The Richard Avedon installation at Gagosian’s 21st Street space may be a little gimmicky and heavy-handed, but the power of Avedon’s massive photo-murals makes the whole thing seem perfectly reasonable, even inspired. The enormous rectangular gallery space is artfully transformed by the construction of freestanding, sloping kiosks that occupy the four corners. The wall structures turn the corners into smaller gallery spaces where one can see smaller portraits and some fascinating Avedonalia. The exhibition designer was going for a cathedral-like, mid-century Eero Saarinen modernism and it hits just the right frequency to communicate the austere gravitas of the enormous murals.
The show presents Avedon’s four pantheonistic perp-walk group portraits, of Allen Ginsberg’s family, The Warhol Factory workers, the U.S. Mission Council (the rogues who prosecuted the Vietnam war), and the Chicago Seven. These murals are a powerful testament to Avedon’s place as one of the great artists of his generation or any other. This collection of saints and sinners are nuanced, soul-bearing portraits signifying the heroic, sublime, and absurdist American condition of the 1960s and 70s. The murals recall The Tribute Money by the early Quattrocento master Masaccio. They share a flatness of the picture plane, a casual, team-picture composition, and a constructed narrative emphasizing formal aspects of the standing figure’s sense of weight, movement, and pose. Each figure has a sense of being alone in a crowd. Avedon is a sculptor trapped in a photographer’s body. When you think Avedon, think of Rodin, Donatello, and Giacometti put in a blender and then poured out onto a sheet of photographic paper. The murals have none of the normal limitations associated with photography and all of the medium’s strengths. Avedon’s burning and dodging and whatever else he does in the darkroom must be what gives the work its softness, atmospheric complexity, and surface variation without compromising its cool, crisp, unified existential clarity.
These murals may be his most important works, certainly his most ambitious, and could form the basis for an interdisciplinary college course on American Studies. If you left the course knowing who everyone was and what they did to catch the Avedon eye, you would have a good sense of what there is to know about everything worth knowing.
On the east wall of the exhibition, possibly the most famous of the murals, is Avedon’s picture of Warhol and his factory workers. Trying to understand how Avedon and Warhol overlapped and how they didn’t is an interesting subject. I wonder if Avedon and Warhol ever had lunch? Who picked up the check?
Avedon helped define what makes New York just as much as New York defined who he was. Like Andy, he was so utterly recognizable, a walking, talking lodestar of glamour, beauty, art, culture, mega-success, and sophistication. He defined fabulous just as much as Warhol did but in a different way. He was a master of the high-paid commercial photography gig. He elevated the day job to an art form, taking innovative pictures of drop-dead gorgeous models for Vogue, and the result, like pretty much everything he touched, was art. But the red carpet handcuffs of his commercial work took their toll on his reputation among some pseudo-sophisticated curators, collectors, and critics, who turned their noses up and believed that real art is necessarily some sort of bohemian exercise practiced by mock-misunderstood bad-boy “geniuses.” No matter, as usual Avedon has the last laugh, and his timeless art and influence on art history will be important long after his detractors become obscure footnotes.
Murals and Portraits is on view at the Gagosian through July 27.