The 1972 Diane Arbus retrospective sparked a firestorm. See it 50 years later, restaged shot by shot


A 1972 retrospective of Diane Arbus, shown just a year after her suicide at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), divided viewers in a way few exhibitions have ever done.

New York Times Critic Hilton Kramer called it “an artistic and human triumph” and praised the late photographer‘s ability to “inhabit the mind and body and milieu of certain people whom society has judged to be abnormal or unusual”. Addressing the same issue, Susan Sontag wrote—somewhat infamously—that the artist’s work “shows people who are pathetic, pathetic, and repulsive, but fail to evoke sympathetic feelings.”

‘Arbus’ photographs,’ Sontag continued, ‘suggest a shy and uncanny naivety because they are based on distance, on privilege, on the feeling that what the viewer is meant to see is real Miscellaneous.”

A word of mouth sensation that was both adored and slandered, the show pulled out the door, around the block and quickly became the museum’s most-visited solo exhibition to date. “People walked through this exhibition as if they were queuing for communion,” recalled John Szarkowski, MoMA’s legendary cinematographer who curated the retrospective.

It is not difficult to say that the exhibition changed the way photography, a once marginalized art form, was perceived by the institutional art world. And now, a full 50 years later, it’s back.

Diane Arbus, Four people at a gallery opening, NYC (1968). © The Estate of Diane Arbus.

Today’s opening at David Zwirner in New York is “catastrophe‘, a recreation of the 1972 show, right down to the last frame.

The exhibition, organized by Zwirner and the Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco, who together represent the Arbus estate, brings together 113 photographs by the artist on two floors and in seven gallery spaces. It is a museum quality presentation with all prints secured by loan or consignment; Some of them actually hung on the walls of MoMA in 1972. (No new estate-approved prints of Arbus’s images have been made since 2003.)

The name “Cataclysm” refers to the unexpected effect of the retrospective. “The effect of the paintings was disastrous,” said dealer Jeffrey Fraenkel, who has worked with the Arbus Estate since founding his eponymous gallery in 1979. “When people walked into MoMA and saw these photos – BAM! Nobody had seen anything like it before.”

[Arbus] went further than anyone and took risks and was so brave,” explains Frankel. “’Fearless’ is the word. That was part of the electricity that touched people.”

Diane Arbus, Tattooed man at a county fair, MD. (1970). © The Estate of Diane Arbus.

Arbus’s photographs, now among the best known in art history, will not have the same impact this time. and for cynic, restaging a historical exhibition will certainly feel contrived at first glance—a gimmick akin to, say, bringing war of stars back in cinemas for the umpteenth time.

The business appeal is easy to see: for collectors, it’s a rare opportunity to collect Arbus’ greatest hits; for the galleries the profit that such an opportunity offers. Prices range from $10,000 to $175,000 for posthumous prints and $40,000 to “close to a million” for prints made by Arbus himself, according to David Lieber, a partner at Zwirner.

But there is also non-monetary value in putting this particular show back on its feet.

Today, photography is cemented in the firmament of the contemporary art world, just as Arbus is cemented in its canon. Far more precarious, however, are the questions her work raises—the same questions that made waves five decades ago—that remain shaky and unresolved. Society has treated Arbus’ issues differently, but has it? Can photographs empower or just objectify? What does it mean see?

Diane Arbus, A very young baby, NYC [Anderson Hays Cooper] (1968). © The Estate of Diane Arbus.

What is captured in Arbus’ pictures is not a “decisive moment” but a conditional network of relationships – a kind of social contract in which we as viewers participate. “When you look at an Arbus image, you’re always aware of this triangulation between the subject, the photographer, and the viewer,” Leiber noted.

Indeed, engaging with the images of Arbus is engaging with what it means to take a photograph of another human being. And that, Fraenkel said, is an exercise that’s just as important in 2022 as it was in 1972.

“These are images that I know very well. But when I went into the gallery yesterday and turned left and saw an image…I felt like I was seeing it for the first time.” Fraenkel recalled his visit to Cataclysm. “It sent a bolt of lightning through my system.”

“Nothing about the images feels old. They feel totally alive in this moment and speak to us.”

Diane Arbus, Woman with rose hat, NYC (1966). © The Estate of Diane Arbus.

​​”Cataclysm: The 1972 Diane Arbus retrospective revisited‘ can be seen at David Zwirner in New York from now until October 22nd.

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