Beauty

Irving Penn: Fringe of Magnificence Co-presented by Tempo + Thaddaeus Ropac


Pace Gallery and Thaddaeus Ropac have announced a collaborative presentation featuring fourteen photographs by Irving Penn, showcasing both his iconic and lesser-known beauty images.

Irving Penn, Milk Slash (B), New York, 1996 platinum palladium print mounted to aluminum, © The Irving Penn Foundation

Curated by Tom Pecheux, the Global Beauty Director for YSL Beauty, this exhibition coincides with Paris Fashion Week – Menswear and will celebrate Penn’s enduring influence on the history of photography.

Renowned for his style of elegant, aesthetic simplicity across fashion imagery, portraiture, and experimental personal work, Irving Penn produced beauty photographs that are distinctive for their understated humour and technical concision. These works—many made for Vogue during his sixty-five-year tenure there—illustrate concepts loosely related to the cosmetics featured in the magazine, often employing the same formal qualities established by Surrealism to hybridise editorial imagery with fine art.

Irving Penn, Bee on Lips, New York, 1995 dye transfer print. © The Irving Penn FoundationIrving Penn, Bee on Lips, New York, 1995 dye transfer print. © The Irving Penn Foundation
Irving Penn, Bee on Lips, New York, 1995 dye transfer print. © The Irving Penn Foundation

Bee on Lips (1995), included in the presentation, is an extreme close-up of a bee crawling across a vividly rouged mouth. Emblematic of Penn’s use of visual puns, it refers to the popular 1950s phrase “bee stung lips”. In Mascara Wars (2001), a bloodshot eye starkly contrasts with the model’s powdered snow-white face, with two mascara wands poised at the base and tip of her eyelashes, suggesting a pause in the action. Whilst Penn is known for his extraordinary ability to capture beauty, his works simultaneously render a latent darkness. Juxtaposed with the inexorability of decay, his works endure precisely because they compel viewers to return again and again in an attempt to comprehend their hidden meaning, drawing parallels with artists such as Man Ray.

Irving Penn, Mascara Wars, New York, 2001 Fuji Crystal Archive print, © The Irving Penn Foundation

Penn’s work is consistently characterised by the formal beauty of the photographic medium. His sparse compositions and juxtaposition of sharp line with soft flesh create images that are visually arresting, even—or especially—when they verge on the grotesque or painful. In his beauty photographs, it is the unexpected that captures the viewer, prompting Alexander Liberman, editor of Vogue from 1943, to call them “stoppers”—images that make time stand still amid the magazine’s pages

Irving Penn: Edge of BeautyIrving Penn: Edge of Beauty
Irving Penn, Protractor Face (Jaime Rishar), New York, 1994, platinum palladium print mounted aluminum. © The Irving Penn Foundation. Irving Penn: Edge of Beauty

Irving Penn: Edge of Beauty, June 22nd – July 13th, 2024, Co-presented by Pace and Thaddaeus Ropac, 7 Rue Debelleyme 75003 Paris.

Opening Reception: Thursday, June 27th, 6 – 8pm

About the artist

Irving Penn (b. 1917, Plainfield, New Jersey; d. 2009, New York) studied design from 1934–38 with Alexey Brodovitch at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art, Pennsylvania. Following a year painting in Mexico, he returned to New York City and began working at Vogue magazine in 1943, where Alexander Liberman was art director. Penn photographed for Vogue and commercial clients in America and abroad for nearly 70 years. Whether an innovative fashion image, striking portrait, or compelling still life, each of Penn’s pictures bears his trademark style of elegant aesthetic simplicity. In addition to his editorial and advertising work, Penn was also a master printmaker. Beginning in 1964, he pioneered a complex technique for making platinum-palladium prints, a 19th-century print process to which he applied 20th-century materials. The first retrospective of Penn’s work was organized by The Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1984. Following the landmark exhibition which traveled to over 14 countries after MoMA, he resumed painting and drawing as a full-fledged creative endeavor. Until his death in 2009, his innovative photographs continued to appear regularly in Vogue, and his studio was busy with assignments and experimental personal work. Recent exhibitions include Irving Penn: Centennial at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2017), which traveled to the Grand Palais, Paris (2017-18) and C/O Berlin (2018); and Room 6 in Materials and Objects: Irving Penn at the Tate Modern, London (2019-20).

Emma Acker is curator of American art at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

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