Richard Avedon exhibition in New York: He wanted to stay – culture

For weeks announced the great Richard Avedon exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, Fifth Avenue, New York. Anticipation for weeks. So go there on the first day, enter through the sublime main entrance and continue straight away, climbing the majestic main staircase, two steps at a time. Then a sharp left, about 100 meters, at a pace that is just about appropriate for the museum, and finally swerving out of the flow of visitors to the right.

Photographic exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum always take place in the same location, in a large, very high room to the right of the aisle and a few smaller rooms across the aisle. Sure, good for the rhythm, this alternation of big and small. Proven technique: first get a quick overview. Then study picture by picture.

The first room is quickly crossed, here are three giant pictures, the so-called murals, plus five smaller group pictures, as well as three other, irrelevant photographs. There are also two showcases of outtakes that Avedon was not happy with when working on the murals. So on to the smaller rooms, because there has to be more to come. If only because they hardly did an Avedon exhibition at the Met without the picture of Nastassja Kinski. Does not work. Everyone always wants to see the picture of Kinski.

However, paintings from Denmark are currently on display in the smaller rooms opposite. Everything looks good, it’s about ‘identity and place in Danish art 19th Century,” and you’ve got to love the Met for putting on such very specialized exhibitions, but where’s the rest of the Avedon now? Back to the big room. A steward asked. “Avedon?” says the steward, he pronounces the name French, although Avedon was born here in New York to Russian-Jewish immigrants, on the Upper West Side in 1923. Celebrating his 100th birthday was the idea behind the exhibit.”Avedon?” says the Folder and points to the room: “That’s all.”

That’s all? Then again very slowly and from the beginning.

Richard Avedon had his first photographs in the magazine in 1944 at the age of 21 Harper’s Bazaar released. For the next 60 years until his death in 2004, he was always in demand and always good for business. But in those 60 years, the feeling that he was perceived as a fashion photographer or, worse: as a celebrity photographer, always nagged at him. Not as the great artist he saw in himself. Author Philip Gefter did an excellent job of tracing this in a 2020 biography of Avedons. Gefter writes that dismissing Avedon as a celebrity photographer is an “intellectual insult.”

The fact that there is a lot of truth in this statement is shown by the admittedly very clear but extremely meaningful current exhibition in the Metropolitan Museum. In a small space, it tells the great story of the artist’s struggle with himself. It tells of the search for a new form of expression and of the attempt to create something that might stay.

The success of his famous friends plunged Avedon into a creative crisis that lasted for years

Avedon had made a lot of money early on. He was flamboyant, he loved luxury, and when he went on long flights he sat in first class while his assistants sat in the back of the cabin. He regularly went on longer flights because, for example, when he discovered an exhibition in Europe that he found interesting, he flew there several times. He was also consistently booked worldwide.

But there was this problem: Avedon had all the famous friends. Leonard Bernstein. Harold Brodkey. Mike Nichols. Sydney Lumet. Truman Capote. To name just a few of his closest confidants. From the mid-1960s onwards, these rushed from success to success. Avedon saw Capote’s book In Cold Blood become a formidable bestseller, hailed by critics as a literary milestone. As something that stays. That could have pleased him, but Avedon measured himself against his friends, he compared himself. Bernstein was winning a Grammy at the time, and Nichols was nominated for an Oscar. As a result, Avedon experienced a creative crisis. for years.

Richard Avedon exhibition in New York: Richard Avedon 1994 in a work show in the Cologne art gallery.  Now the New York Metropolitan Museum is celebrating its 100th birthday with an exhibition.

Richard Avedon 1994 in a work show in the Cologne Kunsthalle. Now the New York Metropolitan Museum is celebrating its 100th birthday with an exhibition.

(Photo: Roland Scheidemann/dpa)

Here’s what you should know when you enter Room 851 at the Metropolitan Museum. The smaller pictures are unimportant, only the “Murals” are significant, almost three meters high and up to ten meters wide. They consist of several arches that Avedon assembled into larger structures. Between 1969 and 1971 he created four of these giant works, three of which can now be seen at the Met. It was easy for the museum to organize because Avedon donated it to the Met in 2002. He said at the time, “I wanted to see if I could reinvent the group portrait…from the Dutch painters to Fantin-Latour to Irving Penn to the high school football team.”

He dedicated the first project in the series to the “Chicago Seven,” a group of political activists who organized anti-war protests at the 1968 Democratic Convention. The police cracked down brutally and the activists were charged with incitement to riot. For Avedon, they were heroes committed to peace. In his larger-than-life picture, they look like friendly middle-aged men who, according to a 2012 exhibition catalogue, one might meet in the laundromat or in the staff room.

His next project was the complete opposite. Avedon invited Andy Warhol and members of his Factory. Again and again, the group made pilgrimages to Avedon’s studio in changing line-ups. After all, Avedon had created more than 200 recordings with a Deardorff large-format camera that he had bought especially for the project. He wanted to reinvent himself in every respect, including technology.

As if the figures on a Greek vase had moved from the curve to the horizontal

For a year and a half he pushed the recordings back and forth until he decided on the final composition. It’s called “Andy Warhol and Members of the Factory, New York, October 30, 1969”. In addition to Warhol, all sorts of other artists can be seen, some of them nude, including Joe Dallesandro, whose (clothed) midsection later became the cover of the Rolling Stonesalbum Sticky Fingers, and Candy Darling, a transgender woman whose male genitalia contrasts with her otherwise very feminine appearance, which would be no less outrage in parts of the United States today than it was then.

Maria Morris Hambourg, a former photo curator at the Met, said in 2002 that the image appeared as if the figures, gathered on a Greek vase, had moved from the curve to the horizontal and paused briefly to present themselves to the camera.

The third large picture is called “The Mission Council, Saigon, April 27, 1971”. These are the responsible US strategists who were in Saigon during the Vietnam War. While Avedon could spend months with the members of the Factory, he only had a few minutes in Saigon. Very dressed men can be seen, one in uniform, the rest in suits, all looking serious. This picture hangs directly across from the shot of the members of the Factory and it doesn’t take much imagination to imagine what a lovely dialogue that ensues.

Basically, it would have been enough to only show these two murals. You can stand between the two works for a whole hour, look to the right, to the left again, and so on, without getting bored. On the contrary, the longer one does it, the more intoxicating the effect, and one recognizes Avedon as the perhaps not subtle but profound master that he was.

But the art world, as it is, has largely denied Avedon the recognition he craved as an artist during his lifetime. Philip Gefter’s 2020 biography mentioned may be a step towards changing that.

Incidentally, Avedon did not create the famous photo of Nastassja Kinski until ten years later, in 1981 in Los Angeles, and it actually doesn’t fit in the least with this exhibition in the Metropolitan Museum. It shows a naked Kinski in perfect symbiosis with a boa constrictor. The snake sticks its tongue in the actress’ ear, which she accepts unmoved. It’s a terrific picture, or as the art world would say: quintessential celebrity photographer.

Richard Avedon: Murals. Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1000 Fifth Avenue. New York. Until October 1, 2023.

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