March 20, 2005
MarkBernstein.org
 
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Arbus

There's a superb exhibit on Diane Arbus at the Met (in New York). You should see it if you can, even if you don't care for Arbus.

I've always mistrusted Arbus when I noticed her at all: her best-known images, I've always felt, come very close to being cruel to her subjects. There's a certain heartlessness about those twin girls, for instance, and more than a little in her portrait of that ridiculous, acne-pocked, flag-waving moron in his pro-war regalia. Yeah, he was a dupe and he was wrong and lots of people who died would be well and happy today if people like him had got off the Nixon wagon sooner -- but still, he's human.

But this exhibit shows everything -- contact sheets, obscure prints, shots Arbus never got around to printing -- and the big picture makes Arbus more approachable. Her early work is full of intellectual interest -- clever plays on media and remediation that seem to belong to 1990, not 1959. Later, there are more outsiders, but for the most part they're treated sensitively -- even the carnival curiosities and hucksters.

The exhibit respects the intelligence and knowledge of the visitor, providing lots of information without restating stuff everyone knows or waving its arms in aesthetic mania -- the latter a vice to which the Boston MFA has been prone lately. And they're careful not to reduce her life to its end. It's a great assemblage, in short, and here the entirety of the artist's work perhaps means more than the peaks.

Confidential to the MET: if you install even more gift shops in gallery space, you're going to be nearly as bad as the Vatican Museum. Museums should not be shopping malls.