By MICHAEL PERKINS
BY THE TIME IRVING PENN (1917–2008) WAS ESTABLISHED as a portraitist without equal for Vogue magazine, he had chalked off clear parameters for his style. Natural over artificial light: large format, high-resolution monochromes: a patient talent for extracting the essence of even the most reluctant subject: and an almost lucky-charm devotion to the worn and stained curtain he would use, almost exclusively, as his backdrop for the length and breadth of his legendary career.
Salvaging the curtain from a Paris theatre in 1950, Penn used it as the great equalizer in all his portrait work, staging everything from Picasso’s puckish gaze to Audrey Hepburn’s gamine charm in front of its collection of stains, spills and discolorations. The curtain was as essential to a Penn shoot as the great man’s lenses, and where he went, from remote African villages to literary salons, it went also. And finally, eight years after his death, it traveled one more time to New York, for a supporting role in an Instagram near you.
As part of the Metropolitan Museum Of Art’s centennial celebration of Penn’s work for 2017, the curtain was installed in a room chocked with shots of the famous people with which it had co-starred. Studio-style, it was mounted on a curved panel to avoid hot spots from glare, and visitors were invited to pose themselves in front of it, fore-lit by a well-placed fashion light. The message was seductively mis-leading. If the cloth is magic, maybe it’s transferable! Maybe it is that black crow’s feather that makes Dumbo fly…..
The Met’s true genius in installing this Penn-it-yourself feature in its exhibit became obvious once you took the bait. That is, there’s nothing better to teach you that his work was great than allowing you to take very bad pictures under some of the same circumstances. I certainly got the point after clicking off a seriously flawed candid of my wife, seen here. I mean, other than blowing the focus, the metering, and the placement of light and shadow, the shot’s perfect, right?
Of course, the Penn curtain challenge had a kind of theme-park appeal, sort of like when you stick your face through a hole in the back of a cartoon cutout at Coney Island to have your picture taken as a “strongman”…and just about as convincing. Because art isn’t gear: genius isn’t mere tools. And you can’t be Rembrandt just by picking up Rembrandt’s brush.