One of the galleries in the exhibit Richard Avedon: Portraits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is set up almost like a church. Rising in solitary splendor at one end of the rectangular room, like a painting of the Madonna above an altar, is a celebrated portrait, June Leaf, Artist. Leaf, who evokes the bohemian mood of Greenwich Village in the sixties, knots her arms around her body in a kind of despairing existential hug. At the same time, she conveys the spiritual warmth of an earth mother. Along the sides of the “nave” of the room are billboard-size images of standing figures who reflect the cultural clashes of their time. One wall has the Chicago Seven, tried for inciting demonstrations against the Vietnam War. The other has the Mission Council, a group of war leaders. Directly facing Leaf is an assembly of smaller portraits of significant political figures of the era. There is no question who dominates this congregation. Leaf is the Village Madonna. This is the Passion of the Artist.
Viewed as a whole, Avedon’s portraiture of the past 50 years represents – with brilliant, unerring instinct – the secular faith of a particular New York milieu. This show of portraits, which has been organized by Maria Morris Hambourg of the Met (assisted by Mia Fineman), is less “the portrait of an era” than a monument to a certain New York sensibility that reveres, above all, the figure of the modern artist; that viscerally distrusts businessmen, politicians, and soldiers; that was excited by the dreams of Beckett and by a passionate opposition to the Vietnam War. This is also a proud, moneyed, and successful class, one that reads both Vogue and The New York Review of Books on Sundays in Connecticut. It pays little attention to trashy celebs or to failed actors working as waiters. It does not know ordinary America from the inside. When Avedon went West, for example, he continued to see with the eyes of these New Yorkers – his drifters could have been cast by Beckett.
In the past, Avedon’s celebration of his milieu – a comfortable Establishment that sometimes identifies itself too readily with the hard-won achievements of an earlier time – made me uneasy. He seemed to honor its existential conventions too faithfully, never more so than when appearing artless or when commemorating the ruins of a great man’s face. I preferred something more critical and less seamless, but I think I was wrong. Many great artists of the past have celebrated their milieus with a bravura style. Why shouldn’t Avedon be a modernist version of Bernini or Van Dyck? Why not glory in his fluency? In one room, the curators have daringly juxtaposed a profound portrait of a man born a slave with a campy portrayal of members of Andy Warhol’s Factory. Is that juxtaposition just the flick of a magazine page, or does it capture the deeper collage of our time – and the range of an artist so confident in his perspective that he can spend one day with a former slave and the next with affectless Andy?
In Avedon’s photographs, there is a telling white light (elegantly offset by the gray galleries of the exhibit) that has become his own. You can already see this white in his fifties portrait of W. H. Auden standing in the blowing snow. It soon evolves into the abstract white background of his well-known portraits. It owes something to the magazine page, the studio shot, and the fashion spread. But Avedon also uses it to represent how alien and deracinated – how without connective tissue – the lives of many people have become in the contemporary world. And the fluid black patchiness of a photographer’s contact sheet, which he employs as a kind of frame, gives the images a momentary as well as a monumental air. Avedon’s white light – so framed – seems to isolate a metaphysical stage on which his subjects can perform themselves. Like much great theater, their performance often seems more real than real, shaped to reveal a deeper truth. Although viewers will delight in the famous, they may be most moved by a sequence of images – an apotheosis in another chapel-like space – of the artist’s dying father. The father, as he approaches death, seems to whiten in the lens of the son. In the last image, a dark and ennobling shadow settles his face.
Richard Avedon: Portraits
At the Metropolitan Museum of Art; through 01/05/03