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"Avedon's America" Takes Us Through History in Shades of Gray at Guild Hall in East Hampton

Santa Monica Beach #4, September 30, 1963. Photograph by Richard Avedon © The Richard Avedon Foundation

Avedon’s America
August 12th - October 9th, 2017
Guild Hall Center for the Visual & Performing Arts
158 Main Street
East Hampton, NY 11937

By JILL CONNER, SEPT. 2017

On August 12th, Guild Hall in East Hampton opened Avedon’s America, an extensive exhibition of black-and-white photographic portraits made by the late Richard Avedon. Spanning roughly five decades, from 1945 to the year of his death in 2004, the pictures on view project various icons from American society who have each stood for an array of themes and issues central to different generations. Since the end of World War II, America has seen 14 Presidents in office who have presided over vast technological advancements. However, such progress has paled against the continued increase in new demands surrounding marginality. Richard Avedon himself identified as both an outsider as well as Jewish, and therefore sought either scorned or overlooked subjects in order to establish a bridge with each sitter. Although he did not witness the historic presidential election of Barack Obama in 2008, Avedon’s America conveys the photographer’s strong belief of such a national achievement. 

The flow of memorable personalities seen throughout this exhibition begins chronologically with “James Baldwin, writer, New York, 1945,” where the dark, African-American face of Baldwin looks directly at the viewer. Avedon’s use of grayscale amplifies Baldwin’s stare, highlighting the darkness of the author’s skin color, which was the central theme to all of Baldwin’s written work that had flourished during the immediate postwar era. In every essay, journal entry, poem, and novel Baldwin wrote, he presented elegant but harsh critiques of the American status quo. He revealed its racism and prejudice against sociopolitical differences such as sexual orientation and class. These issues were so prominent at that time because American men from many different backgrounds had just won a world war while working together on a unified front, only to return home and find society shattered with the politics of segregation. Baldwin identified these problems as obstacles to American progress and subsequently chose to live the last years of his life in rural France, where he died in 1987.


China Machado, evening pajamas by Galitzine, London, January 1965. Photograph by Richard Avedon © The Richard Avedon Foundation

A selection of portraits from the 1950s include the silent movie star Charlie Chaplin, whose successful acting career in America ended with a series of controversies during the 1940s. After leaving for England on September 18, 1952, the United States prevented the actor’s potential re-entry due to his rumored association with Communist circles. This action marked Chaplain as an exile from his adopted home, where he had lived since 1914. Richard Avedon caught up with the actor a few days before his departure and made a portrait titled “Charlie Chaplin, actor, New York, September 13, 1952.” In this image, one sees the actor’s cynical smile as his hands reflect the gesture of horns, responding bitterly to the sentiment that had welled up against him. 

Another significant work from this mid-century era is “Marian Anderson, contralto, New York, June 30, 1955,” who is shown in the midst of singing, with her eyes closed and hair moving in a subtle breeze. Anderson was already 58 years old at the time this image was taken. However, she became well-known in the United States during the year 1939, when the Daughters of the American Revolution had denied Anderson a singing performance at Washington, D.C.’s Constitution Hall. Such a rigid decision by white American women stood in stark contrast to the fact that Marian Anderson was already an acclaimed singer in London and Scandinavia. 

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

The gaffe in 1939 had quickly been replaced with Anderson’s outdoor performance of “America” on the National Mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Despite her professional success overseas, racist sentiments continued to hamper her within the United States. The sociopolitical differences seen thus far in Avedon’s photographs are also left unresolved, even while rather calm portraits showing Gloria Vanderbilt, Marilyn Monroe, Marianne Moore, and Dovima set a balance between the marginalized and the status quo. 

In 1958, Richard Avedon created a portrait of Ezra Pound, a poet from Rutherford, New Jersey who had just been released from 12 years of confinement in a psychiatric center. During World War II, Pound had lived in Italy as an unrepentant Fascist and was arrested once Italy surrendered to American troops in 1945. Pound’s portrait by Avedon shows an almost-blinded, pinched face that is unable to look at both the camera and the photographer.

The shock of postwar inequality was not worked out by portraits such as Pound’s. Instead, the situation lent even more momentum to the burgeoning Civil Rights movement that initially began in 1955. While Avedon’s America presents only eight portraits from 1945 to 1959, the number of images made between 1960 and 1969 nearly triples. During this decade progressive lines of thought were beset with political upheavals such as the assassinations of John F. Kennedy in 1963, Malcolm X in 1965, and then Martin Luther King, Jr. followed by Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. In 1966, the Black Panthers were founded; the Vietnam War, which had started the same year as Emmett Till’s death in 1955, was still ongoing. Richard Avedon successfully preserved the rapidly shifting atmosphere of Civil Rights, made evident in the portraits on view here.

Malcolm X, civil rights leader, New York, March 27, 1963. Photograph by Richard Avedon © The Richard Avedon Foundation

The 1970s were quite sobering in comparison. In response to the growing debate over America’s involvement in Vietnam, the photographer created “Napalm victim, Saigon, South Vietnam, April 29, 1971,” showing a woman who partially covers her face with her right hand. However, a sense of optimism and renewed energy emanates from the dancing figure of “Tina Turner, singer, New York, June 13, 1971,” followed by “Richard Avedon at the home of Robert Frank, Mabou Mines, Nova Scotia, July 17, 1975.” 

Throughout this exhibition, Avedon’s portraits remain accessible and create a meaningful dialogue with the viewer. The inclusion of the subject's name, occupation, city, and year was a basic form of labelling, but was also central to the identity of Avedon’s photographs. His use of black-and-white reproductions furthermore reveals the capability of these two opposing hues in pulling together something that is both clear and understandable. 

However, the most interesting works on display are the portraits that Richard Avedon made over the three years after September 11, 2001. Some subjects were, in chronological order: Donald Trump (2001), Edward Albee (2003), Hillary Clinton (2003), Toni Morrison (2003), Bill O’Reilly (2004) and Jon Stewart (2004). Each personality has continued to lend influence to the shape of America’s contemporary cultural and political identity. Along with two additional group portraits of the Midwestern family Mair and members of the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Division, the photographs seen in Avedon’s America continue to resonate over a decade later. WM 

 

Jill Conner

Jill Conner is an art critic and curator based in New York City. She is currently the New York Editor for Whitehot Magazine and writes for other publications such as Afterimage, ArtUS, Sculpture and Art in America.  

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