Our recent sojourn to New York had a list of ‘must-dos’ whose completion was always doomed to failure, but one item on the agenda that brooked no compromise was a trip to the west side Gagosian to see Richard Avedon’s ‘Murals & Portraits.’

The Gagosian is all that you expect a seminal contemporary gallery to be; confidently annonymous, minimal, industrial and full of black-suited watchmen that hovered in a manner somewhere between attentive waiter and menacing bouncer.  For this particular show, the voluminous space of the gallery had been divided into what the press release describes as a ‘dramatic spatial composition’ by architect David Adjaye of  Adjaye Associates.  Whilst I wholeheartedly (and in an entirely biased fashion) approve of collaborations between architects and creative people and spaces, I’m not entirely convinced that the installation added much to the work which was displayed.

Gagosian Gallery. Installation view. Photo by Rob McKeever

Given the nature of exhibition, I suspect the task of designing a space that managed to complement photographs of such scale and directness was a very difficult one. The images selected for this show come from the work Avedon completed during the 1960’s and 1970’s and include his four large-scale murals and a number of smaller portraits completed during the same period. All black and white and predominantly shot on stark white backgrounds, it is the four enormous murals that dominate both the space and the reading of the exhibition itself. Measuring around six metres by two and a half metres, often made-up of four or five panels, the full height portraits loom above the viewer literally larger than life.

The Mission Council. Gelatin silver print 303.5 x 990.9 cm © The Richard Avedon Foundation

Avedon’s choice of subject is integral to the period in which the murals were created; Andy Wharhol and the Factory players, The Chicago Seven, Allen Ginsberg with his extended family and Mission Control, the governing council of America’s involvement in the Vietnam war. The images are undeniably powerful, and whilst it would be easy to assign the impact to the size alone, the scale of the images has the effect of making you conscious of the relationships between the subjects within the frame. The contraction and expansion, the overlapping, the white that flows through the spaces left between all serves to make the mural feel like a line of music. Changing tempo, pauses and rests, Avedon’s placement of the subjects (and I have no doubt that he placed them to the millimetre) forces you to question the relationships between them, to look for symbols and signs that allow for a deeper reading of the image.

The Chicago Seven. Gelatin silver print. 309.2 x 616.5 cm © The Richard Avedon Foundation

As with many artists who straddle the line between commercial and fine art photography, Avedon seems to provoke reactions of fervent devotion and derision in almost equal measure.  As a fashion photographer, Avedon is a master of the face, of beauty and elegance, but it has also resulted in accusations of arrogance and detachment, that he uses individuals as symbols rather than as people. Whilst I would be forced to think harder about this argument if we were talking about In The American West, the subjects of the murals are already symbols in their own right, Avedon uses them to make statements about the time and place in which they’re made.

Richard Avedon’s  ‘Murals & Portraits’ is on show at the Gagosian Gallery at 522 West 21st St, New York until July 27th 2012