I Could Become a Million Things, But Not That

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley

Diane Arbus, "Woman with Veil on Fifth Avenue, N.Y.C," 1968. © The Estate of Diane Arbus.

“Giving a camera to Diane Arbus is like putting a live grenade in the hands of a child,” Norman Mailer infamously remarked in 1971, less than one year before Arbus died and over nine years after she snapped a photo of a scrawny blond boy who actually did have grenade in hand. Whether Mailer, cavalier to a fault, meant to or not, his quip infantilized Arbus’ savvy, as has much of the opining and homage surrounding her photographic oeuvre in year past. On the cover of the catalogue for her recent retrospective, titled Revelations, you see her face, a hazy and grainy dark-eyed phantom, lurking behind two of her more stoic photographs. In Fur, the “imaginary” movie portrait by Steven Shainberg, you see Arbus, played by Nicole Kidman, as a weak-willed dreamy creative easily seduced by the world’s eccentrics.

Over the three decades since her painstaking suicide (barbiturates and wrist slitting), too much mystique has grown up around the obsessive strangeness of Arbus’s work and she has become, in some ways, as a dark an artist-figure as Sylvia Plath—a tortured soul, claimed Patricia Bosworth’s unauthorized 1984 biography. But  unlike Plath, who wrote of feeling terrified of herself and “incapable of more knowledge,” Arbus would throw herself fully into what scared her. “What’s important to know is that you never know; you’re always sort of feeling your way,” she said, and felt her way deftly.

"Diane Arbus: People and Other Singularities," 2011, Installation View, Gagosian Gallery, Beverly Hills. Photograph: the Douglas M. Parker Studio.

You won’t find much that’s new or unexpected in People and Other Singularities, the current exhibition of Arbus’ work on view at Gagosian’s Beverly Hills gallery. The show more or less functions like a retrospective, featuring the iconic photos of aging divas, eccentrics and freaks of nature, among them the famous image of the Jewish giant or the nudist colonies. But from the moment you walk in, you’ll be on an adventure that has less to do with soul-probing and more to do with pushing open the bubble of person-hood. “Do other people exist in the same way I do?” Arbus seems to ask over and over again. “It’s so hard to believe that’s true.”1

The first image you see when you enter the gallery—that mawkishly endearing shot of a grinning,, double-chinned lady in tulle hat and black netted veil—confronts you, aggressively, with its bodiliness. Yet it also has an infectious, quixotic tenderness. Often, that’s what Arbus provides: a body with physical quirks and features so overt they can’t be overlooked, yet a quiet relatability courses through underneath. It’s there in her portrait of the Roselle twins, the debutante Brenda Diana Duff Frazier, or the not quite Barbie-like women trying for the title of Miss Venice Beach. Arbus could climb into a community completely without faking belonging; always, she was looking in on something that wasn’t her.

Diane Arbus, "A young man and his pregnant wife in Washington Square Park, NY," 1965. © The Estate of Diane Arbus.

One summer, she spent her time working in Washington Square Park:

And there were these territories staked out. There were young hippie junkies down one row, lesbians down another—really tough, amazingly hardcore lesbians—and in the middle were winos. They were like the first echelon, and the girls who came from the Bronx to become hippies would have to sleep with the winos to get to sit on the other part with the junkie hippies. It was really remarkable and I found it very scary. I mean, I could become a million things, but I could never become that.

“[When I see] great art,” said novelist Zadie Smith, “when I read a great piece of fiction, what I’m being confronted with is exactly what is radically not me, a consciousness of the world that is so far from my own, it’s a shock.” Arbus shocked in that way, and, right now, in an era where obsession with identity politics, self-discovery and radical self-assertion (Cosey Fanni Tutti’s vagina photographs or Vito Acconci’s masturbation under the stairs play up the “I” of experience in a way that seems far less potent right now, in the era of youtube, file-sharing and self-exposure opportunities galore) has begun to seem stale, her work feels more poignantly, exquisitely relevant than ever. Whatever her personal demons, Arbus understood that other people were the whole point.

1. The above quote–“Do other people exist the way I do?”–also comes from Zadie Smith’s 2006 interview with Michael Silverblatt.