Irving Penn: Burning Off the Page
Pace Gallery, Los Angeles
Through September 3, 2022
Written By Eve Wood
There are some artists whose names recall a rich tapestry of cultural referents, and whose oeuvres stand as a kind of cultural accounting of history long since passed. Irving Penn is one such artist whose vision of the world inspired many other artists and helped shape our cultural understanding of the world today. His most recent exhibition, aptly entitled Burning Off the Page, represents a reexamination of the artist’s most iconic and celebrated works including his famous portraits of the model Jean Patchett. Penn was a master of light and gesture, and his photographs attest to his profound interest in the female form. Some might look at these images now and dismiss them as reductive in that they celebrate women’s bodies formally without much attention to content and context, i.e., the women appear as objects, however, unlike many of his contemporaries including Helmet Newton, Richard Avedon and Herb Ritts, Penn’s fashion imagery is playful and imaginative, and one has the sense that he is as invested in knowing his subjects as we are in looking at them. There is even a fleeting tenderness inherent in some of the images that keeps you looking.
The simplicity of his portraits, whether they be of women or flowers, or rowdy bikers, allows the subject to stand out, showcasing the individual’s unique sensibility and personality. Penn famously said, “A good photograph is one that communicates a fact, touches the heart and leaves the viewer a changed person for having seen it.” Images like “Woman Turning Over, New York, 1995” are complex studies in motion, yet this image in particular is not “pretty” in the conventional sense of the word but appears deliberately distorted much like a Francis Bacon painting. We do not see the woman’s face which is the salient detail that makes this image so successful because it subverts our expectations, which as the great photographer Henri Cartier Bresson once said, “Above all, I craved to seize the whole essence, in the confines of one single photograph, of some situation that was in the process of unrolling itself before my eyes.” Indeed Penn’s images unroll and unravel in ways that are still fresh and unexpected.