A lot of artists would like to believe that their work has changed the world in some way. This is ego and vanity at play of course, even we don’t really think art does that very often. But sometimes you do see something that jolts your complacency, making you realize how dumb and insensitive you are to the stunning variety of life experience out there – and usually it’s art that is the catalyst. Two gallery shows now on view demonstrate this power of art, bringing the unseen and unspoken, the disregarded and disenfranchised to the attention of the world, and yes, blowing everyone’s tiny mind.
How can you begin to describe the effect of Diane Arbus’ photographs? The subjects: ugly people, people who think they look good, people who don’t know or don’t care what they look like – all of them paraded in front of the lens of a camera operated by someone who had to record them, make them seen, make them visible to the world, whether the world wanted it or not. In 1972, this was not how photography was supposed to be: either it was aesthetically beautiful, reportage, portraiture, or casual. It certainly wasn’t supposed to confront you with your own reaction. And yet, here these images were, doing just that, and to hell with it all. Naturally, the uproar was considerable, with the critics shouting yay or nay, the intelligentsia doing the same, and the public? Well, they went to her posthumous exhibition at MoMA in 1972, and they looked, recoiled, looked again, whispered, and talked, then went home to think about it all.
Now David Zwirner and Fraenkel Gallery are presenting a re-creation of this event: .cataclysm.: The 1972 Diane Arbus Retrospective Revisited, brings together the original 113 images to a contemporary audience that has a different reaction. Today, people see these images more as records of ordinary people, especially those often ignored, marginalized, or shunned by most of society, which has the effect of removing the shock value but increases the emotional connection between viewer and subject. Perhaps this change in reaction takes away some of the discomfort felt by an earlier generation and so lessens the photographs’ impact, but in turn, a greater acceptance of humanity’s near infinite variety might be an outcome that Arbus could not have imagined for her work. At any rate, it’s something to consider when visiting the show.
A different approach to art photography is found in the images of Lorna Simpson 1985-92 (now on view at Hauser & Wirth), with their visual and verbal cues on some of the same questions of gender, identity, and representation, with an added focus on the countless issues facing women and Black women in particular. Simpson’s cropped photographs invite and deny the viewer’s gaze, while the open-ended language applied to the images can be read as fact, history, or a continuation of an implied violence and/or trauma. There is no refuge in neutrality: every person who stands in front of her work is pushed to consider their interpretation and reaction to others and society as a whole. Simpson’s work is timely and timeless, confronting the difficult truths of society with an austere beauty that compels attention and changes the viewer forever.