Diane Arbus: Family Albums

NYU’s Grey Art gallery Presents Solo Show of Diane Arbus’s Striking Photographs

January 13–March 27, 2004

New York City, October 6, 2003Family Albums sheds new light on the working process of the extraordinarily influential American photographer Diane Arbus (1923–1971).  On view at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery from January 13 to March 27, 2004, Diane Arbus: Family Albums features over 50 black-and-white photographs along with 57 contact sheets by the artist, a large number of which have never before been publicly exhibited. The first museum exhibition to be devoted to her work since her posthumous retrospective in 1972, Diane Arbus: Family Albums reveals Arbus’s fascination with the complex and often contradictory notions of “family” that surfaced during the turbulent 1960s.

An important collection of previously unknown contact sheets and prints produced by the artist in 1969, just a year and a half before her death, serve as the impetus for, and nucleus of, Family Albums.  Commissioned by Gay and Konrad Matthaei―who was then an actor in the long-running soap opera As the World Turns and owner of the prosperous Alvin Theater―to shoot portraits, Arbus spent two days photographing family members at their elegant Upper East Side townhouse during a holiday gathering. The resulting 322 images, 200 of which are represented in the 28 contact sheets Arbus gave to the Matthaeis, provide valuable insights into the artist’s photographic strategies. They reveal a family accustomed to the spotlight of celebrity, but also vulnerable to Arbus’s inquisitive eye. “This show and scholarly publication, along with the substantial retrospective being organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art,” states Lynn Gumpert, director of the Grey Art Gallery, “will contribute significantly to further dialogue about one of the most intriguing artists of the twentieth century.”

Born into the wealthy Nemerov family, Diane Arbus grew up and spent her professional life in Manhattan. She started out as a fashion photographer with her then husband, Alan Arbus, working for magazines like Vogue and Glamour in the 1950s. Once on her own, she shot portraits for Esquire, the upscale men’s magazine. Between 1955 and 1957, she studied with Lisette Model and began to develop a penetrating documentary vision, producing pictures very different from her commercial work. By the 1960s, she had gained a substantial reputation as a photographer of New York’s many subcultures. In 1967, she was one of three photographers invited to participate in the Museum of Modern Art’s influential exhibition “New Documents.”  After her suicide in 1971, her MoMA retrospective attracted easily as many viewers as Edward Steichen’s famous Family of Man exhibition in 1955, confirming Arbus’s stature in the history of photography.

Arbus often spoke of her desire to publish a “family album” of her own, a “Noah’s ark” of humanity. “We will never know what Arbus would have put in her ‘Family Album.’ But this close study of her work gives a sense of how powerful the concept of family and of the album was for her,” observes John Pultz, the exhibition’s co-curator. Her 1971 portraits of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson published in Esquire, for example, subtly reveal inherent tensions in supposedly “normal” family life. Similarly, the portrait of Jayne Mansfield shows the platinum-blond actress clasping the shoulders of her brunette, adolescent daughter. Both stare directly into the camera lens, as do so many of Arbus’s subjects. As co-curator Anthony Lee observes, “The families most interesting to her, and thus most worth including in her album, were those marked by an incomplete merging of public and private identities.”  “I think all families are creepy in a way,” Arbus wrote to Peter Crookston, a friend and editor of London’s Sunday Times Magazine. Arbus’s “family,” as envisioned in the exhibition, consists of people held together by all sorts of bonds, some traditional and others alternative, but all deserving of special attention. Perhaps the most difficult, yet key, photographs for Arbus’s planned album were images of families held together by marriage, blood, and law. Often dismissed as anachronistic by the 1960s counterculture and alternative collectives, traditional families fell under intense scrutiny during this time of cultural and political upheaval. “It is particularly appropriate that this important exhibition comes to the Grey Art Gallery, which is situated in the heart of Greenwich Village,” notes Gumpert. “Arbus spent much of her adult life living in the Village and often frequented Washington Square Park, the epicenter for artists, writers, and others who adopted a bohemian lifestyle. For a number of years, she used a studio at 71 Washington Place, across the park.”

The Matthaei family portraits present a complete record—with contact sheets, proof prints, and final prints—of a previously undocumented commission. Also included are other works by Arbus, many of them portraits she took for Esquire, grouped under the categories of “Mothers,” “Fathers,” “Children,” and “Partners.” Viewing Arbus’s work from this particular vantage point provokes us to reconsider images that, due to their strength and power, have achieved almost iconic status. Among the women Arbus photographed in the 1960s were some whose notoriety derived from their status as mothers: Marguerite Oswald, the mother of Lee Harvey Oswald, and Madalyn Murray, the petitioner who successfully challenged compulsory school prayer on behalf of her son. Other photographs interrogated matriarchal demeanor, such as the portrait of Flora Knapp Dickinson, an Honorary Regent of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Still other pictures―of the stripper Blaze Starr, the sexy film star Mae West, the wartime personality Tokyo Rose—explored how women who were not normally associated with motherhood could appear maternal in their own domestic settings. After its showing at the Grey Art Gallery, Diane Arbus: Family Albums tours nationally through late 2005.

The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue published by Yale University Press with essays by the show’s curators, Anthony W. Lee, associate professor of art history and chair of American studies at Mount Holyoke College, and John Pultz, associate professor in the Kress Foundation Department of Art History and curator of photography at the Spencer Museum of Art.  Diane Arbus: Family Albums is organized by the Spencer Museum of Art, the University of Kansas, and the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, South Hadley, Massachusetts. The Grey Art Gallery presentation is made possible in part by the Abby Weed Grey Trust.


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