Return to Articles


IRVING PENN

by Orville O. Clarke, Jr.



Irving Penn, “Beauty Treatment with
Gauze Mask,” New York, 1997.
©1997 by the Conde Nast
Publications, Inc., courtesy
Fahey/Klein Gallery ,Los Angeles.





“Gaultier Eye Earrings," cibachrome
photograph, edition of 6,
22 1/8 x 20", New York 1998.





“Steinberg in Mask and Cap," plati-
num photograph, edition of 5,
17 x 16 13/16", New York, 1966.
(Fahey/Klein Gallery, West Hollywood) Irving Penn's name is synonymous with high fashion photography, especially after his years of association with Vogue. Yet to catagorize, or maybe better to ghettoize, Penn's work as simply "commercial" is too limiting and quite frankly wrong. He is an artist, was a painter--long since turned photographer--whose vision encompasses the spectrum of modernist concepts, yet still acknowledges the past where all art emerges from. If you are willing, or able, to look past the initial first glance, he has a complex dialogue waiting to engage an understanding partner.

Of course, as an historian, I am enthralled with Penn's love of process. Like many other talented artists, he is embracing techniques that were long considered passe (Sally Mann's name immediately comes to mind as another who is exploring similar paths). In Penn's case, it is the use of printing some of the images in this exhibition on platinum paper. This hand-made paper, prepared by the artist himself, was the hallmark of the Pictorialist Movement whose goal was to elevate photography to the level of "Art" (It is interesting to note that Edward Steichen, another famed photographer who did commercial work, emerged out of this movement and used these elegant hand-made papers.).


For Penn, the warmth of the finished product allows him to add another layer to his complex imagery. Look for this when you are exploring the exhibition and notice how different images look when they are printed on this as opposed to the cooler silver-gelatin paper that is standard for most photographers.

Besides exhibiting rare images the gallery is presenting a mini-retrospective, with prints dating back to 1946 that display the diversity, imagination, and playfulness that mark his work. One of my favorite pieces is the multiple images of Marcel Duchamp (1948)--one of the seminal artists of the 20th century and the father/mother of Pop and Conceptual art. Here this artist, who opened up the possibilities of what art could be with his "Ready-Mades," is placed in a claustrophobic setting with the walls tightly closing in on him. The minimalist setting allows us to focus on the nuance of posture, gesture, expression, and mood. Duchamp provides a series of extra-ordinary glimpses into his soul. I have always felt that this is among the strongest portraits in the medium's history.

On a lighter note, 12 Hands of Miles Davis and His Trumpet (1986) is a captivating image in which we are only given the Jazz genius’ instrument and that hard working hand. Eschewing the traditional portrait of man and tool, Penn playfully arranges twelve views by subtly varying positioning that ends up creating a rhythm and dissonance that echoes the spirit of Jazz itself.

A close examination of Irving Penn's wide range of work allows the viewer to confront that old prejudice that commercial work cannot be "Art." The pursuit of art must be done outside the business world where the influence of money somehow corrupts artistic vision. Yet looking at the technical skill, humor, and the crisp and penetrating eye that Penn employs, his images stand up against the toughest comparison to any art photography. Look at the savage portrait of dancer Mark Morris, or the grotesque mask he makes artist Cindy Sherman hide behind and appreciate a master at work. Of course he can also laugh at himself in his parody, Beauty Treatment with Gauze Mask (1997), which not only makes fun of all the "torture" women go through to keep themselves beautiful, but recalls his early years as a painter.

Irving Penn's work is always worth a second or third look. Don't be fooled by the seeming familiarity or simplicity of his images. These are complex and deeply intellectual works that are waiting to engage you in a long conversation that will stay with you.