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Yxta Maya Murray: When Lillian Bassman Destroyed Her Work

What do you do with your artistic legacy when the world no longer loves it?

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Image by Flickr user elena-lu

By Yxta Maya Murray

In 1971, the fashion photographer Lillian Bassman destroyed her film trove, vanquishing nearly all of the career-making images of women in lingerie she had taken for Harper’s Bazaar and the intimates company Warner’s. Over the previous two decades, Bassman had amassed accolades and wealth by shooting women in languorous poses, but by the late 1960s she was fed up—with uppity mannequins, changing trends, and her own increasing insignificance.

Born in 1917 to Russian émigré parents and raised in Greenwich Village, Bassman began her career as a painter for the Works Progress Administration. After landing an internship at Harper’s Bazaar in 1941, where she assisted art director Alexey Brodovich, Bassman rose swiftly to a post as co-art director of Junior Bazaar. In 1948, she snagged her first commission for a lingerie ad.

Bassman helped introduce the fantasy of verisimilitude into small-clothes advertising. She photographed models in natural light and caught them in undefended poses—their arms up, hips languid, and faces soft. But Bassman also proved a formidable technician, experimenting with printing methods involving gauze, tissue, and cigarette smoke to create rich diffusion effects. She became known for black-and-white dreamscapes of lavishly-built women wearing astonishing corsets that shrank their waists to reversed parentheses and elevated their breasts to exclamation points. Bassman depicted heroines who possessed abandoned, loose-limbed beauty, but whose bodies bore the straight-backed discipline of ballerinas. She once intimated that this dramatic sense of contrast—the glamour that existed in the friction between emancipation and control—was something she herself had desired from an early age: “I project what I’m not, [but] what I’d like to be,” she once told an interviewer.

In the late 1960s, however, the “Mod” aesthetic, with its freewheeling miniskirts and bare legs, began to gain traction in the fashion world. Girls, not women, became fashion’s favorite currency. Another prominent photographer at Harper’s, Richard Avedon, had started to work with the model Twiggy, whose huge doll eyes and gawky poses embodied the new young-or-die zeitgeist. Twiggy’s tadpole appeal grew so dominant in fashion photography that, in 1967, Life, Newsweek, and The New Yorker each featured profiles of the eighteen-year-old model. That same year, Vogue showcased another gamine, the fawn-legged Penelope Tree, gamboling about in a miniscule shift and also what looked like a toddler’s romper.

“I find that showing fashion that costs three thousand and four thousand dollars on a teenager, on a seventeen-, eighteen-year-old is ludicrous.”

Bassman didn’t understand the appeal. Though she, too, had worked with young models, she had always styled them as sexually clued-up goddesses or commanding grand dames. “I find that showing fashion that costs three thousand and four thousand dollars on a teenager, on a seventeen-, eighteen-year-old is ludicrous. It doesn’t fit. It doesn’t gel. To me it just destroys the whole illusion of allure, of knowledge, of knowing how your body works.”

In a matter of years, Bassman would trash her archives and abandon fashion photography altogether. Her ostensible reason was the models. “I got sick of them,” she’d later remark to The New York Times. “They were dictating rather than taking direction.” Yet diva fatigue seems a feeble explanation for Bassman’s decision to annihilate own artistic past. Her gesture proves at once so violent and mercenary that it begs for a reevaluation today, four years after her death. Bassman’s move prompts us to reconsider how much should we hold onto our pasts, particularly when our relics are no longer valued by the world.

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Bassman was certainly not the first creative to wreck her oeuvre. Artists have a storied history of destroying their products, and often do so in order to retain control over their legacies. In 1991, Brett Weston tossed his negatives into the family fireplace, reasoning that “[n]obody can print [my photographs] the way I do.” In 1970, John Baldessari brought together all of the paintings he’d made between 1953 and 1966 and burned them in a mortuary crematorium. Some critics noted that this gesture was practical – Baldessari was about to move from San Diego to Los Angeles, and the paintings were bulky. But his Cremation Project also eliminated heavy baggage that may have obstructed his path to his later acclaimed text canvases. The act of self-ruin, after all, can prompt a necessary period of self-reinvention.

Like Baldessari, Bassman may have also read her artistic legacy as dead weight. She’d spent her career advocating for postlapsarian female beauty, but by the late 1960s the pubescent aesthetic threatened to render this vision obsolete. This trend proved a blow to not only her self-regard as a photographer, but also, perhaps, to something even more intimate—to her very idea of what constituted womanhood. After she destroyed her work, Bassman stopped photographing female models and began taking large Cibachrome photographs of subjects that almost seem like metaphors for the adult women who had been deleted from the youthquake frame—luscious fruits, abandoned-looking cracked sidewalks, and will-to-power images taken from the pages of male bodybuilding magazines. (This choice also proved an artistic risk, since color photography would not be deemed worthy until William Eggleston’s saturated images of motel rooms and storefronts won acclaim in 1976.) Her experiments in subject matter and color suggest a photographer’s attempts at creating new ways of seeing and being in the world. They were an attempt to move forward.

Bassman stuffed these negatives into a trash bag and tucked them away in the coal room of her Upper East Side apartment.

