It makes a kind of crazy sense that two of the most important and enduring influences on visual culture since the ’60s—Diane Arbus and Larry Clark—should have retrospectives in the city at the same time. Although both photographers are known primarily for conventionally scaled, black-and-white portraiture, little else about their work is traditional. Both pursued an intensely personal, often frankly autobiographical vision with little concern for its popular reception. Inevitably, perhaps, both attracted cult followings. Both changed the way we view outsiders, but not before making many viewers deeply uncomfortable in the process. Both attempted to bridge or, in Clark’s case, obliterate the distance between themselves and their subjects. Both struggled with what are now commonly known as “personal demons.” Both lost control. Only one survived.
It’s instructive to see their work back-to-back, even if the comparison is grossly unfair to Clark. Arbus’s career came to an abrupt close with her suicide in 1971, just as Clark’s was about to take off with the publication of Tulsa that same year. Although Arbus had achieved a certain notoriety when John Szarkowski included her in his 1967 “New Documents” show at the Museum of Modern Art, her reputation really soared with the posthumous exhibition MOMA mounted in 1972 and its widely disseminated catalog. Arbus left behind a large and remarkably coherent body of work, the size and range of which was only vaguely apparent until “Revelations,” the exhibition now at the Met, opened at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 2003. But because that work—nearly all of it made in the decade before her death—is fixed and finite, it can also be controlled, shaped, and positioned without the potentially messy distraction of an artist’s ongoing career to take crucial attention away from it.
Clark’s reputation rests solidly on two early knockouts, his books Tulsaand Teenage Lust (1983), but against all odds, he remains to fumble, fuck up, fail, and astonish us again and again. His famously messy, industriously ongoing career, now focused on film rather than photography, can’t really be contained in the show at ICP, but curator Brian Wallis manages to pin down the high points—mainly the entire contents, in sequence, of both Tulsa and Teenage Lust—and to suggest the power of the maelstrom that brought them into being. In a sense, of course, Clark has already organized his own retrospective—the 2003 “Punk Picasso” show at Luhring Augustine, parts of which were originally intended for an earlier version of ICP’s much postponed exhibition. But “Punk Picasso” was an autobiography in ephemera, with almost none of Clark’s canonical work and a lot of family snapshots, news clippings, vinyl records, letters, production stills, baseball cards, and a whole wall full of fan mag photos of River Phoenix. Roberta Smith, writing in the Times, called it a “lurid, saddening, ultimately repellent exhibition” and “a sustained view of the self-indulgent venality that can lurk within the human heart,” and there’s no question that it was over-the-top, even for Clark. (I drew the line at a video of the photographer fawning over his girlfriend’s frantic little fur ball of a dog.) Key segments of “Punk Picasso” (including some terrific outtakes from Tulsa) and the massive book they were collected for are included in the ICP show, and other autobiographical scraps are embedded in nearly all of Clark’s work here, so you can’t really say it lacks for disconcerting personal revelations. But I miss some physical manifestation of the psychological disarray “Punk Picasso” embodies, and the ICP show is a little too straightforward and buttoned-down for that.
So it’s all the more surprising to find exactly this sort of personal material at the Met. Although the Arbus exhibition risks fetishizing its subject (and some elements of the installation recall saints’ reliquaries), its inclusion of notebooks, letters, family mementos, cameras, and more than 300 books from the photographer’s library feels right. Because Arbus never pretended to be an impartial observer, she’s reflected in all of her work—most tellingly, perhaps, in the series of almost painfully lovely pictures of female mental patients gathered on a lawn. The rooms devoted to background material give us a better idea of why she made photos as well as how: methodically, obsessively, almost nonstop. That’s another thing she shares with Clark, but where his obsessiveness has tended to focus more and more narrowly on the pleasures and terrors of male adolescence, Arbus’s was almost frighteningly indiscriminate. Her appetite for the whole wide world is everywhere apparent at the Met. She could not get enough, and neither will grateful viewers. After decades of tightfisted control, “Revelations” marks a major letting go on the part of the Arbus estate, and much of the work here is on exhibit for the first time. The result is a fuller, more nuanced view of Arbus, one that should finally squash the notion that she was a photographer of freaks. In fact, she was a photographer of humanity in the broadest, deepest sense, and I suspect she’d recognize a similar, if inchoate and stifled, impulse in Clark’s work were she around to see it.