Capitalising on its acquisition, Art Gallery of Ontario unfurls a Diane Arbus retrospective

Diane Arbus, Teenage Couple on Hudson Street, NYC, 1963 Gift of Robin and David Young, 2016; © Estate of Diane Arbus

In spite of her legacy, Diane Arbus has received relatively little exposure in Toronto (or in Canada altogether) where exhibitions are concerned. Since her premature death in 1971, Arbuss works have been routinely displayed in shows large and small around the globe, but she has not been the focus of a Canadian show since an exhibition at the Ydessa Hendeles Art Foundation in Toronto in 1991. The citys Art Gallery of Ontario is now playing host to a major Diane Arbus retrospective. The reason? In 2016, the efforts of numerous donors allowed the museum to acquire 522 of the artists photographs, making its Arbus collection the largest in the world after that of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

“Its something like walking into a crowded room of people you havent met before, said curator Sophie Hackett of Arbuss photographs at the press preview for the exhibition this week. “Youll be attracted to some, youll be curious about others,” and “others … you might want to avoid. Actually there are three main rooms in the show in which 150 photographs from the entirety of Arbuss career have been arranged chronologically. With the exception of a self-portrait Arbus took of herself in 1945 while pregnant with her daughter Doon—the shows starting point— the retrospective begins in 1956, when the artist left her husbands fashion photography business to pursue her craft in earnest, and ends in 1971, the year she committed suicide.

The Art Gallery of Ontario bills the show as the first to present images from the full sweep of Arbuss career chronologically. The progression is indeed important to the experience as it allows viewers to examine how Arbus matured as an artist and how the nature of her photographs changed throughout the years, as well as when she began working with different film formats. Until 1965, Arbus captured her subjects on grainy 35mm film. However, in preparation for 1967s New Documents, her first major solo exhibition, she began taking pictures with a Rolleiflex camera. This cameras more square format arguably lent itself well—if not better—to the more jarring and intimate photographs she took from the mid-1960s until her demise. Some of Arbuss most iconic works, such as Identical Twins (which famously inspired the twins in Stanley Kubricks 1980 film The Shining), Puerto Rican Woman with Beauty Mark and Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park — all of which are in the show—were shot on a Rolleiflex, and its hard to imagine them having even nearly the same effect in a smaller format.

Diane Arbus, Puerto Rican Woman With a Beauty Mark, NYC, 1965 Gift of Phil Lind 2016; © Estate of Diane Arbus

The aforementioned individuals comprise the “attractive people in the exhibition, to return to Hacketts observation. Aside from them and icons like Marcello Mastroianni, James Brown, and Christopher Isherwood, whom Arbus photographed for various mainstream magazines such as Esquire, one can expect, for the most part, to see dwarves, drag queens, nudists, dominatrixes, sword swallowers, bearded ladies and other such characters that evoke “all the fat-skinny people/And all the tall-short people/And all the nobody people David Bowie sang about in his apocalyptic song Five Years. As the late photographer David Vestal once noted in reference to these characters in Infinity Magazine, though, Arbus “does not emphasise their abnormal or freak character. Instead, she concentrates on showing—with seriousness, dignity and sympathy —how much they have in common with the normal people around them. They may just be more open and direct, more vulnerable, more visibly human than most people.”

While by and large, the so-called freaks that Arbus photographed were obscure, some are recognisable. The contortionist Joe Allen, for instance, appears in a 35mm photograph from 1961, while photographs of Hezekiah Trambles—better known by his stage name, Congo the Jungle Creep—can be seen in a pristine 1960 edition of Esquire. In addition to a poster of the “Human Corkscrew” Joe Allen, one of Arbuss photographs of Congo adorns the cover of the Rolling Stones seminal Exile on Main Street album from 1972 (which, interestingly, was shot by Arbuss friend Robert Frank a year aRead More – Source

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