Friday, August 21, 2009

Avedon musings one year later. A reappraisal.

A little over a year ago, I wrote a posting on this blog about the Richard Avedon show I saw in Paris at the Jeu de Paume. You can read it here. It was not complimentary. Since then, I have reevaluated and reconsidered what I wrote many times. A friend of mine once said to me, "You learn more from art that you hate than from art that you love", and sure enough, I have learned from Richard Avedon.

I can't say that my arguments have changed too dramatically, but my overarching view of this artist has had a sea change. I attribute that change primarily to curator Carol Squiers and her show of Avedon's fashion work that just closed at ICP. More on this later.

I continue to hold many of the complaints about Avedon's work that I voiced a year ago. For example that Avedon was capricious and often cruel in his treatment of the sitters for his portraits, that his artistic claims didn't match the content of his work, and that his photographs represent a blatant commercial formula than he endlessly reworks still ring true for me. Obviously, others disagree. Geoffrey Dyer in his essay in the book "Avedon 1946-2004"says: "It has also been suggested that the photographs of crumpled, ageing faces were in some way Avedon's revenge on the fashion and glamour business in which he made his name, an explicit rebuke to the claim that his work was all surface and no depth. This opposition cannot long be sustained." And yet the opposition is sustained. Many learned people with whom I've discussed this topic agree with my heterodoxical view. I also found it interesting that Mr. Dyer compares Bill Brandt's portraits to Avedon's using the same quote I did to compare them negatively. He believes that Avedon's portraits positively embody the Brandt challenge that a portrait "physically and morally predicts the subject's entire future". I still believe that Brandt meets his own challenge while Avedon does not.

Perhaps this is a funny, roundabout way of offering a changed mind. Please bear with me. There were a couple of key figures who led me down this path.

The first is a former colleague, Adolfo Bornstein, who had counsel for me when I was about to go to Pittsburgh to take a job under the baton of Lorin Maazel. Adolfo was a well-known conductor basher. We were both working at the time under Charles Dutoit, a conductor who inspired near universal derision from his orchestra. I expected Adolfo to send me off with words of revolution and resistance against Maazel, but I was wrong. He said, "There are figures in the world who have forged an intellectual place for themselves in which their opinion cannot be ignored. It may ultimately be disagreed with, but it cannot be simply dismissed. Their resumé of scholarly discourse or public performance at a certain plane guarantees them a voice that must be listened to". He mentioned Pierre Boulez and Zubin Mehta as other examples of musicians whose intellectual rigor and professional accomplishment demanded respect. Should I apply this lesson to Richard Avedon?

Then I read the Roberta Smith review in the New York Times from May 14, 2009. Ms Smith's gimlet-eyed reviews are not famous for gushing praise so I was somewhat shocked to read:

Avedon’s fashion photographs from the late 1940s to the early ’60s are everything you want great art to be: exhilarating, startlingly new and rich enough with life and form to sustain repeated viewings. Their beauty is joy incarnate and contagious. The best of them are as perfect on their own terms as the best work of Jackson Pollock or Jasper Johns from that era, and as profoundly representative of it.

As with these painters Avedon’s work represents an important turning point and a new kind of self-consciousness of his medium. He makes us aware of its process on different levels, while also questioning its values and deflating its pretensions. His images have a new tautness; you see them as energy-producing wholes in which every detail and bit of surface is articulated. Like Abstract Expressionist painting, they show us an art form learning from and then moving beyond European conventions.

What!? Roberta Smith is comparing Avedon to Jasper Johns and Jackson Pollock? I was deeply challenged by this contention. What could I be missing if a critic famous for her toughness had that kind of praise for the work? My own take on the show was pretty girls in pretty dresses shot in clever ways. Jackson Pollock? I struggled to keep an open mind and continued to question my own assertions and the assertions of my friends who were Avedon devotees.

Full of questions, doubt, skepticism, and pessimism, I went to a curatorial walk-through with Carol Squiers. I should say here that I have endless respect for Ms Squiers. I know her as a consummately informed and scholarly art professional who has had an impact on the art world through her articles, her teaching, and her curatorial practice. I have had the pleasure of many long discussions with her about photography and art; conversations where she has guided me patiently and expertly through ideas and philosophies about art and artists. Despite my respect for her, I have to confess I was on the attack that night. I peppered her with questions challenging the authority of Avedon's reputation from every angle I could think of. I questioned the veracity of his innovations when compared with Munkasci or Penn, I questioned the impact his celebrity has had on his value as an artist, I questioned whether he would be remembered favorably once the sycophantic adulation for his memory had died with the people who knew him personally, I questioned what effect Avedon's endless self promotion and self-aggrandizement had on a curatorial assessment of his work.....I questioned, and questioned, and questioned.

For her part, Carol parried my attacks with calm and patience. Sometimes she disagreed, sometimes she didn't know, sometimes she attacked back with her own well-defended assertions. Clearly I wasn't going to move her position, but she hadn't moved mine either. But just at the end of the tour, as folks were beginning to disperse and the whole thing was winding down, I sent out one last riposte. I don't remember what it was but it was some kind of intellectual assertion that I thought could score a point. Her response ended the attack and changed my mind. She said (if I remember correctly), "Listen, all I know is that I've been looking at these photographs for 30 years and I've never gotten tired of them. Some of them are my favorite photographs in the world and I look at them again and again and again".

Peter Schjeldahl in his June 1, 2009 New Yorker review of the Francis Bacon show said: "It's unseemly to stay mad at an artist whose canonical stature, as graphed by the fervor of intelligent admirers, not to mention market value, has only grown since his death.....". Carol Squiers is the epitome of an intelligent admirer, but it was not her intelligence that carried the day. It was her emotional and personal response to this work that stopped me dead in my tracks. It did feel unseemly in the face of this informed passion to stay mad at the work and at the artist. While the work still leaves me empty in many ways, it doesn't piss me off quite as much as it did before. Perhaps I've been chastened by Ms Squiers and her cadre of intelligent admirers, or perhaps I just can't stay mad at an artist who has inspired a hagiocracy from a population known for its atheism. In the end, I guess none of it matters. The positive result is the debate and discussion the work has generated. Unlike before, I can approach the subject calmly. Who knows? In a year I may be writing about what genius the work is with all the zeal of a convert. Things change.