Shotgun Reviews

Diane Arbus: In the Beginning at the Met Breuer

Shotgun Reviews are an open forum where we invite the international art community to contribute timely, short-format responses to an exhibition or event. If you are interested in submitting a Shotgun Review, please click this link for more information. In this Shotgun Review, Henry Rittenberg reviews Diane Arbus: In the Beginning at the Met Breuer in New York.

Diane Arbus. Lady on a Bus, N.Y.C. , 1957; gelatin silver print; 14 x 11 in. Courtesy of The Met Breuer. © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC.

Diane Arbus. Lady on a Bus, N.Y.C., 1957; gelatin silver print; 14 x 11 in. Courtesy of the Met Breuer. © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC.

I was not even a full sentence into reading the online description for Diane Arbus: In the Beginning at the Met Breuer, an exhibition dedicated to the artist’s earliest works, before I had doubts. It was this tidbit that gave me pause: “Featuring more than 100 photographs that together will redefine one of the most influential and provocative artists of the 20th century.” I’m not above hyperbole, but come on. The beginning of any photographer’s career might show development as an artist, but would this phase redefine a photographer’s image? I doubted that seeing her path to finding her voice would redefine how I perceived Arbus in any significant way.

The setup is perhaps the most sublime part of the exhibition. Each photograph is hung on its own two-foot-wide panel, with a three-foot gap between panels arranged in rows. The physical setup of the exhibition forces viewers to stop and contemplate each photograph on its own terms. The panels and the space in between create a rhythm: look, think, rest, restart. Arranged as such, the gallery becomes a room-size contact sheet of Arbus’ work. Much like on an actual contact sheet, a number of the photographs don’t feel worthy of display, much less in a major art museum. For instance, the exhibit had numerous pictures Arbus took of movie screens. Seeing one such image is informative; seeing three, some of which are blurry or out of focus, is two too many. However, the setup forces viewers to stop and contemplate the lesser works anyway.

And don’t get me wrong, there are still great works in this show. There’s Arbus’ famous Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park (1962), and a number of other photographs exemplify Arbus at her wonky best. In these works that most clearly anticipate her later work, viewers can see what caught Arbus’ eye early on—a weird look from a passerby or a wax statue, stuck in the uncanny valley. The exhibition’s greatest virtue is placing her truly amazing works in better context. Arbus was a committed practitioner; one realizes the practice, time, and effort that Arbus went through to make her more iconic works. But if you go to the exhibition, don’t expect to be radically changed by it, as claimed by its promotional materials. Photographs are not allowed in the galleries, which is a pity. Because really, what’s more Arbusian than taking pictures of people blankly staring at photographs, trying to find a deep meaning where there may be none?

Diane Arbus: In the Beginning will be on view through November 27, 2016.

Henry Rittenberg is a recent graduate of Hamilton College, where he studied art history. He is now studying photography in New York.