Time Out New York: Marilyn at the Brooklyn Museum

November 2004

Golden girl
The Brooklyn Museum takes a serious look at an underestimated icon
By Laura Barcella

“I didn’t mind being thought dumb. I knew [ wasn’t.” The speaker? Marilyn Monroe, whose words are displayed at the opening section of “I Wanna Be Loved by You,” an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum featuring approximately 200 photographs of the doomed screen legend. More than a simple retrospective, the show proves her salvo over and over, recasting Monroe as a brainy, savvy woman beneath the sexy blond veneer.

“Marilyn herself—her image— automatically connects with people,” says Matthew Yokobosky, co-curator with Marilyn L.Kushner. “But one of the things we tried to point out was that she wasn’t just an image—she was a forward-thinking woman that took control of her career in ways other actresses in Hollywood didn’t.”

Displaying works from 42 photographers (including Eve Arnold, Richard Avedon, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Philippe Halsman and Milton Greene), the show explores its subject from every conceivable angle. It spans the whole of Monroe’s career, from Andre de Dienes’s 1945 portraits of her as 19-year-old Norma Jeane Baker, playful pinup, to Allan Grant’s quietly evocative Marilyn’s iMst Photo Session, taken just weeks before she died in 1962.

The idea for Ihe show was born two years ago, when the museum hosted an exhibit called “Pop Art.” One of that show’s lenders was the influential collector Leon Constantiner. Yokobosky recalls, “He told me, ‘I have this collection
of Marilyn Monroe photos…’so we went to see them, and it becam clear that he had an extraordinary collection that wouId make a great show.”

The exhibit is culled entirely from Constantiner and wife Michaela’s collection. In keeping with the show’s conceit, the photographs are grouped thematically, rather than chronologically. In “Serious Actress,” we see Roy Schatt’s image of Marilyn in acting class, glowing, unadorned and unaware of the camera, located near more familiar cheesecake shots. The sexiest is, arguably, Tom Kelley’s “Red Marilyn,” the centerfold of Playboy’s first issue (in the “Seduction: Marilyn Monroe and the Camera” section). These clever juxtapositions emphasize Marilyn’s many faces, and the disparities between her manufactured image and her actual self.

“The poor thing; she was trying to find herself. I don’t think that’s allowed when you’re a celebrity,” 75-year-old photojournalist George Zimbel laments via telephone. His three pieces in the show, all titled “Marilyn Monroe, The Seven Year Itch, NYC,” were taken on the set of the 1954 film. The shots capture one of the classic Marilyn moments embedded in our minds: the blond legend posing on a windy subway grate, startled but smiling as her dress is blown above her waist.”lt was a very intense evening, very New York,” the Montreal-based Zimbel recalls.’Did I realize what an important evening it was? No.”

While they may not have been as “important,” the most poignant pieces contained here aren’t the iconic images, but the ones in which Monroe wasn’t even posing—moments when she seemed oblivious to the spotlight. In Richard Avedon’s “Mariiyn Monroe, Actress, New York City,” she’s a deer in headlights, simultaneousIy sad and alarmed. In another, a publicity shot (photographer unknown), the solitary actor is reading on her satin sofa. The latter image highlights that, despite the photos and film roles that often portrayed her as little more than something pretty to look at, Monroe was intelligent and inquisitive. As the wall text informs, she spent much of her off-camera time reading to make up for what she missed by never completing high school.

The exhibit’s wallsa re adorned not only with photos of Monroe in various stages of life (and undress), but with thoughtful quotations from both her and her colleagues. Some reinforce the idea of Marilyn as a lost starlet overcompensating for a loveless childhood (“I knew I belonged to the public…because I had never belonged to anything or anyone else”); some illustrate her sweet nature (costar Lauren Bacall: “I couldn’t dislike Marilyn. She had no meanness in her”).

Yokobosky hopes viewers will look past Monroe’s blond-bombshell image, beyond “the sparkle and electricity that she could turn on like a light bulb” and exit the exhibit with a “new appreciation for [the] brilliant woman who was able to chart her own career in an innovative way.”