Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Out Of The Past: Nothing Personal at the Pace Gallery

Allen Ginsberg, poet, New York City, December 30, 1963 by Richard Avedon.

. . . to grasp again, with fearful hope, the unwilling, unloving human hand.
– James Baldwin, “Nothing Personal” (1964)
To live in a time when so much of the American worst has returned to squat like some demented, incontinent rooster on the White House lawn is to feel locked in a past more horrible for being resurrected in a new century. Jim Crow, voter suppression, the “Southern strategy” gone national: we’re past the body snatchers, and on to zombie politics. It seems clear enough, then, why the Richard Avedon Foundation has chosen now to reintroduce us to Nothing Personal. This large-format volume combining Avedon’s photographs with James Baldwin’s titular essay was published in 1964, at the violent height of what many were calling America’s new civil war. Its organizing observations were of the Civil Rights Movement, long before that historic reckoning had been assigned capital letters; more generally, it was a polemical outcry against dehumanization and alienation, with movie stars, pop stars, writers, socialites, and Louisiana asylum inmates among its subjects. Other themes, writ small or large, were the physical dynamics of individuals, couples, and groups; the lonesome cause of the intellectuals, several of whom gave Avedon worried looks from within chiaroscuro lighting; and the naked human body.

Through January 13, the Pace Gallery in Manhattan is showing an exhibition based on Nothing Personal; the art publisher Taschen has issued a facsimile of the original, along with a companion catalog containing many of the exhibition items – contact sheets, correspondence, rough drafts – and a fine, elliptical essay by New Yorker critic Hilton Als. The smallish rooms, high ceilings, and clean lighting of the Pace are suited to the modest collection, and allow for great variation in sizing, from Billy Graham at barely more than postcard size to Avedon’s famous mockery of the racist Daughters of the American Revolution, which is blown up to nearly the dimensions of a Bosch mural. (If you’ve never noticed the zit on the left shoulder blade of the matron at the center, you will now.)

The Generals of the Daughters of the American Revolution, DAR Convention, Mayflower Hotel, Washington D.C., October 15, 1963 by Richard Avedon.

The outtakes and ephemera on display never fail to enliven the context of the book. We discover that it was first meant to open with Yeats’s famously damning, prophetic lines (“The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”); we see four pages of Baldwin’s holographic manuscript, and Avedon’s fanatically detailed instructions on the proper shading and printing of his images. The portrait of William Casby, a Louisiana man born into slavery, is a standoff between a mesmerized lens and a face totalized by experience, and it has always seemed a natural fact: something documented, not made. But the exhibit takes us a few steps behind the process, with uncropped outtakes of Casby both alone and with his descendants. Here the face is softer, rounder, gentler: it becomes clear how much of the portrait’s power is in Avedon’s nearness and patience, and in the moment of collaboration which leads to his capture of something manifest but latent in Casby’s features. (Nearby, not randomly, are contact sheets of George Lincoln Rockwell, leader of the American Nazi Party, clenching a corncob pipe in his jaw and forcing smiles that resemble gargoyle grimaces.)

The exhibition, with its array of rough notes, discarded sketches, and bonus tracks, returns you to the book itself, the finished and decided work. All of a piece yet not quite coherent or self-explanatory, Nothing Personal has always had a peculiar power to disturb. This isn’t simply because of the wretched, grainy asylum photos, with the mentally ill or severely retarded straitjacketed, strapped to pipes, or rolling on the floors of their (racially segregated) wards. It isn’t simply because so many villains of U.S. history live in the book’s pages. It’s also because, as simplistic as parts of it are, Nothing Personal has something hard and bitter at its heart, a morbid precision which works away from the prevailing tone of fear and pity. The juxtapositions speak half the time with a pedantic clarity, the other half in a perversely indecipherable code. Putting George Wallace’s smugness in proximity to Joe Louis’s mighty fist has a clear social-humanist message – as does the belittling of Rockwell’s jackbooted thugs by a full page of Allen Ginsberg’s gay, bearded, Jewish nakedness. But what is Fabian, a flash-in-the-pan teen idol, doing in the same book with chemist and disarmament activist Linus Pauling? Why is Adam Clayton Powell, the swinging Harlem congressman, caught in such a supercilious pose? Is there any reason, beyond smooth skin and frontward gaze, for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s son to be reflected by Cheryl Crane, notorious for having stabbed the abusive lover of her mother, Lana Turner? There’s great warmth to some of the images, a monumental coldness to others (Bertrand Russell in profile, as regnant and impassive as a stone lion; Dwight Eisenhower as a bizarre, quasi-fetal presence, an elderly star-child). The admiration that pours from Avedon’s lens toward SNCC organizer Julian Bond and his interracial soldiers jars with the strikingly icy lines and paranoid expressions, elsewhere in the book, of The Everly Brothers. An exhausted, empty-eyed Marilyn Monroe, viewed with such apparent empathy (she was dead by the time the book appeared), is dwarfed by the facing page’s mug shot of Dorothy Parker, all baggy skin and cracked lips; factual and unreadable, the image is either a remorseless exposure or a chance for the legendary wit to say: “Here I am, without wit.”

Marilyn Monroe, actress, New York City, May 6, 1957 by Richard Avedon.

These are the edges and questions that prevent Nothing Personal from being a bullhorn or a wet hanky, a mere vehicle for pleading. The Baldwin essay, for all its emotional poetry, its cri de coeur against “our absolutely unspeakable loneliness,” is as focused as Avedon’s lens, with a prose insistent on commas, clauses, qualifications. Like music it illuminates and elaborates, mystifies and clarifies the imagery, without at any point explicitly referring to it. The persistent absence of obvious correlations between words and images, and between images and images, gives a dimensionality and difficulty to the whole work that the components often don’t possess as isolated items.

Another reason Nothing Personal disturbs: death hangs over it. It was intended to, and history would soon add weight to the intention: within four years of publication, no less than three of the book’s sitters would be dead by assassination. The portrait of Major Claude Eatherly, advance weather pilot to the atomic bombing, and at the time an obsession of the international peace movement, raises, if spuriously, the ghosts of Hiroshima. And there is the Monroe image. (Avedon’s original conception, explored in the exhibition mockups, included the withered, denuded, but still humanoid corpses he’d photographed in Sicilian catacombs; these shots were ultimately not used, but several were published in the closing section of An Autobiography, his 2004 career retrospective.) Nothing Personal opens and closes with two self-contained series, poignant parentheses around the book, which both deflect and welcome mortal musings. The opening pages, given to candid shots of newlywed couples – black and white, older and younger – at New York’s City Hall, are full of kisses, touches, smiles: awkward and tender gestures toward the future. The lighting is bright, the focus absolute; the subjects are richly dressed, stylishly armored for public display. The closing pages show people – black and white, older and younger – splashing in the Santa Monica surf. They revel in a prelapsarian equality, a womblike wetness that also portends drowning – or the flood of judgment that Baldwin had promised would be replaced, next time, by fire. As night falls on the beach and on the book, the words of Baldwin’s warning and the grains of Avedon’s imagery coalesce in a perfect chime, the harmony of art: from out of the past, a knell of death, of rebirth, perhaps even of hope.

Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003), The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (2012), and Jesusmania! The Bootleg Superstar of Gettysburg College (2016). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect), blogger (Hey Dullblog), and TV writer (The Food Network), he has appeared innumerous publications and contributes regularly to Critics at Large and the pop culture site HiLobrow. He is employed as an archivist at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats. His website is devinmckinney.com.

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