Annie Leibovitz is a Norman Rockwell of our time--which may say more about our time than it says about Leibovitz, whose show "Women" opens today at the Corcoran Gallery.
As Rockwell was once, with his paintings in the Saturday Evening Post and a thousand other magazines of a lost America, Leibovitz at 50 is our most famous commercial artist, with three decades of mind-kneading photographs: photo spreads, journalism and covers for Vanity Fair, Vogue and Rolling Stone, advertisements for American Express, the Gap, the dairy industry (the milk mustache series) . . . on and on.
As for what this says about our time, Rockwell painted a nation that believed it could be saved by God, family and character. In the latter-day fading of those verities, Leibovitz has celebrated our belief that we can be saved instead by fame, uniqueness and personality.
Like Rockwell, she's more famous for her work than for her personality. What you think about are her subjects, imagination and craft.
You think of her older pictures of Whoopi Goldberg in a bathtub of milk, a naked John Lennon huddled against a preoccupied Yoko Ono hours before he was shot to death, model Lauren Hutton mostly naked and immersed in Mississippi mud, John Belushi standing by a nighttime road like a hitchhiker you pass by--a figure whose story you don't want to hear because the ending might include you; Robert Penn Warren with his bare old-man's chest, Clint Eastwood looking foolish wrapped in rope on the set of a western. (Her men have tended to look more troubled than her women--weaker, vaguer, more endangered. Is that part of our time, too?)
And like Rockwell, she's at her best when she's over the top, giving us hyperreal photographs that are like framed theme parks, like advertisements for a reality we want to believe in--even though in Leibovitz's work the reality may be depravity, shallowness or doom. Rockwell supplied a demand for optimism and coyness, while Leibovitz has catered to the mayfly pessimism and irony of an age that values hipness. Both have understood their markets, and the America of their time. You find yourself rooting for them.
So you want Leibovitz's show at the Corcoran to be better than it is.
There are about 70 pictures of women here--famous, infamous, un-famous, rich, poor, dignified, foolish. Among the famous are: Hillary Rodham Clinton, Gloria Steinem, Katharine Graham, Lil' Kim, Eudora Welty, Joni Mitchell, Courtney Love, Toni Morrison, Barbara Bush, Betty Ford, Patti Smith, Madeleine Albright, Christiane Amanpour, Gwyneth Paltrow, Martina Navratilova, Martha Stewart, Oprah Winfrey, Drew Barrymore and three of the Flying Wallendas. Then there are: teachers, farmers, soldiers, a washerwoman, a mountain biker, two victims of domestic violence, a law professor, a go-go dancer and so on.
They are strong, assertive, confident, muscled, busy, enduring, patient, intelligent, dignified, aristocratic, wise, determined and beautiful, though seldom mysterious and rarely sexy.
Encountered separately inside a magazine, each of these pictures might look good. Witness the examples in the November Vogue. Assembled here in the show, and in the accompanying book, they come to have a disappointing deadness. Such is the affection that Leibovitz inspires, though, that you keep giving her the benefit of the doubt.
So what if the picture of the first lady looks like an advertisement for something, maybe for the fountain pen she holds as she appears to study a typewritten document on a porch at the White House? Or her gold-rimmed coffee cup? Isn't the commercial slickness here forgotten when you look at writer Jamaica Kincaid, slightly puzzled inside a picture of charming improvised formality based on the looping of a garden hose? And isn't the flatness of the Kincaid picture compensated by the bizarre beard and mustache on the naked performance artist Jennifer Miller? From the neck up she looks like a 19th-century dandy patronizing a New Orleans cathouse with flocked red wallpaper. From the neck down, she looks like the staff. Why did Leibovitz take this picture? As art? Propaganda? Document? Shock value?
You want to ignore your suspicions that if these prints were any smaller--the smallest is 3 by 4 feet, the biggest nearly 6 by 8--they would lose a lot of their impact and revert to the androgynous gloom of the book.
You want to ignore the seams--the pictures are so big that Leibovitz and Washington gallery owner David Adamson had to paste his Iris prints of them together, and even a team of painting conservators couldn't brush in enough color to keep some subjects from looking as if a sniper were watching them through cross hairs: the beautiful and ironic odalisque of performance artist Karen Finley, for instance.
You want to ignore a conceptual tremor induced by the strain of looking at a show assembled from work done variously as art, document, testament, illustration or journalism.
Rebecca Denison, head of an AIDS organization, is painted dark brown with words written in white: "wife," "daughter," "courage," "pain," "we remember," "Becky," "Katie," "love." Her fists are painted red, as if they were boxing gloves. The picture seems a relic of the confrontation politics of the '70s, of the days when anger was a virtue and an entitlement.
Haydee and Sahara Scull, twins and painters in Miami Beach, hold hands and wear identical yellow dresses and hats in a picture that Diane Arbus could have turned into a little vision of horror. But Leibovitz, with happier heart, turns it into a celebration of everything from color film to middle age to sisterhood. And are we supposed to find something in common between the painters and the AIDS woman, or any of the other pictures in the show?
Leibovitz has worked hard to make the show a statement with rhythm and meaning. In her New York studio, she built a model of the Corcoran's second-floor galleries and moved tiny pictures from wall to wall. She achieved the best possible hanging of what feels like a one-woman group show, or a collection of illustrations for a story that hasn't been written yet.
Yet, taken by themselves, these pictures keep failing to transcend something. What's holding them down? Technique? Intent? Printing? Subject matter? Vision?
Then you look at Ila Borders winding up to throw a baseball in a vast twilight of clouds and distant trees, and you know you're looking at a whole picture that stands by itself, no questions asked, the seams forgotten--art.
Sometimes Leibovitz cooperates in the pose--the picture of dancer Terese Capucilli gets its primal drama from fingers and face tightened with fight-or-flight ferocity. Leibovitz holds it all together with perfect little touches of red bordering cloth to one side, speckling Capucilli's skirt and lipsticked on her mouth.
Sometimes she subverts the pose--why that scatter of chairs behind Betty Ford, and why the scatter of expression on her face?
Sometimes you don't know who's in charge: Model Jerry Hall elected to wear gold lame slippers, an ankle bracelet and a fur coat while she nurses Gabriel, her son with Mick Jagger, and gives the camera the glance of an indignant old call girl. Hall must have known what the costume meant, but did she know the face that Leibovitz would select from the photographs she took? Maybe she did. Maybe the joke is on all the viewers who are horrified by the depravity of all these cheesy contradictions. In that case, Leibovitz and Hall have created a theater piece for still camera.
Perhaps there's a paradox at work: When you try to do a little of everything, there's always something missing. And to the extent that you may be disappointed in this show, you're proving how much you continue to believe in the work of Annie Leibovitz.
CAPTION: A portrait of Haydee and Sahara Scull, one of the photographs by Annie Leibovitz on view at the Corcoran Gallery.
CAPTION: Spelling it out: A portrait of AIDS activist Rebecca Denison.