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Art review: Diane Arbus photos look through a lens darkly

Written by
Howard Halle

Recently, a New York Times book review of a Diane Arbus biography noted that the famed photographer is “possibly the closest thing America has to Kafka.” Indeed, Arbus (1923–1971), like Franz Kafka, depicted the world as a waking nightmare—a joke so dark, no light or redemption could escape. The two shared the same irony, shivering under a blanket of anxiety, peculiar to Jews like themselves whose privileged circumstances afforded both an acute sensitivity to death’s proximity and a refuge from it. The difference was that Kafka prophesied genocide, while Arbus lived through its aftermath.

The Met Breuer's look at Arbus’s early career doesn’t make that point, but I couldn’t help thinking that the exhibition design (a set of narrow, floor-to-ceiling partitions, arrayed in staggered rows and hung on both sides with a single small print) recalls the architectural language of Holocaust memorials. It’s hard to say whether Arbus’s images essay man’s inhumanity to man or just her own, but the premise of the aforementioned biography and others like it is that her work springs from a tumultuous life filled with sexual liaisons (even, possibly, an incestuous one with her brother), general dysfunction and bouts of depression that eventually led to her suicide. To see all of that in her work is admittedly reductive, but the show tempts you into doing just that.

From the start, Arbus populated her images with freaks, as she described them, though this often meant rendering otherwise ordinary people as freakish or at least hollowed out—most noticeably in a shot of a middle-aged woman on the street, her hands gloved in white like a pallbearer’s, her face sunk into a mask of despair. Susan Sontag condemned Arbus’s photos for their harsh voyeurism, with Arbus playing judge, jury and executioner. But again, it could be argued that Arbus used her subjects to reflect her own psyche, much as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning used paint to do the same.

This notion that Arbus treated the viewfinder as a looking glass is reinforced by the diminutive scale of photos that force you to get as close to them as you would to a mirror to find something stuck in your teeth. The images are arranged in no particular order, leaving you to weave in and out as if you were lost in a spooky forest or following the artist’s meanderings around New York. For Arbus, the two seem to have been inseparable.

And yes, freaks are abundant: a drag queen in a kimono, a dwarf singing for his supper, a contortionist, a corpse on the coroner’s table. Most interesting are shots taken off of TV and movie screens, showing horror films and cartoons. They augur the Pictures Generation, but her real legacy lies elsewhere, for without Arbus, there would be no Nan Goldin, Robert Mapplethorpe or Larry Clark.

None could match Arbus’s punishing subjectivity, however. If her work, per Sontag, were a kangaroo court, she often passed sentence on herself.

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