Reading the laudatory obituaries of Irving Penn (1917-2009), I asked myself why the work of this universally celebrated master always left me cold and came to the conclusion that it was because of fashion.
Penn himself seemed to chafe at his high status in the fashion world, lensing common objects, native peoples and ordinary people until the end of his life. Nevertheless, as with Avedon, there was always something chilly and removed about Penn's work. I put this to the artificiality, redundance and inauthenticity of the fashion world. One copy of Vogue resembles any other and particularly galling is the habit of fashion to dumbly look back on past trends and trendsetters and recycle them.
In Penn's work, this meant that figures such as Truman Capote, Pablo Picasso and others were reduced to the lowest common denominator of "genius," the objectification of fashion commodification, art for the beautiful and the stupid. Merely by stepping in front of Penn's camera, these splendid innovators were turned into nothing more than actors, charlatans even.
Penn seemed to acknowledge this by the use of his famous wedge, cardboard walls meeting at a triangular point into which he stuffed the good and the great. Typically, only Marcel Duchamp conquered Penn's tight prison in a picture rendered famous as the cover shot of the seminal book Conversations with Duchamp.
Here, a grinning Duchamp rather feyly covers himself, fitting his lithe sexy body into the wedge as if it were a cocoon. His expression indicates that "this too shall pass," as, hopefully, will the art world's insistence on welcoming the thin world of fashion into its precincts.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).