Richard Avedon’s Family Affairs at the National Museum of American Jewish History

Subway poster advertising the Avedon exhibit photograph 2015 by jpbohannon

Subway poster advertising the Avedon exhibit.
Jerry Brown, Bella Abzug, Barbara Jordan and George H. W. Bush
photograph 2015 by jpbohannon

In 1972, Francis Ford Coppola released The Godfather, the film version of Mario Puzo’s blockbuster novel from three years earlier. Four years later he released The Godfather II. Both the novel and the films were more than just extraordinary successes, they became part of America’s cultural weltgiest. They were widely honored and celebrated and they spawned scores of imitations–some good, some not so good.

And for a while there, when one heard the word “the Family,” one reference came immediately to mind: organized crime.

So it was with not a little irony that Rolling Stone published sixty-nine Richard Avedon photos under the umbrella title “The Family.” The issue was published on October 21,1976–just before the 1976 election and little after the Bicentennial celebration that summer. The mood of the country was neither particularly joyous nor overly patriotic. It had been a rough eight years.  And Avedon’s portraits were of the U.S’s elite–the most powerful men (and a few woman) in the United States. Several would later move into even more powerful and influential roles

Avedon’s portraits are stark in their simplicity. The subjects stand before a white screen. There are no props (although Katherine Graham does hold her eye-glasses in her hands.) Most are straight-on, some slightly turned. And most stare straight into the camera.

They are revealing portraits.

So it was great fun strolling through these portraits on display at the National Museum of American Jewish History and thinking of what have become of some these powerful figures. (The exhibit ran until August 2.) More than a few of the subjects have had large effects on American life since these photos were taken in 1976.  There is George H. W. Bush, head of the CIA; Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense for Gerald Ford; Ralph Nader, described simply as a “Consumer Advocate”; Ronald Reagan, at the time simply the “Former Governor of California”; W. Mark Felt, a former Associate Director of the FBI (and whom we know now was the infamous “Deep Throat” of Watergate fame); and Jerry Brown, in 1976 the youngest governor in California history. Thirty-five years later, Brown was again elected and became the oldest governor in California history.

Avedon who started out as I.D. photographer for the Merchant Marines, entered the world of fashion photography (he is the model for Fred Astaire’s character in Funny Face) and shot for Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and Life. While still immersed in fashion photography, he began taking portraits of those involved in political dissidence and

Avedon--Self-Portrait 2 2006

Avedon–Self-Portrait 2 © Richard Avedon 2006

social issues, celebrities and workers, the demi-monde and the hard-scrabble. While his fashion photography may be timeless, it is these “social” portraits that are the most powerful and unforgettable

Such was Avedon’s reputation, that after “The Family” shoots, George H. W. Bush–America’s chief spy-master at the time–wrote the following to Rolling Stone:

It was a pleasure having Mr. Avedon out here at CIA… .  I don’t know if he was as scared to come out here as I was in posing for the great Avedon, but he sure has a neat way of putting his victims at ease and I enjoyed our short time together.

George H. W. Bush and Katherine Graham. Promotional photo for

George H. W. Bush and Katherine Graham. Promotional photo for “Family Affairs” at NMAJH.

THE FAMILY

The following are the list of subjects of Rolling Stone’s photo-essay “The Family”. These photos were part of the National Museum of American Jewish History exhibit, Avedon: Family Affairs.

Bella Abzug             Carl Albert              James Angleton              Walter Annenberg
J. Paul Austin           Benjamin Bailar      Roger Baldwin                Daniel Boorstin
Jerry Brown              Gen. George Brown     Arthur Burns             George H. W. Bush
Earl Butz                    Joseph Califano       Jimmy Carter                 Emanuel Celler
César Chávez           Shirley Chisholm        Frank Church                Clark Clifford
John DeButts            Thomas Eagleton       W. Mark Felt               Frank Fitzsimmons
Gerald Ford               Thomas Gleason        Katherine Graham      F. Edward Hérbert
Adm. James Holloway     Hubert Humphrey     Daniel Inouye         Lady Bird Johnson
Gen. David Jones         Barbara Jordan          Edward “Ted” Kennedy
Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy    Henry Kissinger     Richard Kleindienst    Melvin Laird
Mike Mansfield            Eugene McCarthy      George McGovern          George Meany
Arnold Miller            Herbert J. Miller, Jr.    Daniel Patrick Moynihan   Edmund Muskie
Ralph Nader           Thomas “Tip” O’Neill         William Paley          A. Philip Randolph
Ronald Reagan      Elliot Richardson    Admiral Hyman Rickover   Nelson Rockefeller
Peter Rodino            Felix Rohatyn          A.M.Rosenthal          Pete Rozelle
Donald Rumsfeld      Charles Shaffer         William Simon         Jules Stein
I. F. Stone                  Cyrus Vance             George Wallace      Gen. Fred C. Weyand
Edward Wilson           Gen. Louis Wilson      Leonard Woodcock    Rose Mary Woods
James Skelly Wright   Andrew Young

