind of photographic art.”

The exhibition has already elicited strong critical reactions. San Francisco Chronicle art critic Kenneth Baker praised Arbus’ work for its intelligence and compassion, and Arthur Lubow, writing in the New York Times Magazine, called her “one of the most powerful American artists of the 20th century.” But others have dismissed her as guilt-ridden and morbid. “Arbus is one of those devious bohemians,” wrote The New Republic’s Jed Perl, “who celebrate other people’s eccentricities and are all the while aggrandizing their own narcissistically pessimistic view of the world.”

Opinions will likely become even more deeply split as the show moves around the country—next to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston (June 27-August 29) and then to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City (March 1-May 29, 2005). Additional venues include the Museum Folkwang in Essen, Germany, the Victoria and AlbertMuseum in London and the WalkerArtCenter in Minneapolis.

Jeff Rosenheim, the Metropolitan’s associate curator of photography, believes that Arbus’ pictures remain provocative because they raise disturbing questions about the relationship between photographer, subject and audience. “Her work implicates you and the ethics of vision itself,” he says. “Our license to have that experience of viewing another person is changed and challenged, supported and enriched. I firmly believe this might be the most important single-artist photography exhibition our museum will ever do.”

Until recently, mystery surrounded many of the details of Arbus’ life and work. For decades, her estate refused to cooperate with any effort to write an Arbus biography and allowed the public to see only a tiny portion of her work. All this has changed with the new exhibition, which was developed with the cooperation of the estate and its administrator, Doon Arbus, the older of Arbus’ two daughters. The show includes not only Arbus’ most famous pictures but also early photographs and mature work never exhibited before. In addition, displays of her books, cameras, letters and working notebooks convey a powerful sense of the photographer’s personality—whimsical, brainy and endlessly curious.

“This is a new view of Arbus, through her own words,” says independent curator Elisabeth Sussman, who organized the retrospective with SFMOMA’s Phillips. “She was extremely smart and witty and incredibly perceptive, and the photographs are just a part of that.”

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