October 11, 2009

Irving Penn, 1917 - 2009

The day the New York Times announced the death of Irving Penn I was in the Chicago Art Institute passing by a Barnett Newman painting and thinking of a gallery trip to Berkeley in 1985. The show then was Penn' s portraits; large and dense; the wash of the big bulbous bodies he turned to fruit; the arched and aching pictures he made of authors and artists; gorgeous platinum palladium prints. The book of Penn's work from that show was one of the first books I ever owned, certainly the biggest and nicest, and the first that was not a paperback bought at a used shop.

The faces he presented in his highly formal arrangements did not need names. They were eyes with lids just so, lips pursed or agape like the mask he had read onto the character, and heads that seemed to be rotating so slowly around the sun of Penn's lens so that you could imagine him like an astronomer, waiting beneath the hood, waiting and waiting until just what was needed came into view.

When I did look at the captions, few names stood out. Capote, yes. Maybe Mencken. The rest came slowly, piece-meal, year by year, through the accidents of encounter. One was Barnett Newman. I had seen the Penn portrait a hundred times. Later, much later, I came to see the paintings here and there, beside a Rothko, maybe. When I made the connection between the man in the picture and the painter of the color blocks with their singular line of alteration, there was no end of pleasure in the link, in the new meaning behind the portrait. I carried that with me this week, not knowing that when I did, Penn had died, leaving the innumerable traces that craft, formally, if fleeting, in a singular moment, or onement, how one can come to see the world.

photo: Irving Penn
painting: Barnett Newman