Skin Clicks

Photographers Capture the Naked Truth

It's always a bit risky, so early in the fall, to attempt anything but the most general assessment of the months ahead. But judging by the number of shows involving eroticism and nudity, it's safe to say that it will be a sexy season, heating up just as the weather cools down. Helmut Newton starts things off with a touring retrospective that arrives at ICP in late September. Long a lightning rod for controversy, Newton was one of the first photographers to make fashion's implicit carnality the often quite explicit subject of his work. Working primarily in the pages of Vogue, he invented a private realm where drop-dead hauteur and impossible wealth met a range of s/m fetish gear previously seen only in the most sophisticated dungeons. The black humor of much of Newton's work was lost on outraged readers, but his wit, nerve, obsessiveness, polish, and remarkable productivity has been an inspiration to countless photographers both in and out of fashion's perfumed trenches. ICP's retrospective—which also includes nudes and hyperstylized celebrity portraits—is sure to rile some sensibilities, feminist and otherwise. But Newton's fantasies of Euro-trash decadence set up such intricate webs of sex and power that, however cartoonish, they're never easily dismissed. (Another show of Newton's photos, at Staley Wise Gallery, 560 Broadway, overlaps with ICP's from September 14 to October 27.)

Larry Sultan, whose most famous work, "Pictures From Home," focused on his parents and the L.A. sprawl he grew up in, has been investigating another aspect of those suburbs for the past few years by photographing California's thriving porn industry. Jeff Burton and Ken Probst have already mined this territory to pretty spectacular effect, but Sultan's work is quieter and suffused with melancholy. By concentrating on porn's borrowed domestic settings and keeping the sex biz almost incidental, Sultan brings an emotional complexity to the subject that's entirely his own. Though these pictures, most of them quite large-scale, have been cropping up in group shows for some time, the Borden exhibition is their debut as a group. Also in New York for the first time are color and black-and-white portraits by outsider filmmaker Russ Meyer, who photographed his four wives and other professionally busty babes during the '50s, '60s, and '70s. Most of Meyer's subjects were the supervixen stars of his cult movies, including Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, and their larger-than-life presence is hard to contain within a frame.

Meyer's women could strike up a fascinating neighborly dialogue with the subjects of E.J. Bellocq's circa 1912 portraits of New Orleans prostitutes, on display just two blocks away in early December. Bellocq's pictures became famous in 1970 when Lee Friedlander, who'd bought all 89 of the photographer's existing glass-plate negatives, showed his prints from them at the Museum of Modern Art. The vintage prints at Julie Saul were made prior to Friedlander's and include several images never before exhibited, most of them nudes, some with their heads scratched off the negative. Because Bellocq's straightforward, unsophisticated photos are among the tenderest images of women in any medium—the photographer seems protective, not prurient—even these faceless figures are oddly touching.

E.J. Bellocq’s circa 1912 portrait of a New Orleans prostitute
courtesy Julie Saul Gallery
E.J. Bellocq’s circa 1912 portrait of a New Orleans prostitute

Renée Cox, whose invigorating (and intellectually one-sided) sparring match with Rudolph Giuliani over Yo Mama's Last Supper helped land her a spot in the stable of the Robert Miller Gallery, devotes much of her first show there to interpretations of famous paintings, each of which features the artist in the nude. Whether reclining on a chaise as Ingres's imperious Odalisque or seated in a park with a pair of strategically draped musclemen à la Manet's Le Déjeuner sur L'Herbe, Cox stakes everything on her own fiercely black-and-proud presence. The work may be a clever corrective to oppressively Eurocentric art history, but its satire seems tame, especially when painter Robert Colescott's been there and done that with way sharper bite. A new group of frankly autobiographical pictures might find Cox in a more reflective mood and on more fertile ground.

September 6-October 13
PaceWildenstein, 32 East 57th Street, 421-3297

DiCorcia continues his unstaged (but meticulously lit) work on the street with a new series of individual portraits in passing, each figure emerging from darkness into a revealing, oddly benevolent light.

September 6-October 13
Bonni Benrubi Gallery, 52 East 76th Street, 517-3766

Fusco photographed from the train that carried Bobby Kennedy's body from New York to Washington's Arlington Cemetery, capturing stricken mourners and curious bystanders in a series of extraordinary color tableaux.

September 6-November 10
Bruce Silverstein Gallery, 504 West 22nd Street, 627-3930

Cohen's first New York show in 10 years is a timely reminder that his early-'70s photos, with their jarring close-ups and strobe-struck chill, set the stage for much of the street work that followed.

September 6-October 13
Janet Borden, Inc, 560 Broadway, 431-0166

September 6-October 6
Andrew Kreps Gallery, 516A West 20th Street, 741-8849

An installation of photo collages centering on a large Buddha sculpture previously shown in Basel.

September 7-October 6
Lombard-Freid Fine Arts, 531 West 26th Street, 967-8040

For her second show here, Mesa-Pelly constructs a new series of enigmatic narratives with people and props, escaping the domestic confines of her earlier work for competitive games in artificial landscapes.

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