Monday, July 18, 2005

Aspiring Artist

Irving Penn: Platinum Prints, currently at the National Gallery of Art in Washington until October 2, 2005, is a surprisingly impoverished show despite its literal use of precious metals.

Penn is best known for his work for fashion magazines such as Vogue, some of which is included here, but this exhibition makes it clear he wasn’t satisfied solely with a reputation in the trades; having spent many a season in commerce, he was determined to be recognized as an artist as well. Despite these loftier ambitions, however, Penn’s work fails to excite the imagination, and, surprisingly, neither does his technique, laboriously executed and dutifully recorded in some of his notebooks that accompany the work.

Walking around this exhibition one finds numerous clues as to the identities of those artists, not just photographers, who inspired Penn. Diane Arbus and August Sander clearly made an impression as did Nadar, Cecil Beaton and Bill Brandt; but so, too, did nearly the entire Surrealist and Dada entourage as well as the great still life painter Giorgio Morandi. Despite these rich and varied sources, the flatterer fails to measure up to the objects of his desire in nearly every instance. In one particularly feeble example, a clumsy still life entitled Composition with Skull and Pear, we even find the “chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and umbrella” played out by proxies including a typewriter, skull and other objects. Unlike the image evoked by the Comte de LautrĂ©amont, Penn’s work falls flat in every regard, vainly substituting clutter for profundity.

Some time in the 1970’s Penn turned his camera toward found objects, more residue from his Dadaist leanings. The results were huge platinum prints of cigarette butts and other urban detritus, lifted as were the originals, literally from the gutter and displaced into a context where one expected to see art. But Penn, seemingly insecure, felt compelled to intervene and fiddle endlessly with the objects themselves (judging by the notes describing his experimentation with the platinum process), turning them into prints of enormous preciousness if not subtlety, unsure whether or not they could stand or their own or, more likely, afraid his own role would go under-appreciated were he to allow them to do so.

Nowhere are Penn’s artistic aspirations more forcefully and unsuccessfully announced than in his regrettable decision, years after the fact, to take the test prints he originally made to learn how to control the platinum process as well as conserve resources (platinum is, after all, expensive) and assemble them as new collages. Why he felt the need to share these fragments, simple by-products of the process, remains unclear. If these were intended to evoke unconscious associations they fail, monumentally, instead underscoring another self-conscious attempt to force new readings where none existed, like some sphinx without a riddle.

The Penn with artistic pretensions is perhaps best known for his portraits of ordinary folk including Hells Angels, the citizens of Cuzco, Peru, and tribesmen from New Guinea. The Peruvian portraits include one of his most famous pictures from the period, that of a very young brother and sister standing in a barren studio consisting of a stone floor and drapery and leaning on a pedestal more than half their size. The visitor to the exhibition is informed that Penn had been in Peru on another matter, traveled to Cuzco and discovered a local portrait studio there. He promptly paid the owner to take a vacation for a few days and leave the studio to him. Once established in his new temporary quarters, Penn turned the tables on the local subjects who ventured in for a session by paying them to pose rather than the other way around. With the exception of the portrait of the two siblings, which derives its notoriety from the dislocating scale, austerity of the surroundings and poses by children that seem at once far more mature than their actual years and much more expressive than those of any of their compatriots, the portraits from Peru lack the vernacular authenticity one would expect the titular owner of the studio no doubt achieved on a regular basis. Penn remains a tourist, fittingly one with money to spend.

What would a Penn exhibition be without true celebrity portraits? These are well-represented here with photographs of Colette, Saul Steinberg, Edmund Wilson, Picasso, and Woody Allen (dressed as Chaplin) among others. But no matter who the photographer, celebrity portraits often present us with little more than an “Ah-ha”experience, affirming previously held perceptions rather than offering fresh perspectives, and Penn’s certainly are no exception to that tradition. His portrait of Alberto Giacometti, carefully composed and scrupulously considered, is nevertheless dull and surprising lifeless, especially when compared to one of the same subject by Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose off-handed, spontaneous approach, succeeds in startling us by seeing Giacometti precisely as one of his own tall, striding stick-like figures.

Penn’s portraits of workers and tradesmen are also dim reminders of those who came before him and were passionate if not consumed by the cataloging impulse. August Sander’s ambitious undertaking to photograph the entire German nation might have resulted in stereotypes of the worst sort were he not fascinated by and intimately familiar with the individuals in front of his lens, not just the categories they represented. Penn’s portraits, on the other hand, are mere shells; the people inhabiting the outfits and lugging the implements of their trades to his studio were merely mannequins on which to hang their props. Come to think of it, in this regard at least he finally if unwittingly closed the gap between his own competing identities.