The Subtle Games of Duane Michals

Storyteller: The Photographs of Duane Michals

an exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, November 1, 2014–February 16, 2015, and the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts, March 14–June 21, 2015
Catalog of the exhibition by Linda Benedict-Jones
Carnegie Museum of Art/DelMonico/Prestel, 240 pp., $75.00

Duane Michals: Collector

an exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, November 1, 2014–March 2, 2015
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh/Duane Michals
Duane Michals: from the series Paradise Regained, 1968

The photographer Duane Michals is a law unto himself. In a career spanning more than half a century he has worked in both utilitarian black-and-white and luxuriant color, produced slapstick self-portraits, evoked erotic daydreams, pamphleteered against art world fashions, and painted whimsical abstract designs on vintage photographs. You would be in for a disappointment if you expected a sober summing up in “Storyteller: The Photographs of Duane Michals,” the big retrospective of the eighty-two-year-old artist’s career that is currently at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. Michals remains aggressively idiosyncratic, the curator of his own overstuffed, beguiling, disorderly imagination.

Michals’s reputation was pretty much made in the late 1960s, with sequences of small, black-and-white images that amount to freshly minted fairy tales for adults. These surreal visual fables were shown at the Museum of Modern Art in 1970, when the museum was the arbiter of all things photographic. In the six frames of Paradise Regained, a young man and woman in a modern apartment go back to nature, shedding all their clothes as the houseplants around them grow larger and larger, becoming an Edenic garden. In Death Comes to the Old Lady, presented in five parts, a woman in a housedress is visited by a man in a dark suit before she evaporates in a photographic blur. With such cosmic-comic sequences, Michals became photography’s genial troublemaker, seen by some as thumbing his nose at the lyric realism of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment” and Alfred Stieglitz’s perfect prints. What can all too easily be underestimated is the quick, agile intelligence that Michals brought to his troublemaking. That’s what has given his dissident spirit its staying power.

There is something of Jean Cocteau’s jack-of-all-trades wit, ingenuity, and romantic rapture about Michals and his career. When he wrote, in 1994, that “dreams are the midnight movies of the mind,” it could have been a remark made by the Cocteau of The Blood of a Poet or Beauty and the Beast. Both men combine a reverence for high art traditions with a taste for the quick, teasing powers of popular culture. When a handsome young man appears in one of Cocteau’s films or Michals’s photographic fictions, you can feel the artist introducing him with an impresario’s flourish. Their best work has some of the attention-grabbing power of a practiced raconteur or a virtuoso performer. They seduce us. And their seductions can at times become annoyances (Cocteau was famously annoying). And then they are perfectly capable of seducing us all over again.

Although the galleries of Pittsburgh’s venerable Carnegie Museum are scaled much too large to provide the proper setting for Michals’s intimate art, the show exudes big-hearted goodwill, representing as it does something of a homecoming for Michals, who was born and raised in McKeesport, part of the…

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