During the latter months of 1966, Diane Arbus attended a convention of identical twins in Roselle, New Jersey. It was there that she made one of the most indelible works of art of the twentieth century.
Born Diane Nemerov in New York City in 1923, Arbus first began taking pictures in the early 1940s, and by the year of her death in 1971 had deeply impacted the worlds of art and photography. In 1972, the Department of Photography at The Museum of Modern Art, headed by esteemed curator John Szarkowski, mounted a full-scale retrospective of her work, helping to cement her place in a quickly evolving canon of great 20th century artists. Subsequent decades have testified to her lasting influence, and in recent years ambitious Arbus surveys have been mounted by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Jeu de Paume, Paris, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
1966 was a significant year for Arbus. That January she applied for her second Guggenheim Fellowship, and by mid-March had learned of her successful application and its accompanying grant of $7500, a consequential affirmation of the importance of her work. That same year she made some of her most celebrated images, including A young man in curlers at home on West 20th Street, N.Y.C., A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing, N.Y.C., and the image being offered here.
At the same time, John Szarkowski was working on an exhibition for The Museum of Modern Art that would come to be known as 'New Documents,' comprised of works by Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand. By January 1967, in preparation for that exhibition, Arbus had made a print of Identical twins, printed it as a postcard, and mailed it to various friends and acquaintances to encourage them to see the show. New Documents opened on February 27, 1967. Fifty years later, the exhibition was to become the subject of a Museum of Modern Art publication documenting the exhibition in detail, and exploring its continued significance.
As can be seen in the contact sheet on the opposite page (now part of the Diane Arbus Archive at The Metropolitan Museum of Art), Arbus photographed three sets of twin girls on this roll of medium-format film. Six of the sheet’s twelve exposures are of Cathleen and Colleen Wade, and the now celebrated image can be seen upside down, as the second image from the bottom on the left negative strip. The sisters stand shoulder to shoulder in matching corduroy dresses, white tights, and headbands. As noted on page 182 of Diane Arbus Revelations, Arbus wrote on the December 11 page of her appointment book 'GREAT GIRL TWINS. REN EYES,' a reference to her younger sister, Renée. Arbus’s chosen frame stands out both for its startling directness and for the twin subjects’ enigmatic, forever-indecipherable expressions.
Four years later, Arbus was to choose this image for A box of ten photographs, her only portfolio, which she designed with Marvin Israel and self-produced in 1970 and 1971. Originally conceived to be an edition of 50, the printing was not fully realized during her lifetime, and Arbus sold only four sets: two to Richard Avedon, one to art director Bea Feitler, and one to Jasper Johns. Now, and through January 27, 2019, A box of ten photographs is the focus of a major exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.
Importantly, the border treatment of the present lot contains clues as to when Arbus made this print. As described by printer Neil Selkirk in the essay 'In the Darkroom', published in Diane Arbus Revelations (2005), 'around 1965, [Arbus] had begun to surround her square images with broad, irregular black borders.' Up until that point, ever since 1956 when she began printing her own work, she had employed hard edges to her images with ample white borders. A filed-out negative carrier provided this shift to black borders. Those irregular, black borders eventually gave way to a much-softened, still irregular treatment. 'She reduced the black borders to a vestigial condition,' Selkirk writes. 'The new borders were scarcely there.' This became her signature style from 1969-1971, informing her later work and used for her famous portfolio, A box of ten photographs. Thus, the present lot was printed by Arbus between 1966 and 1969. It is a stunning example of an artist at work.
Large format, lifetime prints of Identical twins, such as the present lot, are scarce, and rare to the market. They can be found in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art, New York, The Art Institute of Chicago, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris.