For a photographer whose portfolio abounds with beautiful women, Richard Avedon had an eye for unconventional beauty. His solo exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills, which spans six decades of work memorializing women with his lens, captures his remarkable ability at once to sharply define the margins of beauty and to mar them: he builds and he shatters. This tension is perhaps most evident among his many portraits. Take his shots of the young and luminous Brigitte Bardot and of Danish author Isak Dinesen, imperious in her old age: while it is clear who would win the beauty contest, Dinesen’s proud face rising from a swath of fur is arresting; it is hard not to call it beautiful.
Avedon summons the vitality from within his subjects, whoever they may be. Even his glamour shots transcend the generic, assembly-line poses so common to fashion photography. We see life behind the faces of the German model Veruschka as she leaps ecstatically, and of Marilyn Monroe, who somehow manages to look both iconic and genuinely happy at the same time—no easy feat. We discover that beauty is also a pajama-ed socialite in bed with her pet skunk and it is a pregnant woman from Las Vegas, her androgynous face and bright eyes locking onto our own. This is an exhibition so full of sly, unexpected images that it makes even Avedon’s best-known work look fresh and newly arresting.
Richard Avedon, Women, Gagosian Gallery, Beverly Hills, through December 21, 2013.