On Tuesday night, at the New Museum in New York, Hilton Als, the New Yorker’s esteemed theater critic, wore Ralph Lauren socks, shorts, clear-rimmed glasses, and a suit jacket as he read an unpublished essay about the photographer Diane Arbus.
In one of the four brief prefaces to his essay, which is titled “Diane Arbus in Manhattan,” Als recounted renting pay-per-view porn on Stuart Regen’s credit card. Regen, the founder of Regen Projects, who died in 1998, was the namesake of the fund that supports this Visionaries talk. “I thought I could pay for my ‘entertainment’ by credit card,” Als said. “Because I’m a guilty person, I told him what I had done immediately, and he just laughed and laughed.”
He gave another preface, warning that people interested in art theory should leave right away. (Everyone stayed glued to their seats.) And then he had a quick word about his pronunciation of Arbus’s first name: “I pronounce Diane, ‘Dee-ann,’ the way her mother preferred—the French pronunciation—because she was a little pretentious. Still, she was Diane Arbus’s mother, and I bow down to her for that.”
On to the essay, which was less a carefully structured inquiry than an interweaving of Arbus’s letters, Als’s personal life, and New York history. “Obviously, I’m using letter-writing as a kind of metaphor, but not in an Emily Dickinson, ‘Here’s my letter to the world that never wrote to me’ way,” Als said near the beginning. “By addressing her as Diane, I’m bringing her life and work back to the idea of correspondence, the trading of one thought because it inspires another over the distance of time.”
As Als said this, an image of Arbus, slightly blurred and plainly beautiful, was projected above him. From where I was sitting, it was hard to ever see Als’s eyes—the lighting made it so that his essay was reflected in his glasses. The only three things in the room seemed to be Arbus’s ghost, Als, and his writing.
Als went on to talk about Arbus’s subjects—the marginalized people of Manhattan, “none of that Cartier-Bresson stuff.” Arbus kept her images spontaneous, and by that, she was doing something risky, Als said, “given that one’s survival, in part, depends on the understanding that New Yorkers crave attention, but will fuck you up if you get in their face. And that’s what you did—get in people’s faces.”
He mentioned, in particular, Arbus’s portraits of Storme DeLarverie, a mixed-race lesbian who became a leader for the gay-rights movement, and who Als had the chance to interview for the Village Voice. Als philosophized about why Arbus may have been so attached to people like DeLarverie. “I think part of the high for them and you,” Als said, “was the then-novel experience of a more or less straight white woman hanging out in a place she had no business being and finding the denizens, if not beautiful, then at least interesting. You loved all those various tensions.”
He continued, “As an artist, Diane, you lived in worlds when being white didn’t have much cachet, but being Jewish did. Everybody in New York knows about the Jews’ history of difference, even when they don’t, because everyone in New York is Jewish—a refugee from worlds where they have to adjust or continually arrange themselves, not so much to fit in as not be killed.”
Als is fascinated by Arbus’s use of the city as her studio, which led her to photographing what Als called “perverse commodities”—dreams, magic, penny arcades, Times Square freaks. Als mentioned her use of reality to get at political content. “Shaping metaphors out of the real is the work of an artist or those artists who know there’s something better on the other side of daydreaming,” Als said of Arbus’s photographs of Catherine Bruce, which depict the crossdresser in Central Park and a bedroom. Referring to Bruce and her other persona, Bruce Catherine, Als said, “Both are real, and both are manufactured. Both are citizens of Manhattan.”
Mostly, Als seemed impressed by the way that someone like Arbus, who grew up wealthy and left her social sphere to discover new worlds, could make so many surprise connections with her subjects. She probably would have never guessed someone like Als would speak about her in a place like the New Museum. He called this a “collision,” and then looked out to the crowd and let out a “Boing!”