THE NEW YORKER MAGAZINE
AT THE GALLERIES
UNZIPPED by Calvin Tomkins
The sound of two worlds colliding can be, and sometimes is, as harmonious as the sound of one hand clapping. And indeed, on a recent Saturday night no jarring dissonances marred the densely crowded opening of “XXX: 30 Porn-Star Portraits,” an exhibition by the photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, at the Mary Boone gallery, in Chelsea. Artists, collectors, literati, and other art-world regulars appeared to mingle seamlessly with adult-movie producers and directors, agents, and quite a few of the performers whose full-color likenesses, many of them life-size (or almost) and half of the frontally nude, should have stopped conversation in its tracks but, for some reason, did not.
The thirty portraits reflected democratic cross-section of the adult-film industryâ€”female and male, gay and straight, white and black, young and not so young. Each star was represented twice, clothed and unclothed, assuming the same pose for both shots, a device that Greenfield-Sanders says he borrowed from Goya’s clothed and unclothed paintings of his eighteenth-century maja.
Unlike Goya, however, Greenfield-Sanders excised from his images any hint of pornographic suggestiveness: no erotic poses or come-hither looks, no parted lips, no discreetly listed Web sites. We are in an art gallery, these portraits proclaimed, so this must be art. Formalist standards of art criticism are in decline these days, and will not be applied here. Let’s just say that Jenna Jameson, the reigning goddess of porn cinema, looks considerably more convincing nude than clothed, while the opposite may be true of Tera Patrick. Also, that Briana Banks, who agreed to Greenfield-Sanders’s suggestion that she adopt the pose of Cezanne’s “Bather,” makes a very good try but doesn’t quite succeed, and that Ron Jeremy, whose resume shows that he has appeared in “more than 1,750 films,” could handle the “Laocoon” without batting an eye.
Copies of “XXX: 30 Porn-Star Portraits,” the book, were on sale at the opening, with texts by Gore Vidal, John Malkovich, A. M. Homes, John Waters, Salman Rushdie, Lou Reed, and other famous moralists; the stars graciously autographed the portraits in it, and engaged in lively conversations about the empowering experience of taking charge of their own sexuality. The same points crop up in many of the brief autobiographical essays that the stars contributed to the book. “Before doing porn, I spent five years on Wall Street as an equities and fixed-income stockbroker,” writes Lexington Steele, who now produces, directs, and stars in such adult productions as “Top Guns” and “Lex on Blondes.” “Do I ever look back? Well, I enjoyed the square world. I do miss the regimented environment that corporate America provides.”
Spanning both worlds with effortless brio, Greenfield-Sanders, lean and stylish in a black Jil Sander suit, fielded compliments and made introductions. “Ben Stiller, meet Tawny Roberts! . . . Mary Boone, this is Chi-Chi LaRue. . . . Oh, and Nina Hartley! Nina is one of the biggest stars, as well as my introduction to so many others. She’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met-and I’ve photographed James Watson! In fact, he was going to come tonight, but I guess he didn’t make it.”
Greenfield-Sanders, who began photographing people in the arts with an eight-by-ten-inch Deardorf view camera in the nineteen-sixties, has become a star in his own right. Last year, the Museum of Modern Art acquired seven hundred of his art-world portraits. The images at Mary Boone are priced at thirty-five thousand dollars a pair. “I had to get over my own inhibitions,” he said of shooting nudes. “But the stars made me feel comfortable. They’re very proud of their bodies-can’t wait to take their clothes off. These portraits are kind of heroic. I love the way they’re hung slightly high in the gallery, so you’re looking up at them.”
With one or two exceptions, he said, the porn stars are happy being porn stars, and don’t entertain fantasies of becoming the next Nicole Kidman or Brad Pitt. Jenna Jameson, whose book “How to Make Love Like a Porn Star” made the Times best-seller list, is probably the closest to crossing over, but she’s also justly proud of the fact that Adult Video News has voted her the top female adult star of all time. Was she at the opening? No, said Greenfield-Sanders. She was working.