Helen Molesworth Gets To Have Her Cake and Eat It, Too

Photography by Jeenah Moon and courtesy of ICP.

If you could host anyone in history at a dinner party, whom would it be? We’ve all fantasized through the ice breaker at some point or another; the better of us summoning blood connections, while other, more lofty respondents comb through the depths of time for the perfect cameo to inspire wonder before the first course. After 25 years of working with artists as both a curator and admirer, Helen Molesworth’s seating chart is nearly complete. It just requires two floors. 

Unlike most guest lists, politics had no influence on Molesworth’s curation for “Face to Face: Portraits of Artists by Tacita Dean, Brigitte Lacombe, and Catherine Opie,” which just opened at the International Center of Photography in New York. The exhibition forms a visual dialogue between three of the titular artists, presenting each’s documentation of other painters, writers, performers, and talents who have inspired them. Spanning 50 still photographs and two films by Dean, there is a collective feeling of awe viewing the portraitists’ work—candid, emotional, and firsthand—capturing the essences of the most prolific cultural figures of the second half of the 20th century.

Brigitte Lacombe, Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, Montreal, Canada, 2003 (The Aviator, directed by Martin Scorsese), 2003. Image courtesy of the artist and ICP.

Two large-scale, side-by-side portraits by Lacombe of two other photographers officiate the show. It’s an important introduction, notes Molesworth, given the ICP’s mission and both subjects’ contributions to post-World War II photography. “Brigitte is impossible to imagine without Richard Avedon,” the curator continues, describing the early aughts image of the fashion photographer taken before his passing, his vivacity emblazoned onto the silver gelatin print. “And I think Opie is impossible to imagine without Nan Goldin.”

Catherine Opie, John, 2013. Image courtesy of the artist, Regen Projects, Lehmann Maupin, Thomas Dane Gallery, and ICP.

Following the center’s sprawling gallery space, “Face to Face” continues in a choose-your-own-adventure manner, in which different paths briefly lead the viewer to different silos of each photographer. One wall boasts a colorful roster of queer performers captured by Opie throughout the early ‘90s—Justin Bond, Jerome Caja, Angela Scheirl, and Vaginal Davis—while another concentrates on Lacombe's long-time collaboration with Martin Scorsese (her other filmic work spans everyone from Federico Fellini to Wes Anderson and Alejandro González Iñárritu). The likes of Maya Angelou, Louise Bourgeois, Joan Didion, Rick Owens, Mickalene Thomas, John Waters, and more are sprinkled throughout in moments of beautiful collision. 

Photography by Jeenah Moon and courtesy of ICP.

There are, of course, occasions of overlap, like the portraits of artists Kara Walker and Glenn Ligon, whom Lacombe and Opie both shot, and Hilton Als, who is portrayed in two adjacent works by the photographers on the ICP’s third floor. Admittedly, Molesworth is not a fan of the segmentation effect of most group shows, but she calls this particular reprieve “the money shot” of her staging. “I love the compare and contrast moment,” she says. “I love to be able to look really closely at two different people's work side-by-side. I want to have my cake and eat it, too.” 

Around the corner from the two images of Als is a nearly-one hour taped conversation of artists Luchita Hurtado and Julie Mehretu shown on loop. Entitled One Hundred and Fifty Years of Painting, the 16 mm portrait in celluloid by Dean features the cross-generational pair reflecting on life, death, and their craft. Its title is a reference to the female artists’ combined age. Downstairs, Dean's 16-minute film Portraits, offers a rare glimpse into the life of David Hockney, who can also be seen again, across the gallery, in a portrait by Opie. 

Brigitte Lacombe, Joan Didion, New York, NY, 2005. Image courtesy of the artist and ICP.

Molesworth’s first show since lockdown, “Face to Face” is also one of the former MOCA chief curator's most personal to date. “I've written hundreds of wall labels in my career but never about a person I knew,” she admits, referring to each portrait’s placard, excerpts of seminal texts to recorded interviews. Some are explicit in their self description of practice, while others require the viewer to look past the hung frame. “The show is about our idols; that was part of the motivation for the show. As I am both a practitioner of this community and a fan, I realized it was better to let the subjects speak for themselves. These are amazing works, not just because the pictures are amazing—they are—but also because the people in them have done amazing things. They have helped us think about our life and our world in important ways.”

Face to Face: Portraits of Artists by Tacita Dean, Brigitte Lacombe, and Catherine Opie" is on view through May 1, 2023 at the International Center of Photography in New York.