Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty
1st floor West, American Art Museum
(8th and F Streets, N.W.)
October 23, 2015 – March 20, 2016
Irving Penn (1917–2009) (1917–2009), known for his iconic fashion, portrait, and still life images which appeared in Vogue, ranks as one of the foremost photographers of the twentieth century. Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty, the first retrospective of Penn’s work in nearly twenty years, will celebrate his legacy as a modern master and demonstrate the photographer’s continued influence on the medium. The exhibition features work from all stages of Penn’s career—street scenes from the late 1930s, photographs of the American South from the early 1940s, celebrity portraits, fashion photographs, still lifes, and more private studio images. Penn’s pictures reveal a taste for stark simplicity whether he was photographing celebrities, fashion models, still lifes, or people in remote places of the world.
Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty is drawn entirely from the extensive holdings of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. On display will be 146 photographs from the museum’s permanent collection, including the debut of 100 photographs recently donated to the museum by The Irving Penn Foundation. The exhibition presents forty-eight previously unseen or never exhibited photographs. Also on view for the first time will be Super 8 mm films, made by his wife, Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn, of Penn in Morocco that add a vivid picture of the artist at work.
In a career that spanned nearly seventy years, Penn’s aesthetic and technical skill earned him accolades in both the artistic and commercial worlds. He was a master of both black-and-white and color photography, and his revival of platinum printing in the 1960s and 1970s was a catalyst for significant change in the art world. He was one of the first photographers to cross the chasm that separated magazine and fine art photography, narrowing the gap between art and fashion. Penn’s portraits and fashion photographs defined elegance in the 1950s, yet throughout his career he also transformed mundane objects—storefront signs, food, cigarette butts, street debris—into memorable images of unexpected, often surreal, beauty.
Merry Foresta is the guest curator; she was the museum’s curator of photography from 1983 to 1999.
The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue ($45, softcover), co-published by The Irving Penn Foundation and the Smithsonian American Art Museum and distributed by Yale University Press, with an essay by Merry Foresta and an introduction by Betsy Broun, the museum’s director. Foresta’s essay introduces Penn to a younger generation and delves into his use of photography to respond to social and cultural change.
Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty is available for tour after closing at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. If you are interested in hosting the exhibition at your museum, please visit our traveling exhibitions page for contact information.
Confirmed venues include:
Dallas Museum of Art in Dallas, Texas (April 15, 2016 – August 14, 2016)
Lesley University, College of Art and Design in Cambridge, Massachusetts (September 10, 2016 – December 16, 2016)
Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, Tennessee (February 24, 2017 – May 21, 2017)
Wichita Art Museum in Wichita, Kansas (September 30, 2017 – January 7, 2018)
Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum with generous support from ART MENTOR FOUNDATION LUCERNE, Sakurako and William Fisher, The William R. Kenan Jr. Endowment Fund, The Lauder Foundation – Leonard and Judy Lauder Fund, Edward Lenkin and Roselin Atzwanger, The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, Margery and Edgar Masinter, The Margery and Edgar Masinter Exhibitions Fund, the James F. Petersen Charitable Fund in honor of Tania and Tom Evans, The Bernie Stadiem Endowment Fund, and the Trellis Fund. The C.F. Foundation in Atlanta supports the museum’s traveling exhibition program, Treasures to Go.