But unlike the art world exterminators who confidently sowed the Carthages of their pasts with salt, Bassman went about her self-annihilation with ambivalence. Rather than bidding her past a spectacular and permanent goodbye, Bassman quietly salvaged a small collection of editorial negatives. This selection of over one hundred images included a portrait of model Barbara Mullen in Chanel sunglasses and a large, sparkling necklace, and a close-up of an unnamed model with her eyes closed and head thrown back in an expression of ecstasy. Bassman stuffed these negatives into a trash bag and tucked them away in the coal room of her Upper East Side apartment.

Hers was an anxious, telling gesture. Mid-career artists, musicians, and performers might worry that they are one-note wonders, and that their backlogs will tether them to periods they must escape in order to achieve a maturing vision. Yet even while they contemplate the destruction of their treasures, they may fret that they are engaging a false form of prediction. Maybe they simply need to wait for a while, refresh their senses, and then circle back to the past in order to build and accrete their art. Bassman’s refusal to go all the way, as Baldessari and Weston had, speaks to the unbearable lightness of artistic and personal minimalism: while some erasure can liberate, too much can lead to blankness and amnesia. Perhaps this is why she crumpled up a few images and hid them from view.

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The rescued negatives moldered in Bassman’s coal room for more than twenty years, until an acquaintance persuaded her to give them another look. Bassman dug through the bags and found delicate, friable films. Time had changed them, and she exacerbated the ruin. She warped her old photographs by enlarging and printing the negatives using Photoshop technology that created extreme versions of her previous diffusions. These resurrected pictures radiated with heavy, sometimes distortive contrast, and struck the viewer with their ink-black washes and flashbulb whites. The image of the sunglass-wearing, diamond-laden Barbara Mullen now showed a radioactively pale specter against a pitch-dark background. The headshot of the unnamed model with her head thrown back and her eyes closed proved so altered by white highlighting that the subject looked as disembodied as a monochrome Gerard Richter.

Was Bassman recycling, or, as Ezra Pound exhorted artists to do, “making it new?”

Was Bassman recycling, or, as Ezra Pound exhorted artists to do, “making it new?” In one interview, Bassman said that her use of Photoshop to create vivid contrasts reminded her of her early painterly experiments. But whereas Bassman’s original Harper’s Bazaar iterations used blurring and chiaroscuro to imagine the unbound beauty of a woman in her 20s or 30s, her revisited images’ magnitude and almost Kabuki-style sfmuato displayed the unshackled grandeur and emotional intensity that can arrive with middle age. Bassman’s employment of hyper-contrast and nonpictorial, fragmented depiction created works conveying numinous power and even rapture, a state of affairs we might dream of women reaching as they age out of old gendered scripts. And unlike the images of her previous career, Bassman’s new prints were large—a quality that speaks to a desire to be seen. Again, as Bassman once admitted, “I project what I’m not, [but] what I’d like to be.”

The re-printed negatives had a grand reception in 2009, with shows at KMR Arts in Connecticut and New York’s Staley-Wise. In the late 1940s, Harper’s Bazaar editor Carmel Snow had chided Bassman: “I didn’t bring you to Paris to make art; I brought you here to do the buttons and bows.” But now Bassman’s work was embraced as high art. In The New Yorker, Judith Thurman wrote: “She manipulates the pictures to blur or burn out the detail, transforming a literal image into a painterly abstraction.” And Ginia Bellafante wrote an adoring profile of Bassman, praising her for making her photographs “seem even more ethereal than they did in their original form, and immune to the beholder’s efforts to carbon-date them.” Meanwhile, Bassman had grown energized enough to start taking fashion photography again. She covered Christian Lacroix’s millinery for the New York Times Magazine in 1996 and did an art deco-themed shoot for German Vogue in 2004. The publishing house Abrams issued two monographs of her work.

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Bassman’s career urges us to be collectors of ourselves. She returned to her old work and alchemized it into a mesmerizing and critically successful essay on transformation—from small to large, from soft to harsh, from mere elegance to something richer, more bizarre, and more interesting. Imagine what would have happened if Bassman had malingered in her co-op without those crumpled negatives waiting in the shadows to reignite her. No show, no monographs, no New York Times adulation. To bank on a similar late-stage success, maybe we should move into larger apartments, so we’ll have more storage for our old accomplishments. When we run out of steam, we can sit in our bonus rooms, surrounded by the piles of curling, flaking triumphs, hoping that these musty bits will passport us into triumphant futures. We’ll begin to retouch here, rewrite there, wondering whether a monograph like Bassman’s or a best-selling sequel awaits.

But it’s this very impulse—to hoard, to squirrel away—that Bassman’s choices caution us against. Rather than amassing a stockpile of materials that might have overwhelmed her, she elected to scrunch and store a tightly curated collection of negatives, and it was these images that later sparked her imagination. Her negligent conservation resembles the often accidental process of memory itself—the way we construct our autobiographies out of whatever recollections we managed to hurl into our mind’s crepuscular corners. It turns out that both Bassman’s art and retrospection were faithful to those competing elements of emancipation and control, of letting go and hanging tight. Bassman, like the rest of us, could only grab at the past in half-random handfuls, hoping that these were the parts that would help her make art, and live a good and engaged life, later on.

Yxta Maya Murray has published six novels, including The Conquest (2002), and won a Whiting Writer’s Award in 1999. She also teaches at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, and writes scholarship on law and literature, among other topics.

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