Sunday, May 11, 2008


It never ceases to amaze me how certain themes miraculously present themselves. Last week this card (above) arrived from Phillips auction house promoting their upcoming London sale, followed the next day by the catalog itself. The day after I was browsing in Rizzoli's bookstore and two different books on display presented photographs of masked women. They were both striking pictures so I snapped them on my iPhone and filed them in the back of my mind. This weekend I was in the gallery organizing j-pegs of some of the pictures in my collection and noticed that there were two mask pictures - an Arbus and an Elliott Erwitt. Finally I was looking up Adam Fuss on Artnet and discovered an entire series he had done on masks that I had never seen before!

If you were to ask me what my least favorite subjects for photographs are, I would say without hesitation: clowns and mimes. So you would think masks would be next in line, but there's something different and intriguing about masks - the play of concealment and revelation, the graphic boldness of the shape, the power they bestow on the wearer. The depiction and use of masks goes back as far as the cave paintings of Lascaux so there's something inherent in the human character that compels us to use masks. The making of elaborate masks was a vital part of Greek, Roman, African, Japanese and Chinese culture. Not so surprisingly, in America masks seems to have more sporting than cultural associations. Think catcher's mask, goalie mask, football helmets, etc.. I can't think of another country whose sports need more protection. The Canadian artist Brian Jungen made an enormous art world splash a few years ago with masks made entirely out of reconstituted Nike Air Jordans, tying together a critique of consumerism and the co-opting of native culture with the creation of compelling and original new works.

To finish off this mask round-up, I Just saw Iron Man which was as good as I hoped it would be and the metallic armor and mask the Robert Downey character creates is probably the best made superhero outfit ever. (Subject for debate?) In addition I pulled out a few of my other favorite mask pictures.

Inez Van Lamsweerde and Vinez Matoodhin from The Phillips catalog

Peter Lindbergh

Albert Watson

Irving Penn

Diane Arbus

Robert Capa

Elliott Erwitt. Candice Bergen at Truman Capote's Black and White Ball.

E.J. Bellocq

An Adam Fuss photogram

Brian Jungen



A few hours after posting this mask story, I received the following comment:

While I agree that the image is powerful and beautiful; and I appreciate your discussion on masks and its socio-cultural context. There is an additional angle an image like this brings up - that is the "black face" of minstrels in America of not too long passed. This is just another context for this image, not a critique. To think about image is to understand it many meanings in a multicultural world.

I think the writer makes an extremely valid point and my only response was to agree, and also to point out that because of the hair and make-up etc., I saw the image only as a fashion update of the baroque use of masks in balls, opera, commedia, etc., similar to the styling of the masked ball scene in Sofia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette". (See below.) The important lesson to me, though, is never to underestimate the different ways in which an image can be interpreted and to make clear no offense was intended.

Sofia Coppola. Kirsten Dunst in "Marie Antoinette"

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