The show also asks whether the disquieting intimacy that is still sometimes viewed as a weakness isn’t instead a source of artistic power in Arbus’ pictures. In her catalog essay, Phillips notes the high value the art world of the 1960s put on work that was “assertive, even arrogant, and suspicious of content,” especially content that smacked of emotion or storytelling. By that standard, Arbus’ work could be easily dismissed as too personal, too neurotic. In the 21st century, however, with personal identity and narrative central issues for artists, Arbus has emerged as a daring innovator.
“I have never been moved by any other artist as I have been by Arbus,” says the MetropolitanMuseum’s Rosenheim. “Her pictures have this power that is the exact correlation of the intimate relation she must have had with her subjects. They forever affect the way you look at the world.” Whether Arbus is photographing a tattooed man, a drag queen or a wailing baby, the more we look at her pictures, the more we feel they are looking back at us.