The Other Families

Besides the portraits from the Rolling Stone piece, the exhibit “Avedon: Family Affairs” also contained several large scale murals of other different “families.”  His portrait of the Chicago Seven is notable because of the absence of Bobby Seale, who had been jailed the day before the group shot was to be taken. There is a large mural of Andy Warhol’s “Factory” denizens, notable here for containing two portraits of Joe Dallesandro–one nude, one clothed. And there is a wonderful portrait, the largest of all of them, of Allen Ginsberg’s family. The family–celebrating the publication of Ginsberg’s father’s collection of poems–is a wonderful group, disparate like all families, but very much connected. Some hold plates with cake, some hold coffee cups, one sits, the rest stand, some stare at the camera, some look away.

It is a honest family shot of an American icon.

Richard Avedon, Allen Ginsberg's Family, Paterson, New Jersey, May 3, 1970 (1970).  Photo: courtesy of NMAJH

Richard Avedon, Allen Ginsberg’s Family, Paterson, New Jersey, May 3, 1970 (1970).
Photo: courtesy of NMAJH

Book Review: Talk by Linda Rosenkrantz

Recording on the beach illustration 2015 by jpbohannon

Recording on the beach
illustration 2015 by jpbohannon

In the introductory material to the New York Review of Books‘ re-issue  of this 1968 novel, the writer Stephen Koch states that Linda Rosenkrantz was the precursor of “reality tv” with this inventive, unusual work. He says that Rosenkrantz’s technique, far more than anticipating reality television, was even the precedent for everything from Friends to Broke Girls. 

His latter assertion, he bases on the fact that this novel deals with two “twenty-something” women and one male talking about relationships, hopes, dreams, and reality. Before Rachel, Monica and Ross dished, Rosenkrantz’s characters were doing the same.

And before Snooki and the “Situation” shared more than we wanted to know about their adventures at the Jersey Shore, Rosenkrantz’s kids were already at it.

And how she did it was that she took a tape-recorder (they were very bulky in the mid-1960s) everywhere she went one summer, on the beach, in the shore-houses, at clubs.

Cover of NYRB's  re-issue of Linda RosenKrantz's Talk

Cover of NYRB’s re-issue of Linda Rosenkrantz’s Talk

The concept sounded wonderful. Rosenkrantz took her tape recorder and recorded her friends as they made dinners, basked on the beach, drove to clubs, and packed and unpacked.

At the end of the summer, she had more than twenty-five characters speaking the truth–or at the very least speaking. And they speak a lot.

Thankfully, she winnowed the twenty-five down to three: Vincent, a gay male painter; Emily, a struggling actress with a drinking problem; and Marsha, who has a “serious” job in New York, and who is the anchor of the novel. All of it is supposed to take place against the background of New York’s edgy art scene, with Warhol the subject of more than one name drop. (At the time, Rosenkrantz was editor of Sotheby’s Auction magazine and was quite cognizant of all the goings on in the art world at the time.)

The three are all at the shore. They are all in therapy. And they share their therapeutic insights with us. And on top of it all, there is an odd love triangle.

Emily loves Marsha. They are the best of friends and Marsha tries to nurture Emily through her psychiatric problems and her drinking. Vinnie understands Emily more than he understands Marsha, but Marsha is madly in love with him despite knowing he is gay. (And there are hints that Vinnie might also be in love with Marsha, but… .)

