Black versus White, Again - reviewed by Tiara Buchanan
"Richard Avedon: Portraits" Curatored by Maria Moris Hombourg and Mia Fineman
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Sept. 26,2002 - January 5, 2003
Black versus White, Again review by Tiara Buchanan
The Richard Avedon: Portraits exhibit currently running at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until January 5th chronicles the life's work of one of the major American photographers of the 20th century. Best known for his signature celebrity and fashion portraits, Richard Avedon's characteristic white backgrounds attempt to offer a deconstruction of the personality, or what the Met advertises as the development of an intensity of characterization not seen in photography before Avedon made his debut in the fashion world in the 1940's.
What's most interesting is the progression Avedon makes over the years, ideally striving towards a deeper understanding of the human condition. Much of his earlier work is characterized by deliberate posing, flushed lighting, and of course, the white background. These elements ultimately present icons to his audience, rather than actual people, and in the fashion world, what else do you expect It is when Avedon attempts to politicize his work and dabble into the art world that this kind of technique becomes problematic.
Two pieces that immediately struck me as indicative of Avedon's aesthetic sensibility were the Andy Warhol and Members of the Factory and The Chicago Seven pieces. Both are large murals with full figures arranged at a lateral frieze, spread across several adjoining frames. What's disturbing is how he treats both subjects with such detachment and lack of insight. They're both completely predictable. In The Factory piece we see a line-up of strange, displaced, and dejected models in various degrees of disrobement and dishevelment.
One is apparently a hermaphrodite, while Andy Warhol, presumably the brains behind this particular art scene, appears only once, fully clothed. Avedon classically objectifies the models and presents them to us as vapid, soulless creatures barely in touch with their humanity which apparently can only be manifested through a grotesque critique of American sexuality - the old tragedy of the beautiful and empty. Avedon makes no attempt to define the figures as individuals and as you walk away from the mural you leave feeling the same as you did when you first approached it unsatisfied and bored.
The same results after viewing The Chicago Seven. In contrast to The Factory piece, these figures are well-known anti-war activists of the Vietnam era, devoted to the peace, socialist mindset, and revolution that marked that generation. The men are fully clothed in somber get-ups that serve only to reinforce our assumptions of what an activist or revolutionary should look like; tweed pants, practical collars, stern and idealistic facial expressions. Their poses all suggest suspended animation, an urgency that implies political involvement. Again, boring and nothing we haven't seen before.
There are moments in the exhibit when Avedon seems to transcend stereotyping, as with the portraits of his wife or that of Jean Genet and Ezra Pound. But these are few and far between and it seems the only time he is able to give refreshing character to any of his subjects is when he knows them personally, as with his father, Jacob Israel Avedon. These portraits are what character depiction should be -- startling, uncomfortable, and tender. They speak volumes of the conflicted relationship the two had, and the letter insert, included in the accompanying books at the close of the exhibit, from Avedon to his father reveals this further. In it he attempts to explain to his father what his idea of beauty is and while to some the photographs of his father may seem offensively stark, they are honest and heartfelt and you finally get a sense of Avedon's emotional investment in his subject. This is where Avedon's strength lies -- his ability to understand and depict those closest to him accurately.
Consequently, those furthest from him and how he evidently identified himself in relation to them often in up as glazed over generalizations, as with his portrait of a former slave. The photograph features the headshot of a dark-skinned man with a white background and startling vacant eyes. The immediate word that pops into your mind is shell, as in this man has lost his humanity, is the victim of a cruel and barbaric institution and nothing else. His eyes stare back with the intensity of a wolf, hungry but ultimately hopeless. This was the most offensive piece I found in the exhibit and I found this pattern of unearthly detachment from many of his subjects, particularly Avedon's Black subjects. It isn't until the late 70's that it seems Avedon realizes he's photographing people, and even then his subjects rarely transcend the American stereotypes of the down home American boy, the pastoral Quaker tradition, or the modern age avant-garde cosmopolitan.
As an artist, Richard Avedon fails to break new ground, and instead has made a career of reinforcing old assumptions about the American identity. An identity that goes no further than us versus them, beauty versus brains, black versus white.