Richard Avedon: Nothing Personal at Pace/MacGill Gallery

Art Scene

Richard Avedon: Nothing Personal at Pace/MacGill Gallery

The exhibition Richard Avedon: Nothing Personal revisits an under-recognized collaborative project between the renowned photographer Richard Avedon and literary legend James Baldwin. The project, a book published by Atheneum in 1964 featuring Avedon’s photographs and the writing of James Baldwin, was met with harsh criticism and quickly went out of print. However, it remained relevant and alive to and underground following, re-emerging in 2017 and now published by Taschen as a facsimile edition of the original book that includes an additional booklet with a new introduction by Hilton Als and previously unpublished photographs by Avedon.

Marilyn Monroe, actress, May 1957. Photograph by Richard Avedon © The Richard Avedon Foundation.

It is possible that at the time, the issues of race, social justice, and personhood engaged in the project were too close to home for much of the public, resulting in its lack of appeal to both the masses and the cultural elite. Irving Penn’s reaction notes this in wall text in the exhibition reading, “It’s a book which nobody but Dick Avedon would have wanted to do.”

Indeed, the crises of the day were difficult to engage. John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and an ongoing struggle to desegregate schools turned out to be precursors to Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968. A cataclysmic shift that needed to occur in America could no longer be ignored by the 1960s, and as is the case in most great epics of change, artists were at the forefront.

Members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, March 1963. Photograph by Richard Avedon © The Richard Avedon Foundation.

The book’s subject matter – race, identity and the human condition – is examined in the context of the mid-1960s and features a large amount of portrait photographs. Icons of the period including Malcolm X, Marilyn Monroe, George Wallace, Julian Bond and Joe Louis, as well as a series of patients from a mental institution, are on view in the exhibition.

Avedon and Baldwin were well-suited to begin an exploration of the social construction of race and identity in the United States through the project. They had already worked together at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx in the 1930s as writers and editors for the school’s literary magazine, The Magpie; and, by the early 1960s they were both highly respected in their individual careers.

George Wallace, Governor of Alabama, November 1963. Photograph by Richard Avedon © The Richard Avedon Foundation.

The exhibition includes traditionally framed black and white portraits, as well as memorabilia from Avedon’s and Baldwin’s high school days, letters from Avedon’s archive, photographic contact sheets, and more. One image encased in glass among the archival material is a stunning photograph of Martin Luther King, Jr. with his father, Martin Luther King, Sr., and his son, Martin Luther King III. All three gentlemen gaze directly and powerfully at the camera, unmistakably revealing a mutual respect and communication between both Avedon and his subjects, and the three generations of King men.

William Casby, born in slavery, March 1963. Photograph by Richard Avedon © The Richard Avedon Foundation.

In fact, many of the portrait photographs feature an astounding capacity by Avedon to reveal a sense of the inner world of his subjects through their gaze and posture. In much of the work, through body language and what appears to be locusts of energy radiating from the eyes of individuals, Avedon gifts his viewers with a unique ability to sense a fullness of being within each subject. This rich sense of personhood captured by Avedon alongside the thought provoking prose of Baldwin in Nothing Personal is as relevant today as it was in 1964, however, what may be most salient about the project is what it suggests about the power of collaboration.

Richard Avedon: Nothing Personal is on view at Pace/MacGill Gallery through January 13, 2018.