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Press release

Richard Avedon: Portraits, Opening at Metropolitan Museum on September 26, Captures Creative Genius of a Generation

September 26, 2002—January 5, 2003
Tisch Galleries, Second Floor

One hundred eighty portraits by acclaimed photographer Richard Avedon—a vast collective portrait of America in the second half of the 20th century—will go on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on September 26. Richard Avedon: Portraits will feature his most classic and penetrating images, documenting as never before this artist's dazzling reinvention of the genre of photographic portraiture. The exhibition, which will remain on view through January 5, 2003, will span Avedon's entire career, from his earliest portraits made in the late 1940s through his most recent work.

Philippe de Montebello, Director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, commented: "Richard Avedon's work now takes its proper place in the larger history of art, representing the culmination of the time-honored tradition of public portraiture. Much like the great 19th-century French photographer, Nadar, whose telling portraits of rare individuals captured the creative genius of his generation, so Avedon, a century later, collected the key players and directed them in a brilliant portrait of an era that was questioning, unruly, and self-consciously alive, like all periods of radical growth. We are honored to share this estimable achievement with our audiences."

Among the highlights of Richard Avedon: Portraits will be stunning portrayals of 20th-century artistic, intellectual, and political figures including Marilyn Monroe, Truman Capote, Charlie Chaplin, Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Marian Anderson, Willem de Kooning, and many others; a series of portraits of the artist's father in the years just prior to his death; and portraits of the unsung citizenry from the artist's series In The American West. The exhibition will also feature Avedon's mural-size group portraits of: Andy Warhol and the members of the Factory (1969), the coterie of artists, filmmakers, and performers who comprised the avant-garde bohemia of the day; the Mission Council (1971), military and political leaders who determined policy in regard to the Vietnam War; and the Chicago Seven (1969), a group of activists on trial for conspiring to incite an anti-war riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

Maria Morris Hambourg, Curator in Charge of the Metropolitan's Department of Photographs and the organizer of the exhibition, noted, "By dint of progressive challenges to himself, Richard Avedon has not only distilled photographic portraiture to its irreducible core, but has also produced an extended meditation on life, death, art, and identity. Laureate of the invisible reflected in physiognomy, Avedon has become our poet of portraiture."

Avedon's Pantheon
At the core of Richard Avedon: Portraits will be a group of photographs originally displayed in the artist's landmark exhibition held at the Marlborough Gallery in New York in 1975, which the artist has donated to the Metropolitan Museum. Featuring such luminaries as Ezra Pound, Igor Stravinsky, Isak Dinesen, Jean Genet, and Buckminster Fuller, these iconic portraits constitute a modern-day pantheon of many of the most influential figures of the late 1950s through the early 1970s. Among the highlights of this group are the three spectacular murals—The Factory, the Mission Council, and the Chicago Seven—which range from 21 to 35 feet wide. Richard Avedon: Portraits will make this groundbreaking body of work, first shown nearly three decades ago, available to a broader audience and a new generation of viewers.

Dr. Hambourg commented: "These are pictures of famous people that are not at all about their celebrity. In their exchange with Avedon, each person yields up aspects of his or her interior self, some usually hidden but essential traits. Exactly how the photographer makes visible these fundamental conditions is the mystery of his genius. Collectively, he is addressing our greatness and frailty, the glory and heartbreak of what he calls 'the human predicament.'"

Avedon's success in fashion photography is widely recognized. (In 1956 his brilliant early career was fictionalized in the Hollywood musical Funny Face, starring Fred Astaire as the fashion photographer "Dick Avery.") Unlike the fashion work, however, most of Avedon's portraits did not issue from commercial assignments but from personal convictions and were solicited by the artist himself. Each is a virtuoso reckoning with human complexities and contradictions and a powerful expression of this artist's distinctive vision.

With uncompromising directness, Avedon portrays his subjects against a bright, white, seamless background, with no props or extraneous details to distract from their person—from the essential specificity of face, gaze, dress, and gesture. When everything extraneous is stripped away, what remains is a remarkable intensity of characterization. The people in Avedon's photographs seem posed to walk right out of their frames, immediately recognizable and wholly alive down to the most telling detail.

