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Diane Arbus: In the Beginning at The Met Breuer

Art Scene

Diane Arbus: In the Beginning at The Met Breuer

Mad Men, Cha Cha Dancers, female impersonators, men who swallow razor blades, children and a variety of others populate the more than 100 black and white photographs from Diane Arbus’ early work featured in The Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition, diane arbus: in the beginning.

Diane Arbus Exhibition

Diane Arbus Exhibition

Arbus’ formative years as a photographer from 1956 to 1962 reveal what appears to be an inherent interest in the integrity of her subjects, something that has remained consistent throughout her career. At times, Arbus’ fascination with unordinary human beings and outcast subjects has drawn criticism. However, in this early work, people, places and things do not perform for the amusement of viewers, despite the fact that many of them are entertainers.

Diane Arbus Photo

The work seems to seek a forthright gaze between Arbus, the photographer, and people and environments, her subjects. Scenes are stripped of their assumed meaning and re-cast without sheen.

Diane Arbus exhibition

Diane Arbus Exhibition 2

In one photo, a small boy on a New York City street takes center stage. The legs and torsos of faceless adults dressed in black fill in the edges of the frame, creating an ominous presence. The child’s face enshrined in the white fur trimmed hood of his jacket appears serious; empowered by menacing thoughts related to the grasp his hand has on a toy gun dangling in his belted white holster.

Diane Arbus Exhibition 3

Through the cropping out of adults, the photograph elevates the world of a child and creates a space for the re-interpretation of the emotional depth of children and their potential for sinister activity.

Another photograph shows five boys sitting on a brick stoop. The image frame teases the viewer with glimpses of a faux-shingled house, somewhat decrepit flowerpots, half of a front door and half of a window frame. Once again the world of adults is minimized.

Diane Arbus

The boys, with their arms around each other, all wear some version of worn out jeans, striped t-shirts and converse. They also wear grotesque monster masks. Their head coverings feel familiar, like those that can still be found at Halloween costume stores today. Quite artistic in their own right, each mask is a unique compliment to the others; one eyed, werewolf, gargoyle, alien creature variations.

Despite the fear associated with these types of characters in popular culture, the boys’ bodily gestures and camaraderie suggest the fun and revelry of boyhood friendship, not the dangers of the unknown.

Installed on columns in a zig zaggy feeling format, each image in the main room of the exhibition, one of three rooms, is isolated and given its own space for contemplation. Image themes are not grouped together but spread out throughout the room, allowing viewers to put the pieces of Arbus’ vision together themselves. The deep blue walls of the exhibition design and the nature of its content offer an engaging treasure hunt in the mind’s eye of a legendary American photographer.

Diane Arbus

The additional rooms of the exhibition include one with desks and chairs where museum-goers can browse through the monograph that accompanies the exhibition, and another where a “A box of ten photographs” is on view, a portfolio of work created by the artist in 1970.

Until November 27, 2016 – The Met Breuer, 2nd floor

Photos: Anders Jones