The exhibit is effectively divided into four sections, each led by one of the murals. Each section is outlined starting with the mural itself, followed by the details of the photographs and archival material on view in the adjacent/supporting V:
Andy Warhol and members of The Factory
Mural: gelatin silver prints, three panels mounted on linen, 1969/1975, 123x375, edition of 2+2AP
Prototype mural: gelatin silver prints, three panels mounted on masonite, 1969, 30x115, unique
7 gelatin silver prints, 59x48, 38x51, 34x42, 24x20, 20x16, 1969-1971 (some printed 1975, 1993, 1997)
1 c-print, 20x16, 1969
Vitrine: 6 gelatin silver contact prints, 8x10 or reverse, 1969, 2 sheets of loosely mounted contact prints, 1968, 1 Candy Darling model release
The Chicago Seven
Mural, gelatin silver prints, three panels mounted on linen, 1969/1969, 122x243, edition of 2+1AP
12 gelatin silver prints, 67x61, 37x29, 36x28, 24x20, 20x16, 14x14, 10x8, 1963-1975 (some printed 1975, 1998)
Vitrine: 1 comic book, 1975, 1 book cover, 1968, 3 gelatin silver contact prints, 1969, 1 contact sheet, 1969, 1 newspaper article and opening photograph from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1970
The Mission Council
Mural: gelatin silver prints, five panels mounted on linen, 1971/1975, 120x390, edition of 2+1AP
14 gelatin silver prints, 41x33, 40x32, 20x16, 10x8, 1971, 1975, 1976 (some printed 1993, 1998, 1990-1999)
Vitrine: 2 gelatin silver contact prints, 1971, 3 gelatin silver prints of Avedon at work by Denis Cameron, 1 Vietnam sittings book belonging to Avedon, 1 edited model release, 1 Department of Defense ID card, 1 NY Times article, 1971, 1 metal engraver's block
Allen Ginsberg's family
Mural: gelatin silver prints, two panels mounted on linen, 1970/1993, 96x240, edition of 3
6 gelatin silver prints, 40x30, 24x20, 20x20, 20x16, 11x14, 1960, 1963, 1970 (some printed 1970, 1980)
6 gelatin silver contact sheets, 20x16, 1963
Vitrine: 3 gelatin silver contact prints, 8x10, 1963, 1970, 1 poetry magazine, 1971, 2 photographs of Ginsberg by Elsa Dorfman, 1977, 1978, 2 books, 1980, 2001, 1 postcard, 2 magazines, 1970, 1973
Before I get to the photography itself, the modifications to the normal gallery experience made by the special architectural elements here deserve some discussion. As a reminder, the Gagosian space in Chelsea is truly cavernous, with extremely high ceilings and the possibility for broad open areas. But instead of the usual room to room linear progression common to most large shows, this space is built on a central axis, like an X of hallways through the larger overall rectangle. As you enter the gallery, all that you can see is a fairly narrow, all-white pathway to the center, where a snippet of one of the large murals is partially visible in the background. So you walk through this thin empty area and then emerge into the expansive middle space, with long views down the four cardinal points to the murals on the outside walls (see the guards in the installation shots above for a sense of the scale). It's a dazzling, smile-inducing piece of theater, and allows you to see the monumental images from a decent distance.
The way the walls are aligned, once you pick your first mural to explore, there is no choice but to walk straight toward it until you are up close, the white walls on the sides funneling you down to the artwork. This forces a gradual change of scale, as the larger than life people now tower above your head, their immensity and crisp detail more pronounced from a few feet away. Now, out of the corner of your eye, you'll see another single print, hanging near the corner of the gallery space, somehow related to the mural you've just examined. As you follow the invisible breadcrumbs to see this photograph, you pass the end of the white wall, and behind it is revealed the interior of a V shaped area, painted all black, and covered in smaller images that support the larger story of the mural. It's another well-orchestrated surprise. And as you dig deeper into this material, you are led into the very apex of V, where smaller bits of ephemera are found under glass. The space is so well designed that this all feels effortless, the transitions in scale managed carefully to support a layered reading of all the work. You then head back to the center of the gallery and repeat the process for the other three murals. Designed by David Adjaye of Adjaye Associates, it's one of the smartest, most well-considered gallery installations I can remember encountering; not cheap, I'm sure, but undeniably extremely effective in showcasing the photographs.
Now all of this showmanship wouldn't matter one iota if the work itself couldn't match the innovations in the architecture. Lucky, the brilliance of these Avedons from the 1960s and 1970s hasn't dimmed at all in the intervening decades; they remain as fresh and original as when they were made. The murals combine Avedon's now signature featureless white background with an expansion of scale that was truly unprecedented at the time; their imposing physicality makes them seem like contemporary versions of ancient marble friezes or triumphant monuments. I was most struck by Avedon's careful control over his compositions in these works, from the individual posing and preening of Warhol's entourage (with Warhol himself almost an afterthought) and the rigid vertical linearity and repetition of the Vietnam-era military and government officials in their dark suits, to the bushy bearded, casual confidence of the Chicago Seven and the overcrowded, multi-generational massing of Allen Ginsberg's family. Each mural creates a complex internal conversation from edge to edge, the subtle relationships between the subjects coming through in the tiniest of gestures.
The portraits and materials in each supporting area broaden the story of each mural. In some cases, this means a deeper exploration of Avedon's methodical journalistic rigor, where incisive portraits were made of all the stakeholders surrounding an issue, taking into account competing viewpoints or downstream effects. So for the Chicago Seven, not only are there fabulous portraits of Abbie Hoffman (including one of him holding a gun with a charismatic cackling laugh, giving the finger to the camera), but there are images of lawyers and writers associated with the case, as well as other radicals and organizers of differing views. For the Mission Council, there are portraits of soldiers and napalm victims, social workers, hookers, and krishnas, flanked by Nixon's secretary in her pearls. This selection of works proves that Avedon sought multi-layered context, not just the single powerful image we might be familiar with.
Other portions of the archival material give insights into Avedon's process. There are work prints (with grease pencil selections and instructions) and contact sheets, as well as plenty of alternates and variant images, like the members of the Factory putting their clothes back on after the mural shoot. This is particularly true in the section devoted to Ginsberg, where there are 6 engrossing contact sheets of Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky trying out countless nude poses. The collected ephemera takes us even deeper, into model releases, images of Avedon working, his DoD ID card, and even his notebooks. I found this getting down into the weeds of Avedon's photographic life fascinating, especially in the context of the gargantuan murals nearby.
While I'm not sure that this exhibit represents a wholesale reappraisal of Avedon's work or a repositioning of his place in the canon, the show has clearly been designed with a sense of seriousness that stands in contrast to more easily consumable gatherings of his fashion shots and celebrity portraits. Here we are shown Avedon in the middle of the momentous events of the day (war, politics, sexuality, counterculture), crafting his own unique visual record of this critical period in our collective history. The nearly perfect production values of this show enable a richer and more complete presentation of this particular body of work, but in the end, the exhibit successfully reinforces Avedeon's versatility and originality, and provides further proof of his importance in the larger sweep of photographic history.
Rating: *** (three stars) EXCELLENT (rating system described here)
- Avedon Foundation site (here)
- Reviews/Features: Wall Street Journal (here), New Yorker (here), Daily Beast (here)
Through July 27th