Curator of modern and contemporary art Matthew McLendon on Ritts' enduring legacy.
By Taylor Meredith
As the curator of modern and contemporary art at The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Matthew McLendon has many responsibilities—including overseeing around 5,000 objects (a third of the museum’s permanent collection), conducting research on all the museum’s different collections, and perfecting and sharing those collections with an audience. His latest project: Curating and installing L.A. Style, the Ringling’s new Herb Ritts exhibit.
Do you feel that Herb Ritts set the standard for photography?
I think that one can definitely argue that Ritts, as the most pervasive fashion and celebrity photographer of the 1980s and 1990s, had a profound influence on the “look” of photography during that time and on our larger visual culture. He had a very definite, discernible style.
Do you still see his influences today?
Absolutely, in clean lines and high contrasts. Ritts, like so many great artists, knew that less is almost always more.
Were you already a fan of Ritts before working with this exhibition?
I’m a longtime admirer of Ritts. He was dominant from the mid-‘80s until the ‘90s, the time when I was growing up and my aesthetic taste was maturing. He was on every billboard; he was directing the music videos I was watching. He was a very large influence in shaping my visual culture and understanding.
How did you notice the rest of the art world (particularly photographers) being influenced by Ritts?
Well, at the time in the ‘80s and ‘90s, I certainly wasn’t thinking in those terms. I didn’t even know Ritts’ name until the mid-‘90s. His images, however, were ubiquitous, and his visual language so strong that it of course permeated my nascent ideas about aesthetics and my notions of “the ideal”. Ritts’ photography was heavily influenced by his knowledge of art history, in particular the history of photography, and it’s this dialogue with the “classic” that gives his work its timelessness.
How did you choose which pieces of work would be in the exhibition?
This is what you call a package exhibiton. It premiered at The Getty, and then traveled to the Cincinnati Art Museum. The exhibition is actually ending here at the Ringling Museum. What’s important to note is that we’re the only East Coast venue for this very important retrospective.
My job in this case is to look at the material and conceive how it will look at Ringling. It’s a lot of research: reading catalogs, researching photographs, talking with colleagues, trying to group images together that speak to one another. We’ve been very fortunate that the exhibition’s curator, Paul Martineau from The Getty, has been here during the two-week installation to oversee the layout. You’re able to really get a sense of his vision.
What do you hope the audience will walk away with after this exhibition?
Herb Ritts has been historically known as a fashion and commercial photographer, and that’s what the audience will be most familiar with. But Ritts did a brilliant job of bridging the gap between commercial and fine art. I hope the audience will see that these hard and fast delineations really don’t hold up. You can’t really classify Ritts as a fashion photographer, because he was doing fine-art photography at the same time as fashion photography. Art can transcend categorization.
These photographs are stunningly beautiful. I hope the audience comes away with a very rich, aesthetic experience. They’ll also enjoy some great memories of the celebrity photos, like the one of Madonna, and another of Richard Gere.
This is our first major partnering with Getty, and this is our first big photography show. We’re trying to announce an ongoing photography presence here at the museum. We have an audience that’s hungry for photography, because it’s everywhere. We’re all photographers.
Do you have a favorite photo by Herb Ritts?
Yes. It’s featured in one of the first books he published. It’s called Stephano Seated, Milan 1985. It’s a crouching male nude in a strong, dramatic contrast between light and shadow.
The Herb Ritts exhibition will be held at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art from February 22 to May 19. You can read more about it here.