Avedon, Allen Ginsberg’s family - view large
While the style, content and technique are very different, there are two exhibits in Chelsea featuring large portraits, Cindy Sherman at Metro Pictures and Richard Avedon at Gagosian. Avedon’s work is black and white documentary portraiture of real people, selected by Avedon and his editors as culturally or politically relevant. Sherman’s portraits are fictional characters wearing Chanel outfits, each played by Sherman. Her work is contemporary, produced with digital cameras, green-screen technique and modern printers. Avedon’s work was made in the early 1970’s; it’s still challenging to produce photographic prints at three meters high.
The photographic portrait is limited to a single perspective, even when increased to greater than life size. Painters and sculptors of large portraits distort and adjust perspective, proportions, to predict the experience of viewing the work from a distance or lower angles. For example, a painter of a large portrait assumes viewers will be looking up at the eyes. Sculptors have been experimenting for centuries with enlarging various body parts to normalize proportions when seen at a distance. While the subtle manipulation of scale and perspective of body parts and the face is now possible, Sherman’s use of Photoshop pedals towards the uncanny valley, not away from it.
Sherman’s work has a green-screened look, making the prints look like video stills, with the foreground figure obviously composited onto the background. The background landscapes are based on photographs that she took in Iceland and on the island of Capri. Filters have been applied to the landscapes to make them seem like paintings (simulating brushstrokes), but in an obvious way so that most viewers can detect the pattern. Some of the landscapes are pure background, but some characters (related to the outfits, perhaps) are placed inside the landscape. At the gallery visitors responded to this, taking photos of their friends so that they would appear to be standing with Sherman in the landscape.
Sherman, installation view
Viewing these works a few blocks apart is an anachronistic experience; the Shermans feel contemporary to a world with many artists making very large prints, but the decades-old Avedons are even larger and offer more detail. To make murals this large, both the Sherman and Avedon works are multiple pieces of paper placed together to create the illusion of one work. Sherman’s seams are treated like many contemporary photographers, not acknowledged, keeping the gap as small as possible. Avedon emphasizes that there are several photographic frames being placed together. Sometimes there is overlap, a shoulder and arm duplicated from one frame to the next. To further emphasize that the mural is on paper, the bottom of the Avedon prints curl up a bit.
installation view of Warhol’s “Double Elvis”
Both sets of murals bring to mind Warhol’s “Double Elvis” of 1963, which featured a silk-screened film still of Elvis in Western attire, shooting a gun, nearly 7-feet tall. Warhol’s large Elvi on silver were originally printed on a roll that could be cut up in one, two or threes. With Avedon, the Elvises share the overlapping, the subject isolated in black and white on a neutral background. With Sherman, there’s dressing up and acting, the duplication, the played-up intensity of Elvis’ gaze.
Avedon, Warhol and members of the Factory - view large
The Gagosian gallery has installed special architecture (by David Adjaye) to create an atmosphere of a temple of the 1960’s, with the giant murals along the walls as sculptural busts. Warhol’s Factory is perhaps the most recognizable group forty years later. Warhol himself is barely in the mural, off to one side, looking away, holding a mic, involved in his own documentation. The rest of his clan offer a series of poses that consider the camera, from stoned intensity to downtown shrugs. A collection of three male nudes in the center frame have bodies, hairstyles and poses that create the experience of neoclassical sculpture. The nude Candy Darling standing between two frames is Donatello’s David.
Avedon, Chicago Seven - view large
Both groups of portraits consider fashion. Sherman’s characters are dressed in Chanel outfits, some are glamorous dresses from the 1920’s, others seem to be inspired by Nordic tribes. Avedon’s subjects are in more austere outfits; the Chicago Seven were accused revolutionaries, but they dressed like grad students. In both cases, prints at this size offer a close look at the design and texture of fabrics, detached from the person wearing it. Rendered in Avedon’s black and white at 10 feet high, the texture of a Levi’s shirt becomes abstract, and just as interesting as the embroidery on a Chanel flapper gown.
Avedon at Gagosian through July 6; Sherman at Metro Pictures through June 9;
see also: DLK Collection, Blake Gopnik, Christopher Bollen at Interview Magazine