“I am not ghoulish, am I?” Diane Arbus wrote to a lover in 1960, describing how she couldn’t help but stop and watch as a woman lay crying in the street. “Is everyone ghoulish? It wouldn’t have been better to turn away, would it?”
For half a century, Arbus’s work has kept us asking these same questions. Her unlikely subjects have become almost proverbial: the twin girls, dressed in identical black dresses, looking creepily into the camera (purportedly the inspiration for the twins in The Shining ); the Jewish giant looming over his little parents; the “female impersonators,” as Arbus sometimes called men in drag; the couples — straight, queer, interracial, old, ridiculously young; the mentally disabled women holding hands; and, perhaps most famous of all, the wigged-out kid clasping a toy hand grenade in Central Park. Arbus was attracted to people who were visibly different — to those she called “freaks.” You feel a “quality of legend” about them, she once said, “like a person in a fairy tale who stops you and demands that you answer a riddle. Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats. ” Outside narrow academic channels, those words have framed her reception ever since: Arbus is the one who took pictures of weirdos and grotesques, always cruising for difference. In turn, she, too, has acquired a “quality of legend.”
The origin of the Arbus myth can be traced with unusual precision to a landmark 1972 show at the Museum of Modern Art, which traveled to galleries across the world and finally elevated Arbus from working photographer, scrambling for commissions from magazines and newspapers, to capital-A artist and cultural icon. The show remains one of the most visited exhibitions in MoMA history, though Arbus herself never saw it: she died by suicide the year before it opened. Last year, to mark the 50th anniversary of Arbus’s posthumous breakthrough, David Zwirner rehung the 115 photographs from that original MoMA show in a new one called Cataclysm: The 1972 Diane Arbus Retrospective Revisited . ( The Drift receives funding from David Zwirner.) Cataclysm greeted visitors not with photographs, but with words — unattributed observations and judgments and praise scattered on the walls without the usual didactic logic of wall text. The symbolism was apt: to get to Arbus, you have to wade through a storm of opinions that has long warped our view of her work and rendered the critical debate less interesting than it should be.