Feature

Exhibition of the week

Close Encounters: Irving Penn Portraits of Artists and Writers

Close Encounters:
Irving Penn Portraits of Artists and Writers
Morgan Library and Museum
New York
Through April 13

Photographer Irving Penn was a great artist whose subject was other great artists, said Karen Rosenberg in The New York Times. The 67 portraits on view at the Morgan Library depict some “of the greatest creative talents of the 20th century.” Painters Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, and Georgia O’Keeffe share the wall with Rudolf Nureyev, Aaron Copland, and George Balanchine. “Woody Allen is next to his idol Ingmar Bergman; Norman Mailer sits below Philip Roth and cater-corner to John Updike.” The photographs, mostly taken for Vogue and other magazines, cover more than a half-century, from the 1940s to 2006. Over the years, Penn gradually developed a confrontational, close-up style, aiming to ensure that his self-regarding subjects “emerged from their portrait sessions with their carefully shaped personas profoundly shaken.”

He hardly succeeded, said Lance Esplund in The New York Sun. These images “have drama, grace, and panache,” but few provide much insight into their subjects. A good portraitist coaxes subjects to open up, but Penn’s stark, mannered style encourages them to “close down.” He “treats his sitters more as specimens to be examined than as individuals to be explored.” The resulting photographs may far exceed the quality of most magazine photography. But they rarely “rise to the level of genuine art.”
Penn’s photographs ultimately reveal more about his era than they do about any single individual, said Ariella Budick in Newsday. One series of portraits, for instance, shows several different subjects tucked into the same narrow corner of his studio. The dapper Duchamp, leaning back languidly, “becomes an urbane, strictly vertical presence within the triangular geometry.” German expressionist painter Georg Grosz hunches over like a trapped animal. Truman Capote “wedges himself into the space, dramatically accentuating his boyishness but also his ambition.” These images capture how such figures wished to be thought of. That, more than any other reason, is why “many of these images are the very ones that spring to mind when you think of 20th-century giants” of the arts.

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