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Close Encounters: Irving Penn Portraits of Artists and Writers

Morgan Library & Museum
January 18 - April 13, 2008

“Arthur Miller, New York, 1983,” (1984). Gelatin silver print, selenium toned. 15 x 14 7/8 in. The Morgan Library & Museum; Gift of Irving Penn; 2007.65.  © Irving Penn.
“Arthur Miller, New York, 1983,” (1984). Gelatin silver print, selenium toned. 15 x 14 7/8 in. The Morgan Library & Museum; Gift of Irving Penn; 2007.65. © Irving Penn.

Recently, the Morgan Library & Museum, for the first time in its history, invested in art photography, acquiring sixty-seven black-and-white portraits by Irving Penn, of which thirty-five were direct gifts from the legendary 90-year-old photographer. This collection shines in the museum’s newly renovated space.

Penn began taking these portraits in the 1940s for Vogue, the magazine with which he became synonymous. The exhibit, organized by guest curator Peter Barberie, presents images of the most influential writers, artists and musicians of the 20th century, including many of the early avant-gardists—surrealists and innovators—captured over a 60-year period.

Penn’s darkroom techniques and introspective approach unlocks secrets and draws out unknown personas. In his portrait of Pablo Picasso (1957), usually depicted as outgoing, extroverted, explosive and macho, often posing next to his paintings, Penn photographed a secretive and shy man hiding behind an upturned coat collar and a hat brim. The crazy-eyed, face-making Salvador Dali (1947) was portrayed sitting down, defiant, his body confrontational yet oddly peaceful at the same time.

When Irving Penn was young, he wanted to be a painter, and his idol was de Chirico, whom he later photographed in Rome (1944). His association with surrealism was triple-fold throughout his career: many of his subjects were leading surrealists, some already mentioned, and others such as Ernst, Miró, Man Ray, Grosz, Tanguy, Borges, Giacometti, Calder, and Smith, documented as multiple-personalities. Also, in the 1950’s, he photographed blue-collar characters in their work clothes in a series called The Small Trades—a sort of bizarre encounter with the anthropology of exploitation (maybe some of the most important works of his long and influential career.) And lastly, in his series called Earthly Bodies, big fleshy torsos of nude women are folded, twisted and stretched Freudian-surrealistically, anonymously framed without the head.

While in his early portraits Penn relied on props—a piano for John Cage, a sketchbook for Saul Steinberg—for the images in this exhibition he used only austere and confining spaces, movable walls, simple tables and chairs. Here, less truly was more.

But on closer examination, props are used in these photographs, too, only of a more personal nature. Marcel Duchamp (1948), dressed in a suit, tie and dark scarf, body angled as if extruding himself from a tight corner, is holding his favorite pipe. In a more dandyish photograph, Jean Cocteau (1948) grips a cigarette, one thumb hooked on his vest, with an elegant jacket slung over his shoulder; he is shown almost climbing on a chair, head slightly tilted toward the camera, presenting an uncharacteristic uneasiness and intensity.

In contrast there is a portrait of Arthur Miller (1983), lit from overhead, with one finger rubbing the eyelid. Behind his dark glasses, Miller’s expression is playful and relaxed. Truman Capote (1948) slouches in a corner, perched on a chair, head tilted right, dressed in an overcoat, hands in his pockets, staring at the camera with a guilty, childlike look. The most recent of Penn’s portraits on display is that of Jasper Johns (2006), his face emerging from darkness into the light, staring blankly into the unknown.

Among the women, Louise Bourgeois (1992) is revealed in profile, hands clasped and eyes closed with a cap on her head, projecting total disconnect, as in a deep meditation. Georgia O’Keeffe (1948) appears in a full-body portrait set in a corner, staring with disquieting inquisitiveness at the lens. Simone de Beauvoir (1957) sits sideways, her face hard-looking. The French model Colette, Man Ray’s daughter Dolores, Dorothea Tanning—the last surviving surrealist—and Janis Joplin round out the female side of the exhibition.

Another of Penn’s experiments was to pair his subjects, mostly close friends such as Frederick Kiesler and Willem de Kooning (1960), both in freshly ironed white shirts, one with his eyes close, almost asleep, the other with one eye wide open and a smoldering cigarette—a sort of “yin and yang” couple. Another unlikely pairing is Joseph Albers and Jasper Johns in New York (1964).

Close Encounters is primarily Irving Penn’s testament to some of the great men and women of letters and arts, many of whom lived and worked in New York and helped define it as the cultural capital of the world after World War II. Their images form an appropriate addition to the Morgan Library holdings, united with the drawings, manuscripts and musical scores that comprise their legacy.


Valery Oisteanu


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2008

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