Exhibition Examines A Rare Portfolio Presented In Its Entirety For The First Time
Diane Arbus (1923—1971) was one of the most original and influential artists of the 20th century. “Diane Arbus: A box of ten photographs” forges new ground as the first exhibition to focus on the portfolio Arbus was working on at the end of her life. This heretofore missing piece from her biography was as important to her evolving artistic identity as it was to the broader public recognition of photography as a fine-art practice. Central to the transition Arbus was making away from magazine work at the time of her death, the portfolio bridges a lifetime of modest recognition with a posthumous career of extraordinary acclaim.
“Diane Arbus: A box of ten photographs” is on view from April 6, 2018, to Jan. 21, 2019, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The exhibition is organized by John Jacob, the McEvoy Family Curator for Photography. The museum is the only venue for the exhibition.
Having started her career as a studio photographer with her husband Allan Arbus, Diane Arbus quit the studio in 1956 and later studied with Lisette Model at the New School in New York City. She became a magazine photographer, working on assignment for high-profile periodicals including Esquire and Harpers Bazaar. In 1963 she was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship for a project that focused on American customs. The Guggenheim was among the most prestigious of fellowships available to artists, including photographers, making it an important source of financial and artistic support for those like Arbus who sought to break free from the strictures of magazine photography. Her later work was emotionally complex and explored subject matter outside of the mainstream, such as portraits of individuals whose professional, personal or physical attributes deviated from what was considered normal or acceptable in Arbus’ time, and photographs that frankly captured sexuality or revealed underlying currents of domestic tension and dysfunction.
At the time of her death, Arbus was already a growing influence on the field of photography but not widely known to the larger public. It was her portfolio, A box of ten photographs, that initiated the transition, connecting her past as a magazine photographer with her emergence as a serious artist. The publication of six photographs from the portfolio in Artforum and the presentation of the complete portfolio at the Venice Biennale were the first steps toward the almost mythical status of Arbus today.
“This exhibition sheds new light on a crucial and often overlooked stage in Arbus’ career, as well as on a transformational moment in the history of contemporary photography,” said Stephanie Stebich, The Margaret and Terry Stent Director at the Smithsonian American Art. “The museum was an early champion of photography as an important art form reflecting the American experience. We’re proud of the role that SAAM played in bringing the work of Diane Arbus to wider recognition in the 1970s and are pleased to present A box of ten photographs in its entirety to a new generation.”
In late 1969, Arbus began to work on a portfolio. At the time of her death in 1971, she had completed the printing for eight known sets of a planned edition of 50 of A box of ten photographs, as she titled it, only four of which she sold during her lifetime. Two were purchased by photographer Richard Avedon; another by artist Jasper Johns. A fourth was purchased by Bea Feitler, art director at Harper’s Bazaar. For Feitler, Arbus added an 11th photograph, “A woman with her baby monkey N.J. 1971.” This is the first exhibition to focus exclusively on A box of ten photographs, using the set that Arbus assembled especially for Feitler. It was acquired by the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 1986, and it is the only one of the portfolios completed and sold by Arbus that is publicly held.
The exhibition traces the history of A box of ten photographs between 1969 and 1973. The story is a crucial one because it was the portfolio that established the foundation for Arbus’s posthumous career, ushering in photography’s acceptance into the realm of “serious” art. Philip Leider, then editor-in-chief of Artforum and a photography skeptic, admitted after an encounter with Arbus and the portfolio, “With Diane Arbus, one could find oneself interested in photography or not, but one could no longer…deny its status as art…What changed everything was the portfolio itself.” In May 1971, she was the first photographer to be featured in Artforum, which also showcased her work on its cover.
“The portfolio was central to the pioneering transition Arbus was making away from magazine photography,” Jacob said. “She took seriously her centrality to that transition within the larger field of photography, and saw the portfolio as a means of achieving a level of financial stability and of artistic identity that magazine work had never afforded her.”
In June 1972, the portfolio was sent to Venice, Italy, where, in another breakthrough, Arbus was the first photographer included in a Biennale, at that time the premier international showcase for contemporary artists. There Hilton Kramer, writing for the New York Times, declared the portfolio a sensation. Its story coincides with that of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, for it was this museum, then known as the National Collection of Fine Arts, that organized the American contribution to the Biennale.
“By including Arbus and the portfolio in the 1972 Biennale, the Smithsonian American Art Museum played an important early role in Arbus’s legacy,” Jacob said. “Much has followed in essays, books, and exhibitions that interpret and expand her oeuvre, but only A box of ten photographs was completed by Arbus herself, and it alone offers an unmediated self-reflection on her work.”
In addition to the portfolio itself, the exhibition and accompanying catalog present new and compelling scholarship adding detail to the period between Arbus’ death and her 1972 posthumous retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. During this important period, Jacob establishes, it was A box of ten photographs that conveyed the essence of Diane Arbus to the world.
“American audiences had never before been presented with such a singular vision in a photographer,” Jacob said. “When they were, they embraced it eagerly if not uncritically, and the cultural landscape was transformed by their embrace.”
The exhibition is accompanied by a catalog co-published by the museum with the Aperture Foundation, featuring facsimile reproductions of the prints and the vellums with Arbus’ inscriptions. This document replicates the nature of Arbus’ original and now legendary portfolio. An in-depth essay by Jacob, who has unearthed a trove of new information about the portfolio while preparing the exhibition, tells the fascinating tale of its creation, production, and the continuing repercussions of this seminal work. The catalog is available for purchase in the museum store and online ($80).
The exhibition will open with a two-part program Friday, April 6, at 4 p.m., featuring “A Slideshow and Talk by Diane Arbus,” a rare showing of an illustrated audio recording from 1970 in which Arbus speaks about photography using her own work as well as other photographs, snapshots, and clippings from her collection. The slideshow will be followed by a panel discussion by experts on Arbus’ work and archival audio clips from several of her contemporaries. The panel will be moderated by Jacob and include Jeffrey Fraenkel, founder of the Fraenkel Gallery; photographer John Gossage; Karan Rinaldo, collections specialist at the Diane Arbus Archive, Metropolitan Museum of Art; photographer Neil Selkirk; and Jeff L. Rosenheim, curator in charge at the Department of Photographs, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Jacob will present a gallery talk Wednesday, May 9, at 5:30 p.m.
“Diane Arbus: A box of ten photographs” is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Generous support has been provided by the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, Nion McEvoy and Leslie Berriman, RayKo Photo, the Bernie Stadiem Endowment Fund, the Trellis Fund, and Robin Wright and Ian Reeves.