"Irving Penn: Personal Work" begins and ends in the gutter. At least it begins and ends on the way there. The show opens with scraps on the sidewalk, at Pace Chelsea through March 5, blown up to poster size. It ends with cigarette butts brought together like the columns of a ruined monument. The first could pass for dark creatures or their shrouds, the second for sculpture by Louise Bourgeois. It takes time to make out the cigarette labels, in faint type on white against white, or to separate objects from their ashes—and longer still to forget them. Irving Penn was always concerned for making his subjects last and, perhaps, less so for what they were. He spoke of a print's beauty lying in the thing itself, and he took care in its making, preferring platinum prints by his own hand for their velvet tones and permanence. They say that celebrity and fashion are fleeting, but he made his name on the covers of Vogue. He gave a slim model a flowing profile out of James McNeill Whistler, Pablo Picasso, a bullfighter's hat and cape, and Marlene Dietrich's black cloak filling more than half the frame. Not solely the demands of fashion photography compelled his fixation on clothing and surfaces. When he takes to an ashtray or the streets, like Henry Rothman before him, he returns on his own to black.
So what if the scraps are difficult to pin down, as well as the feelings behind them? A show of "personal work" promises that special peek behind the veneer, like the John Singer Sargent show at the Met last fall with portraits of "artists and friends." Even so, Penn might reply, nothing personal. He still often worked on commission, as for San Francisco's Dancers Workshop in 1967, and he is still crafting. Those opening relics span twenty-five years, from 1975 to 2000, as experiments in the photographic process. The earlier shots against a white background took translating the objects to his studio, while the later ones, titled Underfoot, took the development of a macro lens to zoom in on the street.
They have become part of his image, too, and people still quarrel as to what that was. Accounts of him always begin with Harper's Bazaar and Vogue, but MoMA exhibited his butt ends as early as 1975. Alison Nordström, a curator at the George Eastman House, has said that he made trash or Hells' Angels "appear as elegant as a Parisian fashion model," while Rosalind E. Krauss called them a "covert attack" on his commercial identity. Could both be right? The show captures him delving into nudes in the 1940s, into archaeological digs and animal skulls in the 1980s, and into his own face distorted by camera movements in the 1990s, with full awareness of death but obvious pleasure in their proportions. A series of pitchers from as late as 2007, with more grain and sometimes fallen on their side, recall the stability of Jean-Siméon Chardin, but also the intimations of mortality in Dutch still-life.
They also end just two years before his death. Could they reveal something personal after all? Penn grew up comfortably enough in New Jersey, but the son of Russian Jews had to know about the gutter. The opening room also includes as a kind of prologue his roaming New York's streets in 1939, at just twenty-two. The sign for an optician, a pair of artificial eyes, looks back to European Surrealism, but with a pun on his medium. Others in the series pick out handwritten signs with a casual but knowing humor, like one for the firm of Prophet f Johnson.
His concerns could even run in the family. His brother directed Bonnie and Clyde, with its stylish period clothing and concluding freeze frame of a violent death. Still, the conundrum of the personal and the professional will not go away easily, no more than for Edward Steichen at work for Condé Nast. Penn also spoke of seeking rest and serenity, but he captures a dancer thrown against a wall as if caught by a bullet. Then come dancers seemingly at rest between rehearsals, but also suspiciously close to sexual coupling. Could this, too, be all part of the dance?