Take these three people, have their conversations recorded, and then transcribe them in a novel may have worked 50 years ago, but it does not work today. The psychoanalysis is juvenile, the relationships are sophomoric, and the conversations–for the most part–are deadening.

Koch was right when he said Talk was the precursor to reality television. He just didn’t tell us that it was the precursor of all that was inane, self-indulgent, and titallating about the genre. Talk might have been ground-breaking in 1968, but in the 21st century, it doesn’t even work as anthropology.

Imagine sitting on a towel on the beach next to these three people, discussing their analysis, their love lives and more. It would be enough for me to hope for a rip tide.

Book Review: Ed Ruscha’s Los Angeles by Alexandra Schwartz–“learning what I do not know”

Standard Station, 1966, Ed Ruscha. (Park West Gallery)

Standard Station, 1966, Ed Ruscha. (Park West Gallery)

RuschasLAMITI received a book about six months ago as a gift: Ed Ruscha’s Los Angeles by Alexandra Schwartz.  At first I thought it was a travel guide, for I was headed to L.A. a few weeks later and I just assumed it was a book detailing the more out-of-the-way spaces to see.  Except that it was much too nice a book for a mere travel guide: small and compact with fine paper, hard-board covers and peppered with illustrations. I put it aside to read it at another time. (I have since spilled an entire cup of coffee on it in a place where food and drink was forbidden. Deserved bad karma!)

Anyway, boy was I wrong about the travel guide…and ignorant of an artist and a whole school of painting.

I had been completely unaware of Ed Ruscha–and of Los Angeles art.  And I was not alone. In fact, much of the book’s focus is how the Los Angeles’ school of Pop Art has always played the poor sister to New York’s more celebrated school.  And yet, unlike many cultural movements in which a western migration can honestly be traced, Pop Art in America seems not to have originated on the East Coast and worked its way across to California. Apparently, according to Schwartz, Pop Art seems to have arisen simultaneously in various parts of the country, reacting to and inspired by the same cultural influences.

In 1962, the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles mounted an exhibit entitled “The New Painting of Common Objects.” The British critic, Lawrence Alloway–the man who coined the term “Pop Art”–cites it as being the first exhibit of American Pop Art.  In fact, the gallery–and its curator Walter Hopps–was the first to exhibit Warhol’s iconic Campbell Soup Can–arguably, the defining image of Pop Art–two months before it was shown in New York.  The list of artists at “The New Painting of Common Objects” exhibit included Lichtenstein, Dine and Warhol from the East Coast, Phillip Hefferton and Robert Dowd from the Mid-West, and Edward Ruscha, Joseph Goode and Wayne Thiebaud from the West. It was the nation’s introduction to Pop and a major stroke for the establishment of Pop Art in the country. This, and the fact that the respected art magazine ArtForum had its offices above the Ferus Gallery where the show was staged, would seem enough to move the spotlight onto the Los Angeles’ art world, but it wasn’t.  But New York is much too big a player. (Ultimately ArtForum moved there, as well.)

Ed Ruscha in front of Noise, 1966. Photo: CHRISTINA KOCI HERNANDEZ for San Francisco Chronicle

Ed Ruscha in front of Noise, 1966.
Photo: 2004 CHRISTINA KOCI HERNANDEZ for San Francisco Chronicle

Ruscha hit the L.A. scene young, having hitchhiked in from Oklahoma at the age of nineteen. He enrolled in what is now the California Institute of Arts and afterwards worked–like his contemporary Warhol–in advertising.   And like Warhol, his collages, his word-art, the signage and everyday objects, and his photographs greatly showed the influenced that advertising had on him.

Ruscha’s work is vibrant and fun, enigmatic and engaging, uncluttered and beguiling. Besides his artwork, he has created numerous books and films, and often collaborates with artists, writers and publishing houses on lay-out and cover designs. He still works and lives in Southern California.

To be truthful, the book, Ed Ruscha’s Los Angeles itself, however is a bit heavy going and academic at times. (It was published by MIT and was originally Schwartz’s doctoral dissertation). But nevertheless, it is a wonderful introduction to Ruscha’s art.

At least for me, for whom he was a completely new name. And one that I am enjoying discovering.

