Richard Avedon’s talent – aside from crisp, high-definition portraits that prefigured the high-res age – was his gift for drawing spectators deep into a personality. It is nearly impossible not to feel a visceral reaction to his subjects, whether the feeling is respect or revulsion. His work elevates the guilty pleasure of people-watching to a high art.
Imagine, then, living within an Avedon print – which is precisely what it feels like to experience Gagosian New York’s latest exhibition, for which the gallery has literally been papered with Avedon characters. In Richard Avedon: Murals and Portraits, the Gagosian goes one step further, pulling Avedon’s most compelling creatures from the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s, a period when public figures were always either revered or reviled and nothing in between. Everything was black and white.
At the time the murals were unprecedented in scale. Today their power has hardly lessened, despite our having come to expect art with high impact. Avedon’s multi-panel murals span between six and 11 metres, executed in his characteristic, high-definition, model-on-white-background style. And his subjects – poets, artists, radicals, even Nixon cronies – deliver. There’s Ginsberg scandalising 1960s New York in an embrace with his partner Peter Orlovsky. Vietnam War administrators juxtaposed with American napalm survivors. Abbie Hoffman flipping us the bird.
Interspersed are smaller portraits, no less powerful, that make you feel as if you can read minds - or disturb you that you can’t.