To the surprise of everyone involved, Diane Arbus’ posthumous 1972 retrospective at MoMA became the most highly attended one-person exhibition in the museum’s history.

Diane Arbus Gave You Permission to Stare

To the surprise of everyone involved, Diane Arbus’ posthumous 1972 retrospective at MoMA became the most highly attended one-person exhibition in the museum’s history. Staged the year after her suicide at age 48, it included 113 works across a range of her now familiar subjects: a society matron in her well-appointed parlor, a chubby-faced sleeping baby, a tattooed body builder, identically dressed triplets sitting on their middle bed, and so on. In collaboration with Fraenkel Gallery, who represents the Arbus estate, David Zwirner Gallery has recreated this exhibition as Cataclysm: The 1972 Diane Arbus Retrospective Revisited. The photographs in the show have all been loaned or consigned and almost half hung in the original MoMA presentation, yet they are also selling authorized posthumous prints, made through 2003.

Diane Arbus, Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967. All photos courtesy the author. 

The stated focus of Cataclysm is the media storm surrounding the original exhibition, and a handsome accompanying catalogue called Documents compiles contemporaneous writings and criticism on Arbus’ work. It references the fifty-year argument that has centered on whether her photographs are exploitative, mostly in relation to the “otherness” of those she captures with titles such as: Russian Midget Friends in a Living Room on 100th Street, N.Y.C., 1963Transvestite at a Drag Ball, N.Y.C.,1967, Hermaphrodite and a Dog in a Carnival Trailer, MD, 1970 or A Jewish Giant at Home with his Parents in the Bronx, N.Y.C., 1970. Yet, looking at the breadth of images themselves, the artist seems to render every subject with similar scrutiny, applying her uncanny eye to draw out a striking persona from the most banal subject. Even her bejeweled Park Avenue hostess or young crying baby is somehow transformed to appear “freakish,” suggesting that she unearthed this same otherness in all she rendered.

Diane Arbus, A very young baby, N.Y.C. [Anderson Hays Cooper], 1968

Remarkably, Arbus exhibited only once during her lifetime, as part of a small three-person 1967 MoMA presentation, New Documents. Marion Magid reviewed what she described as “this extraordinary show,” for Arts Magazine, concluding:

Once having looked and not looked away, we are implicated. When we have met the gaze of a midget or a female impersonator, a transaction takes place between the photograph and the viewer; in a kind of healing process, we are cured of our criminal urgency by having dared to look. The picture forgives us, as it were, for looking. In the end, the great humanity of Diane Arbus’ art is to sanctify that privacy which she seems at first to have violated.

While Magid’s poignant observations remain true to this day, for posterity the review’s key phrase may be “Diane Arbus’ art” at a time when photography was only rarely considered such. MoMA was at the forefront of elevating photography, collecting images through the 1930s and establishing their department in 1940. John Szarkowski, inheriting the department in 1962, championed Arbus and the acceptance of photography as fine art, producing a history-shifting show, even amidst the controversy.

Cataclysm: The 1972 Diane Arbus Retrospective Revisited is on view through October 22 at David Zwirner Gallery (537 West 20th Street)

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