“Always learning, even if it’s simply that I do not know.”

Movie Review: Black, White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe 

Sam Wagstaff and Robert Maplethorpe

Sam Wagstaff and Robert Maplethorpe

I discovered a documentary the other night called Black, White + Gray by James Crumb (2007). The blurb calls it a study of the relationship between the curator/collector Sam Wagstaff, the artist Robert Mapplethorpe, and the poet/singer Patti Smith. To be honest, however, it is really the story of Wagstaff, that touches greatly on his relationship with Mapplethorpe and to a much smaller degree with Smith, both for whom he was mentor and patron and friend. (In Mapplethorpe’s case lover and companion.) Consequently, it also deals with art, the business of art, the demimonde of gay life in the 1970s and 80s, and, of course, the scourge of AIDS.

patti smith robert mapplethorpe

patti smith robert mapplethorpe

Moving chronologically through Wagstaff’s life–and anchored by Patti Smith’s intelligent and honest and fond recollections–the film follows Wagstaff from his schooldays through his loathed time spent in advertising to his prominence in the art worlds of New York, Paris and London. Along the way, there are appearances on the Dick Cavett Show, press conferences, interviews with his friends and colleagues, and countless photographs, many taken by him or Mapplethorpe and many part of his historic collection.

Wagstaff was strikingly handsome, aristocratic, and intelligent. (Dominick Dunne called him one of the most handsome men he ever saw.) He was also gay, but closeted himself for much of the oppressive fifties and early part of his life. Not until his meeting with Mapplethorpe did it seem he grew comfortable with his homosexuality. As a curator, he embraced and pushed forward those artists and art forms that were still on the fringe, Minimalism, Earth Works, Conceptual Art, and, most importantly, photography. Wagstaff believed that photography was an ignored art and deserved to be elevated to the pantheon of “Fine Arts.”

Indeed, it is because of Wagstaff that photography holds the status that it does today. His relentless collecting, the exorbitant sums he paid, the continual praise and comments in the press, single-handedly hauled photography onto the main stage.

A few years before he died, Wagstaff sold his private collection of photographs to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles for the then unheard-of price of $5-million. It was testimony to how far he had brought photography to the forefront.

The interviews within the film are honest and intelligent. Many deal with his collecting, with his curating, and with his “vision.” Many deal (some negatively, some positively) with his relationship with Mapplethorpe. Dominick Dunne, particularly, gets much air time, and talks about Wagstaff in two of the worlds that he lived in–the socialite world and the gay world. And all is brought together by the reminiscences of Smith.

“Compartmentalized” is a word that often came up, and it seemed that Wagstaff was very good in ordering his life into separate and distinct components. But in the end, it was the gay world that did him–and so many others–in. It is easy to forget that at one point, AIDS was a scourge that was decimating much of the art world. The film ends with Wagstaff’s death, and then with Mapplethorpe’s, and then with a list of the many artists who have died of AIDS complications since.

It is a sobering ending. But then the credits role and are intersperse with clips from the many interviewees and once again we are reminded of the life, of the visionary man who rose so high in the world of art–and brought others with him .

We know much about Mapplethorpe’s life, and Patti Smith’s, greatly due to her wonderful memoir, Just Kids. James Crumb’s film Black, White + Gray adds greatly to our knowledge of that time and that world and the people who populated it. It’s worth while finding and fascinating viewing.

By the way…

The title of the film, Black, White + Gray not only refers to the B&W Photography that Sam Wagstaff collected, cataloged, and often curated, or the shades of distinctions in the compartmentalized life that he constructed, but also to the momentous exhibited he staged at the Hartford Wadsworth Atheneum entitled “Black, White and Gray.” The exhibit, considered the first minimalist show, featured the work of Stella, Johns, Kelly, and Lichtenstein, among others. It was an extraordinary success, influencing fashion, Hollywood, advertising, and, of course, Truman Capote’s infamous Black and White Ball.

Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow arriving at Truman Capote's Black and White Ball.

Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow arriving at Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball.

https://i1.wp.com/media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/192x/85/cf/f1/85cff11fb5bb99780ab77c77af4861d9.jpg

Andy Warhol at Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball without a mask.