Magazine article Newsweek

From Fame to Tame

Magazine article Newsweek

From Fame to Tame

Article excerpt

Byline: Peter Plagens

How even radical artists can develop stage fright when the world begins to notice their work.

Cynics in the art world say that the surefire path to stardom is a succes de scandale to get on the leader board, followed by a quick switch to suitable-for-home-or-office baubles for collectors. Modern art history seems to prove the point. Picasso's fractured cubism was shocking at first, but when within a decade he ramped up the pretty colors, everybody wanted one. The first pop Warhols--those blowups of cheap magazine ads and Campbell's soup cans--were homely and disconcerting. Then, in an instant, came Liz, Mao and Leonardo, and with them the greatest "business artist" of all time. People gasped at Damien Hirst's pickled shark, then watched him encrust a skull with diamonds and sell it for $100 million. Just last week Hirst auctioned off his new stuff at the venerable Sotheby's in London and took in double that.

Are we watching the same phenomenon at work, on a much smaller scale, in photographer Catherine Opie, whose retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York opens Sept. 26? Opie's first gallery solo in 1991 featured headshots of lesbians in facial drag: fake mustaches and beards. Then came the even more in-your-face self-portraits, with Opie's back cut into with a bleeding, childlike drawing. But in the blink of an eye, it seemed, the shocking, masochistic Opie disappeared. She started showing elegant black-and-white photos of freeway overpasses and haunting studies of empty strip malls. Opie now travels the country doing handsome portraits of high-school footballers that their parents would probably be overjoyed to show to the neighbors. What gives?

Opie isn't the first artist whose work raises the issue of how and when radicalism morphs into something mainstream. …

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