Alexander Nemerov, scholar of American art, delivered an intimate reflection on the work of his aunt, photographer Diane Arbus, and father, poet Howard Nemerov, in a lecture at the Minnesota Street Project in San Francisco on February 4th. Nemerov discussed the hidden dialogue between Diane and Howard’s work as well as his relationship to both artists as family and as an art historian.
Nemerov is the chair of Stanford University’s art and art history department and the Carl and Marilynn Thoma Provostial Professor in the Arts and Humanities. The sold-out event was a part of the Bill Lane Center for the American West’s new ArtsWest Initiative and was co-sponsored by Minnesota Street Project and the Fraenkel Gallery.
Nemerov based the lecture on his newest book, Silent Dialogues: Diane Arbus & Howard Nemerov, focusing on a series of untitled photographs taken by Arbus at a mental institution between 1969 and 1971. He paralleled the photographs with pieces from artists such as Pieter Bruegel, Norman Rockwell, Paul Feeley, and Johannes Vermeer.
The Untitled series depicts residents in many aspects of their day-to-day life, from sitting and holding each other, to jumping and playing on the lawn in swimsuits, to dressing as fairies and ghosts for Halloween. Each photo conveys a distinct mood and provides a different lens through which to view the residents.
Nemerov contrasted photographs taken in the schoolyard with those taken in the fields behind the school, comparing the safe, bordered, groomed yard and the endless and otherworldly field.
Nemerov accompanied his analysis of Arbus’ photographs with poetry by Howard Nemerov, interweaving the stories that both artists told through their work.
One such poem was The Beautiful Lawn Sprinkler:
What gives it power makes it change its mind
At each extreme, and lean its rising rain
Down low, first one and then the other way;
In which exchange humility and pride
Reverse, forgive, arise, and die again,
Wherefore it holds at both ends of the day
The rainbow in its scattering grains of spray.
Nemerov also spoke of the difficulty of engaging with the work of his late father and aunt as an art historian, especially as his aunt passed away very early in his life. According to Nemerov, it took a level of self-assurance he would not achieve until later in his career.
An audience member asked if it was ethical for Arbus to take photographs at a mental institution. Nemerov responded by arguing for the importance of art — that it often confronts us with something uncomfortable we might otherwise never experience, and in doing so, it reveals the world.
The next ArtsWest program is scheduled for the afternoon of May 10, featuring a series of presentations about John Steinbeck and the environment, organized by the former Stanford English Department Chair Gavin Jones.
Despite persistent efforts by the U.S. government to eradicate Indigenous farming and ranching practices, they are regaining currency in an American West stressed by drought, diminishing resources and climate change.