Irving Penn Retrospective: Everything Clicks

Blog Image 42 - Irving Penn Retrospective: Everything Clicks
Irving Penn, Mud Glove, New York, 1975, printed 1976, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the artist. Copyright © The Irving Penn Foundation
October 20, 2015

Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty is the first museum retrospective of Penn's work in more than twenty years. Opening Friday, October 23 and running until March 20, 2016, it represents a strong relationship between the artist, his foundation, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Irving Penn's art acts as a visual record of much of the twentieth century. Born in 1917, he came of age at the same time photography was breaking down barriers and becoming an accepted art form. Most notable was the 1938 exhibition at MoMA Photography 1839-1937, celebrating the centenary of picture making. What's notable about Penn is that his work crossed artistic and commercial worlds with ease: from glamorous fashion spreads in the world's most-renowned magazines, to images that captured street life and ordinary days. Penn was attuned to both the highs and lows of contemporary life like no other photographer. "The photographer, if good," he is quoted as saying, "was both a journalist and technician."

Penn had the journalist's sense, the technician's savvy, and the eye of the poet. Through his pioneering work with platinum printing, he gave even the most humble, often discarded objects a sense of beauty and grace. According to exhibition curator Merry Foresta, who was the museum's curator of photography from 1983 to 1999, "...In the final analysis his work is not just about beauty, or about the potentials of photography as an art form, but a combination of the two that is indivisible and unique." In his hands, a frayed glove or a cigarette butt is transformed into a work of art. Towards the end of his life Penn referred to photography as a synthesis of reality and imagination.

Beyond Beauty will enable visitors to stand before iconic Penn works, and also become familiar with lesser known images created in the last part of his life, thanks to the Irving Penn Foundation's recent gift of one hundred prints, to complement the sixty that Penn himself gave to the museum in 1988 that covered his work from 1944 to 1986. The new photographs will make their debut in this exhibition and add another layer to Penn's aesthetic, working practice, as he opened his creative lens even further to lead us to beauty and beyond.

On Friday, October 23, the museum will turn into Penn Central! Join us for the forum, "Irving Penn at the Intersection of Art, Fashion and Photography." The event is free and open to the public. At night, we celebrate the life and legacy of Irving Penn at our after hours opening party from 8 p.m. till midnight.

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