Early in his career, Avedon was drawn to actors and performers—people with a highly developed, vocational understanding of the face as mask. Among these early portraits are silent movie master Buster Keaton (1952); Marian Anderson performing with the Metropolitan Opera (1955); and Bert Lahr as Estragon in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot (1956). With Marilyn Monroe, Avedon pursued the mysterious point of convergence between the private self and the public role; his famous 1957 portrait reveals her underlying pathos and foreshadows the tragic figure she would later become in the popular imagination.

Other portraits on view will include W. H. Auden (1956); Dorothy Parker (1958); J. Robert Oppenheimer (1958), the astronaut Gus Grissom (1961); Marcel Duchamp (1968); the pianist Oscar Levant (1972); William S. Burroughs (1975); Samuel Beckett (1979); Francis Bacon (1979); and the poet Joseph Brodsky (1991).

Also featured will be Avedon's The Family, a group of 69 photographs of heads of state, union leaders, bankers, and media moguls—a composite portrait of the power elite—published as a special issue of Rolling Stone in 1976. Although his innate sympathies were with the dispossessed and his liberal politics are woven into his work in subtle and not so subtle patterns, with this series Avedon scrupulously tried to avoid expressing any opinion about his sitters, preferring to let them pose themselves so that his own bias would not skew the results.

Richard Avedon: Portraits will also feature a selection of works from the artist's ambitious series, In the American West. In these boldly scaled portraits of truckers, oil workers, and drifters, Avedon created a compelling record of the fiber—hard, caring, frayed, and resilient—of common American characters. Here, too, Avedon discloses a humane gravitas in his subjects, as if recognizing that quality as their essential—and essentially private—condition.

A sequence of portraits of the artist's father, Jacob Israel Avedon, was taken at intervals in the years and months before his death in 1973. Presented in its own room, this profoundly moving suite of images captures the poignancy and reverberating power of the death of all fathers.

Avedon's portraits of artists and intellectuals from the last 20 years of the century—including John Cheever (1981), Roy Lichtenstein (1993), Harold Bloom (2001), and Lee Friedlander (2002)—complete this artist's collection of individuals who have shaped our world, and who have survived life's struggle through their generous gifts.

About Richard Avedon
Richard Avedon was born in 1923 in New York City. He attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, but never completed an academic education. In 1942 he joined the U.S. Merchant Marine Photographic Department and, when he returned, attended the Design Laboratory taught at The New School by legendary art director Alexey Brodovitch. As a staff photographer for Harper's Bazaar and later for Vogue, Avedon became well known for his stylistically innovative fashion work, often set in vivid and surprising locales. In 1992 he was named the first staff photographer in the history of The New Yorker.

About the Exhibition
Richard Avedon: Portraits is organized by Maria Morris Hambourg, withMia Fineman, Research Associate in the Metropolitan's Department of Photographs. The exhibition design is by Jeffrey L. Daly, Chief Designer for the Museum, in consultation with Gregory Wakabayashi of Welcome Enterprises, Inc. and Lea Ciavarra and Richard Nisa of Lubrano Ciavarra Design. Graphic design is by Sue Koch, Graphic Designer at the Metropolitan, and Gregory Wakabayashi; lighting is by Zack Zanolli, the Museum's Lighting Designer. Conservation work for the exhibition was directed by Nora Kennedy, Sherman Fairchild Conservator of Photographs.

The exhibition is accompanied by an illustrated book of the same title (Harry N. Abrams, New York, 2002) with essays by Richard Avedon, and by Maria Morris Hambourg and Mia Fineman. With its innovative accordion-style design and superb reproductions, the book will function as a virtual stand-alone mini-exhibition in its own right. It is available in the Museum's book shop for $35.00.

A variety of programs will be offered in conjunction with the exhibition. These will include a lecture by art critic Owen Edwards on Sunday, September 22, at 3:00 p.m. in the Museum's Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium. "A Conversation: The Constructed Moment," featuring Richard Avedon and Adam Gopnik, will take place on Tuesday, October 8, at 6:00 p.m. in the Museum's Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium; the fee is $30. An Audio Guide tour will feature the voices of many of the people portrayed in the photographs; and other public lectures, gallery tours, films, and teacher workshops will be offered.

The Audio Guide program is sponsored by Bloomberg News.
Richard Avedon: Portraits will be featured prominently on the Museum's Web site,

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