Duane Michals "Portraits" at Crocker Museum, Sacramento, 2018

Duane Michals: The Portraitist
Crocker Art Museum

It’s an era of celebrity worship—and, with Instagram selfies, of democratic self-aggrandizement—so the timing of this large exhibition of Duane Michals’ photographic portraits of our cultural royalty, with a few commoner friends and relatives thrown in, could not be better timed. “Portraits,” curated by Linda Benedict-Jones, and presented by Curatorial Assistance Traveling Exhibitions, features more than 125 photos—“recently discovered by the artist in his New York apartment,” according to the museum press materials.  Old and young familiar faces—musicians, actors and actresses, artists, writers— appear, but seen in unfamiliar ways: personally, and idiosyncratically interpreted.

Michals, a self-taught photographer, has had a long career photographing for publications, but came to art-world notice in the early 1970s with Sequences, a book of narrative sequences of staged/posed photos that married age-old themes—youth, love, loss, old age, death, transfiguration—with the spare, cool, minimalist aesthetic of that period. These multi-shot mini-stories might be stills from a movie made conjointly by Michelangelo Antonioni and Wim Wenders, preceding by two decades CIndy Sherman’s famous fake-film stills. Influenced by writers as well as artists, including Balthus, William Blake, Lewis Carroll, Thomas Eakins, René Magritte (whose memorable multi-exposure portraits are on view), and Walt Whitman, Michals, who, born in 1932, and an exact contemporary of Andy Warhol (whose portraits are also included) balked at the limitations and superficiality of ‘pure’ photography. (Warhol famously embraced superficiality.) He defiled the sanctity of the pristine photographic objet-d’art by jotting ironic or even at times elegiac inscriptions about the subjects on the prints in a distinctive spidery, ultra-thin handwriting. Michals: “My writing grew out of my frustration with photography. If I took a picture of you ... it would tell me nothing of you as a person.... Sixty percent of my work is photography and the rest is writing.” Like some other celebrated photographers (e.g., Walker Evans, and Andre Kertesz, who appears in Michals’ homage to Hockney), he ventured beyond photography into painting as well, repurposing old tintypes with geometric motifs in oil paint.

It’s extremely difficult to sum up a six-decade career in a few hundred words, but certain themes are present throughout the portraits, which are, like good portrait paintings. as much about the artist as the subject: a respect for individuality; a recognition that life is transient, yet miraculous; and a delight, sometimes whimsical, sometimes ironic, in the power of the imagination and the ambiguities of reality—hence his interest in creative personalities. Michals writes of his subject, the Romanian absurdist playwright, Eugene Ionesco: “Always hovering over his writing is the melancholy of our essential loneliness, and yet he found ways of illuminating this through a filter of humor and satire.” This might be Michals’ credo as well. He annotates another ‘imaginary’ portrait with these octogenarian words of wisdom:

I’m a miracle. We’re walking, talking miracles. You probably gave to be on your death-bed to realize that you’re a miracle, just when it’s too late. But it’s possible to know now, saints know now. If there’s some way that we could understand that being alive is not simply a matter of consuming things and using deodorants. It really is a matter of being a walking, talking, once-in-a-lifetime offer in the universe that’s never going to happen again.

Some noteworthy ‘straight’ portraits—aside from shots of Meryl Streep and Barbara Streisand at the beginnings of their careers—are Veronica Lake, past her glamor-girl peekaboo era in the 1940s, in middle age, laughing at a hotel restaurant where she once worked, while a customer seated behind her booth reacts in surprise; Toshiro Mifune, standing beneath a leafy park canopy of foliage, caught talking, and rather less superhuman than usual, by Michals’ shutter; and a young Carol Burnett, demonstrating the extreme flexibility of her “Freaky Fingers.” Michals examines the human condition in “Self-Portrait as if I Were Dead,” a double-exposure shot of the artist contemplating, with equanimity, his sheeted body on a morgue gurney; and affecionate portraits of departed friends and lovers. Michals’ enjoyment of mirrors, reflections and the theater of self-presentation shines forth in his five-photo sequence of Tilda Swinton as Sibyl, as she progressively removing the veils covering her face; Swinton again, in the Magrittean “Mr. Backwards Forwards,” as an “androgynous phantom” in a man’s suit who rotates her head 180 degrees to look into a handheld mirror, from which she regards us indirectly, like Perseus avoiding Medusa’s gaze; the film director François Truffaut, standing in a darkened hotel room, silhouetted against the window, reflected in two mirrors on adjacent walls; Ludmila Tcherina, the ‘older’ ballerina, Irina, in the 1948 film classic, The Red Shoes, peering at us from a handheld mirror against a rain-streaked view of Paris; a triple view of the artist Ray Johnson and his storefront reflections; Joseph Cornell, reduced by the camera to a Giacomettian wraith;  the author Joan Didion, her features seen through openings in a sheet of cut paper (or is it a photographed photograph?), with her face framed by the shadow of her head and shoulders. Notable for their good-natured kidding are: two images of Chuck Close, seen up close and from afar; two photos, shot years apart, of Sting resembling a young Danny Kaye, and Danny Kaye, an old Sting; and René and Georgette Magritte, holding hands, the clasp unseen behind a tree trunk. Susan Sontag, also photographed here, as a young prodigy, wrote, “All photographs are memento mori,” but some achieve the status of immortal “privileged moment[s]” that join “the image-world that bids to outlast us all.” Some of them are miracles.