Richard Avedon at the Gagosian

An exhibition at the Gagosian (24 Britannia St, London WC1X) until 23 April juxtaposes the portrait photography of Richard Avedon with the layered silkscreen prints of his contemporary Andy Warhol. A very minimalistic installation in four galleries, white walls, grey floors, no furniture, nothing to get in the way of the images.

The majority of the Avedon portraits are in his characteristic minimalist style, white backgrounds, fairly hard lighting and very sharp focus giving his subjects nowhere to hide. Large format  film images are mostly printed full-frame including rebate edges.

The consistent look is used to advantage in “The Family” a set of 69 images shot for Rolling Stone in 1976 of the great and powerful in American politics and business at the time. Some went on to greater things (Carter, Reagan) while others provoke a “who’s he?” reaction. Viewed as a whole, grouped on one wall, it is greater than the sum of the parts.

The second gallery is dominated by the collage “Andy Warhol and members of The Factory” (1969) printed 3.1 x 9.5 metres, approximately life size. Mostly clothed figures, some nude, none erotic.

In the same gallery is a double portrait of Francis Bacon (1979) and a very disturbing image of Warhol (1969). This is an image of his torso only, with a leather jacket opened to show his operation scars and sutures following the assassination attempt in 1968.

In a third gallery, we find portraits of Truman Capote juxtaposed with both murderers who ‘starred’ in “In Cold Blood” together with a double-portrait of Samuel Beckett and a full-face portrait of Ezra Pound with his eyes screwed closed – ambiguous whether he is in thought or pain.

The image from this gallery that left the biggest impression was Marilyn Monroe (1957) seen with her gaze slightly averted and looking distinctly vulnerable. The contrast between that view and the brassy look of Warhol’s iconic screen-print is shocking.

Portraits in the final gallery included Janis Joplin (possibly a large-format Polaroid) with a fag on, Louis Armstrong with lots of movement blur (I suspect a 1/5 second exposure or thereabouts), Charles Chaplin and Brigitte Bardot. The Bardot image is very contrasty, reminiscent of a Warhol screen-print.

Altogether, a good introduction to an iconic portraitist.