“People you’ve read about or know – there they are looking at you.” Art curator Kara Vander Weg tells me about global art gallery Gagosian’s major new Richard Avedon retrospective, in which 150 people – ranging from young Barbara Bush to Khloé Kardashian to Spike Lee, Elton John, Renata Adler and Vander Weg herself – each selected a single photo of Avedon to celebrate. She explains the intimacy that she says sets Avedon’s photos apart. “His subjects look you straight in the eye and you can look them straight in the eye. You can’t help but react to the human right in front of you.
Avedon was monumental for the size of his photos, which tended to be printed full-size or larger, leading to the effect described by Vanger Weg, where viewers can look directly at his subjects and have an extremely intimate encounter. “It’s a really interesting relationship between the art and the viewer,” she told me. “Avedon must have known. He worked for months and months with models trying to find the right image sizes. He must have known that the humans in the room would relate to the images in a very special way. That’s what these photographs are about, you’re looking into another person’s eyes. You can’t stop yourself from logging in.
As well as being monumental for its size, Avedon was also monumental for its range – from heads of state and celebrities to art designers, models, writers, musicians and even a beekeeper, its output seems almost unbelievably vast. “He covered so many different genres,” said Derek Blasberg, another Gasgosian curator who played a vital role in creating Avedon 100. .”
From May 4 to June 24, Avedon 100 will dominate the Gagosian Gallery space in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood. The show seems huge, with stars from one field after another, be it politics, fashion, film, literature, street scenes and music. “What’s great about this show is that it gives a huge insight into all of Avedon,” Blasberg said. “It goes back to the early days when he touched a camera.” This includes what Blasberg considered “arguably the first mirror selfie”, a side-by-side photo that Avedon took with author James Baldwin. The 1946 image definitely has the aesthetic of a selfie, with Baldwin smiling in the mirror, his eyes pointed into the lens, while Avedon squints into the viewfinder, his camera looking suspiciously like an iPhone.
From smallest to largest, the show also features two gigantic murals – one of Andy Warhol posing with members of The Factory (10ft high by 31ft wide) and the other of poet Allen Ginsberg with members of his extended family (9 feet by 20 feet). “The two large murals are a tour de force,” said Vander Weg. “They were printed before any kind of digital printing, so it was a massive job to get them done right.” Indeed, these murals are some of the greatest fine art photographs ever printed and, in their time, they pushed the boundaries of what was possible with the photographic medium.
Vander Weg went on to explain that Gagosian “devoted a specific day to installing these two murals. They were brought in rolled up and then they were unrolled under supervision.” During Avedon’s lifetime, the murals would not exhibited under glass, but since the photographer’s death in 2004 they have become infinitely more valuable, and now glass is needed. This is because, according to Vander Weg, Avedon’s will contained a clause prohibiting printing more of his photos. Additionally, the Avedon Foundation, which now authenticates and licenses all of the photographer’s work, has been known to prosecute anyone who tries to sell unauthenticated Avedon prints. “Collectors like to know that there is a finite corpus of works,” Vander Weg said. “Each is signed and stamped on the back, making them treasured items.”
By Veronica Esposito