Avedon at The Gagosian

One of the most unpleasant things about going to a major gallery is being constantly jostled and chivvied by a mass of humanity all eager to stick their noses in front of some masterwork or other.

It has ruined my enjoyment of many shows that would under normal circumstances been great to see.

No such problems with the excellent Richard Avedon ‘Murals and Portraits’ Exhibition at The Gagosian. Just a few people milling about with all the time in the world to take in this fascinating show.

I have to say first off that many of the people shot by Avedon have long since ceased to be well known or famous in the least, so it is worth taking the guide at the door before you venture inside. However, armed with this handy primer you quickly get the gist of the show, which is divided, into four segments.  Each features a large 38-foot mural and then a series of smaller portraits and group shots.

One features Andy Warhol and his factory superstars, another the Chicago seven and another Allen Ginsberg and his lover Peter Orlovsky along with the whole Ginsberg brood. Perhaps the most effective is the Vietnam section.

A mural featuring the ‘U.S. Mission Council’, a group of important politicos and Generals who stare haughtily and suspiciously down at us, dominates it. Studying their faces we can easily connect them with the horrific portraits of Napalm victims that exist a few feet away.

Before seeing this show I had never thought of the advantage of shooting portraits in such a consistent manner as Avedon. Always the black borders, nearly always the white background, often black and white.

The effect is to allow the personality of the subject to come through unhindered by artifice. If we spend some time with the images we can see who these people are or were. Be it Abbie Hoffman or Candy Darling or The ‘Coconut Monk, everyone is equal in the world of Avedon.

Avedon is of course very lucky to have access to such a famed group of people but he takes advantage of his good fortune and leaves us with a kind of depiction of the period that in many regards is equal to, or at least a great accompaniment to, any weighty history of the era.

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