Arbus, Untitled and Unearthly

A series considered one of the towering achievements of American art reminds us that nothing can surpass the strange beauty of reality if a photographer knows where to look.

In Diane Arbus’s “Untitled (49) 1970-71,”; residents of a home for the developmentally disabled in New Jersey, dressed for Halloween, seem to be issuing a greeting to a parallel world. The photograph is part of a series, presented for the first time in its entirety, at the David Zwirner galleryCredit The Estate of Diane Arbus

By Arthur Lubow

  • Beginning in 1969 and continuing through the last two years of her life, Diane Arbus traveled regularly by bus to New Jersey to photograph people at residences for the developmentally and intellectually disabled. Her first destination, the coeducational Woodbridge State School, was just across the Hudson from her Manhattan apartment. Quite soon, though, she determined that an all-female institution in Vineland, in the southern part of the state, provided richer opportunities.

The photographs in the “Untitled” series, at the David Zwirner gallerythrough Dec. 15, are mostly taken in Vineland. Departing significantly from the work that built Arbus’s reputation, they include some of the most mysterious and haunting pictures of her 15-year artistic career.

The “Untitled” exhibition is the first in Zwirner’s new partnership with the Fraenkel Gallery of San Francisco to co-represent the Arbus estate. Rather than start with her iconic portraits of sideshow freaks, cross-dressers, pro-Vietnam war demonstrators and nudists, the New York gallery opted to show this less familiar, late work, which until now has never been seen in its entirety.

Of the girl in the foreground in “Untitled (6) 1970-71,” Arbus wrote: “She bent her head to her knees and with an odd shiver somehow the rest of her followed in what looked like the first somersault.” Credit The Estate of Diane Arbus

“Entirety” should be marked with an asterisk. Arbus exposed roughly 1,900 frames of film in these institutions; she committed suicide in July 1971 without having fully edited or titled the pictures. It fell to her older daughter, Doon, to decide what constituted the series, relying (but perhaps not exclusively) on images Arbus chose to print. A book published under Doon’s auspices in 1995 included 51 pictures; additional ones have been released since. Of the 66 photographs at Zwirner, six are prints made by Arbus. (Five have never been publicly shown before.) One was shot with a Pentax 6×7, the cumbersome camera Arbus was trying out at the very end of her life.

While the portrayal of madmen and fools has a venerable artistic tradition, Arbus’s subjects are intellectually disabled, not insane, and they are physically unrestrained. No one had ever made pictures quite like these. Arbus arrived at two great insights. The first was that it would be more poignant to show her subjects happy. Her friend Richard Avedon had photographed at the East Louisiana State Mental Hospital in 1963, recording scenes of pain and degradation. Frederick Wiseman’s 1967 film, “Titicut Follies,” set at the Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane in Massachusetts, was similarly bleak and despairing. Crucially, Arbus searched for moments of celebration, not suffering, during games and holidays.

Her second brilliant stroke was to photograph outdoors, amid trees and fields, scrubbing off journalistic or sociological details of the institutional settings and entering the universal realm of dream and myth. In the exhibition, you can see the evolution of her thinking.

~~~  CONTINUE  ~~~

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