Four decades after Diane Arbus was found dead in a New York bathtub with both of her wrists slit, the art world is still analyzing her life and her artwork for fresh clues, hoping to reveal new insight into a body of photos that is among the 20th century's most groundbreaking. This persistent desire to produce Arbus' artistic autopsy is a testament to her lasting impact on photography, and the art world's endless fascination with an innovator who — like The Doors' Jim Morrison (who also died in 1971, and also met his end in a bathtub) — seemed to have it all: beauty, fame, and critical acclaim.
An Arbus photograph is instantly recognizable for the people she focused on, especially nudes, circus figures, the developmentally disabled, and those in posed moments of awkwardness or mystery. Arbus had a way of finding those moments, or inspiring them herself with a seductive ability to direct her subjects to and fro. A new exhibition at Fraenkel Gallery, “Diane Arbus: 1971-1956,” gives us Arbus in reverse chronology, starting with the year she died to the year she started numbering her negatives. The year 1956 was also the year that Arbus left fashion work, studied with street photographer Lisette Model, and reinvented herself as a documentarian of non-celebrities — people whom society didn't lionize, didn't envy, didn't want to spend much time with. Yes, Arbus still photographed the famous (as with Mae West, Marcello Mastroianni, and Ozzie and Harriet), but she captured them in scenes that belied their Hollywoodized reputation. Validation of the privileged classes wasn't the Arbus way. Undermining them was — even though Arbus came from privilege herself.
Arbus was full of contradictions. So were her photos. That's what makes them so bewitching and so appealing. Among the images in “Diane Arbus: 1971-1956” is The king and queen of a senior citizens' dance, N.Y.C., which showcases an elderly man and woman in full pageantry: crowns, capes, scepters. The septuagenarians are the chosen ones. They're the crème de la crème of their small milieu. Except they look miserable and utterly pathetic. It's the saddest thing ever. And it's Arbus at her best — a counterintuitive masterwork that turns a scene of ascendance into a nightmare of pathos. You can't take your eyes off the photo, which was taken in 1970.
Year after year, Arbus found people who fit the same pattern of disjointedness. From 1969, there is Elderly couple on a park bench, N.Y.C., where the couple — despite sitting inches from each other — look aloof and miserable. From 1960, there is Couple arguing, Coney Island, N.Y., which shows a woman verbally assaulting her partner as he tries — a harried look on his face, his left hand clutching a cigarette — walking away from her venom. And on and on it goes.
Arbus wasn't a war photographer, but she was at war with herself, and her photos reflected a lifelong inner turmoil that she found in her subjects, according to psychology professor William Todd Schultz, whose “psychobiography,” An Emergency in Slow Motion: The Inner Life of Diane Arbus, was published in 2011. Written almost two decades after Patricia Bosworth's meticulously reported Diane Arbus: A Biography, Schultz's book examines the research on Arbus and features original interviews (most notably with Arbus' psychotherapist, Helen Boigon) to conclude that Arbus was a mess. A brilliant, depressed mess who, at the end of her life, slept with many of the strangers she photographed, and bullied and connived subjects into posturing a certain way. After West saw Arbus' photos of her in the celebrity magazine Show (one shot had West posing defensively in a chair, another had West in bed with a monkey), she was livid. “Cruel” is how West's lawyers termed the photo-spread in a letter to Show's publisher that threatened a lawsuit, Bosworth reported. Lisette Model, Schultz writes, called Arbus a schizophrenic, saying “her illness was projected into every single photograph.”
Then there are the “freaks” that Arbus specialized in — people like Eddie Carmel, the 8-foot “Jewish giant,” and Lauro Morales, a small person of Mexican heritage who Arbus photographed in a hotel bed, naked from the waist up. Arbus adored societal outcasts who were born with challenging physical traits, famously saying, “There's a quality of legend about freaks. Like a person in a fairy tale who stops you and demands that you answer a riddle. Most people go through life dreading they'll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They've already passed their test in life. They're aristocrats.”
The freaks are scattered about in “Diane Arbus: 1971-1956,” which divides the photos on display into five distinct categories: “The Mysteries That Bring People Together,” “Interiors,” “People Being Somebody,” “Recognition,” and “Winners & Losers.” Like the five stages of grief, each category is a minefield of highs and lows, each category a chance to peer at images that were considered shocking during Arbus' lifetime. A Naked Man Being a Woman, N.Y.C., from 1968, has a man in makeup posing in the nude, his body hair shaved, his genitals hidden from view. When Arbus' photos of transvestites and men in drag were first shown at the Museum of Modern Art around the same year, some patrons spit at them in disgust.
Arbus' photos still push people over the edge of comfort. Like Tennessee Williams' brutally honest plays and Edward Hopper's dramatically stark paintings, Arbus' work challenges the narrative of “the happy ending,” and does it in a beautiful and poetic way. There are few happy endings in Arbus' work. Her sudden death at age 48 is a testament to that. Schultz looks at the evidence and says Arbus may not have intended to kill herself in 1971 — that in slicing her wrists, she may have been hoping her married lover found her alive.
Arbus sought out extremes in her art, and her private life, it turned out, was the same way. The lens that Schultz placed on Arbus helps explain her art in fundamental ways. In fact, Schultz and Bosworth did to Arbus what Arbus did to her photographic subjects: enter a private space that had been off-limits. The Fraenkel exhibit chronicles the way that Arbus doggedly broke all sorts of boundaries. One photo, from 1960, is of a body on a table in a New York morgue. Arbus knelt down so that our view is of the person's exposed feet. The right toe is tied with a small slip of rectangular paper, as if the deceased is for sale. No happy endings, indeed.