Over the course of 13 years, British designer Alexander McQueen enjoyed a friendship that grew and a creative collaboration with French photographer Ann Ray. The Columbia Museum of Art is currently displaying nearly 70 photos by Ann Ray and 50 haute couture items by McQueen as a testament of their unique relationship.
McQueen first met Ray in Paris in 1997, when he became creative director of the House of Givenchy. Since then, she has had unprecedented access into his studio to photograph not only the extraordinary garments he created but also the stages in his creative process. Interwoven with these captured moments were the spectacles that he engineered to launch each season’s line, including the controlled chaos behind the scenes.
Ray is said to consider her photos of people as “transactional,” involving conscious interactions between subject and photographer. The rapport she built with McQueen was palpable in this regard. McQueen had struggled his entire life with body issues. Ray broke down McQueen’s self-imposed walls as evidenced by the contact sheets included in the current show, which clearly demonstrate an ongoing negotiation regarding the choice of the final product. She captured the artist at work and at rest; some of the closeup portraits, such as the 1998 archival gelatin silver print titled “Silver Eyes,” might be said to capture the inner man in the throes of inspiration or the paralysis of self-doubt. Both of these states can be close friends.
No matter how compelling Ray’s images are, visitors to the CMA may be forgiven for overlooking the photographs as they first enter the gallery space because of the clothes on display, each piece dramatically elevated and set in its own illuminated alcove, framed against a dark backdrop.
Those who know of Alexander McQueen largely because of the press coverage of his innovative shows — he once featured all the models in an enormous glass box representative of a padded cell and another time centered the runway around a huge oak wrapped in fabric like one of Christo’s environmental sculptures — will be perhaps most impressed simply by the masterful tailoring of each piece currently on view. Before he studied at Central St. Martin’s College of Art and Design, McQueen worked for tailors on London’s famed Savile Row. He learned the basics of clothing making and used this foundation to create the unique pieces that made him famous.
A single piece of clothing near the entrance to the gallery gives a hint of the sophisticated fabrics and contours of the garments beyond. It is an evening coat on whose surface is embroidered in gold thread a stanza from Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee.” The text serves two purposes. It adds both surface and narrative interest, turning an item of clothing into something lyrical.
McQueen used fabric as an artistic medium to create garments that made statements about the world and human condition. His 2010 show “Plato’s Atlantis,” for example, was inspired by the ongoing tragedy of man-made climate change — the clothes he designed for that launch were intended to transform the models into creatures that were half human and half amphibian, an evolutionary response to the population’s need to cope with rising sea levels.
The kaleidoscopic patterns and embellishments that resemble reptilian scales or other underwater encrustations reinforced this representation of the mythical undersea world of Atlantis. The “reef print mini dress” with its “panniers” that resemble scales offers a good example. McQueen himself commented that the “Atlantis” collection was his response to the melting ice cap and concomitant flooding of the earth where “life would have to evolve in order to live beneath the sea once more or perish.”
Thus, one of the world’s most cerebral designers became a fitting subject for a photographer whose aim was to look beyond the surface. On view through Jan. 21, “Rendezvous: Lee Alexander McQueen and Ann Ray” offers CMA visitors a complementary exhibition of a unique artistic relationship.