In a museum that often focuses on cutting-edge contemporary pieces, the most recent exhibition at the University of Michigan Museum of Art came as a bit of a surprise. To be fair, the museum is no stranger to variety. Detroit factory architecture? Of course. African scrap metal sculptures? Why not?
But … Elizabeth Taylor? That was something new, and certainly unexpected. After all, the world of “Serious Art” hasn’t had much to do with celebrities since the age of Andy Warhol. In spite of this seeming mismatch, or perhaps because of it, photographer Catherine Opie’s exhibition “700 Nimes Road,” a series of photographs of the interior of actress Elizabeth Taylor’s home, may have been the most intimate, thoughtful collection shown this year.
At first glance, the photographs are sometimes dull, sometimes lustrous, capturing Taylor’s tables and rooms, her enviable closets and boudoirs. While the images are visually striking when taken as a whole, particularly in their artful arrangement of colors and textures, each individual photograph feels a little off. In some, like those of Taylor’s dressing table or her famed jewelry collection, Opie has eschewed the easy, alluring snapshot in favor of more awkward lighting or an inferior vantage point. There’s something odd at work beneath the surface. Where’s the shine, the patina of fame, fortune and a life lived in the dazzling, blinding spotlight? The answer may lie in the gap between famed public persona and private life.
The incredible proliferation of “personal” information about celebrities, now and then, promises that you’re really getting to know the star, that they’re just like you. But do these images show anything about their subjects? And do the lives of the stars represent something relatable, if not attainable, to their admirers, or is it just a sweet escape, a chintzy mirage that revels in its own artificiality?
The nation may be fed up with plain old reality, beamed at them from the nightly news or shoved roughly through the mail slot each morning, but our obsession with “reality” is at an all-time high. Ratings for dishy shows like “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” and competitions like “The Bachelor” keep on rising, promising audiences a no-holds-barred leer into their subjects’ personal lives. They spin a web of false intimacy around the viewer, complete with tell-all confessionals and dramatic, choreographed reveals.
Even Life magazine, once witness-bearer to some of the last century’s most significant events, now hawks glossy and expensive special editions, mining its archives for never-before-seen glamour shots of the stars of yesteryear. The lacquered faces and taut, midcentury physiques of these dead celebrities simper next to Kourtney and Khloe on the rack at the check-out counter.
Into the lurid fray steps Catherine Opie, a respected art photographer well known for her work depicting everything from queer subculture in Southern California to drab, sun-bleached, planned communities. In 2010, she was given access to Taylor’s home while the lauded actress was away. Unlike Taylor, whose public appearances were marked by high drama and oodles of cosmetics, the house was left just as it was: lived-in, not fixed up or polished for the camera.
The photographs have a curious untouched quality, as though Liz has just stepped out to run errands, leaving clothes and cosmetics in benign disarray. The viewer feels like a teenage neighbor, housesitting for the first time — running their fingers over the glamorous haute couture in the closet, fiddling with the TV remote and almost knocking over an Oscar on a crowded end table. The images are flat and two-dimensional, of course, but they are remarkably tactile — gossamer fabrics hanging alongside their ilk in an overstuffed walk-in closet, the glint of sharp, sparkling jewels carefully placed in dusty shoeboxes and labeled with their bestower: “Michael Jackson, 2005,” “Richard, 1961.”
If modern celebrity culture is a floodlit snapshot of life, showing everything and revealing nothing, Opie’s exhibition is the photo negative, so to speak — the antidote. By focusing less on Taylor’s larger-than-life personality, and more on the human, almost ordinary aspects of her home, a strange near-intimacy is achieved with Taylor, the absent subject whose presence nonetheless permeates each image, like musky perfume that lingers, stale, in the air long after the wearer has left.
Opie may not have delivered the glittering facade that characterized Taylor’s life and mystique — a disappointment, perhaps, to some die-hard fans. Touring the exhibition felt a lot like walking through a stranger’s home for the first time. The viewer wants to know the owner, but they’re always just out of sight. More conventional images of Taylor, bathed in glamour, seem to promise the instant closeness of “reality,” where everything is somehow familiar and remote at the same time. Opie’s work gets closer to the uncomfortable truth. This home, its luxurious silks and carpet stains, piles of old pictures and years of accumulated dust and memories, is that of a stranger. We may know “Liz Taylor,” but we don’t know this woman at all.