" A woman with her baby monkey, N.J. 1971" by Diane Arbus (1971)
" A woman with her baby monkey, N.J. 1971" by Diane Arbus (1971)

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No detail is too small for Diane Arbus: A box of ten photographs, the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s exhibit detailing the photographer’s reputation-making project.

Begun by Arbus in 1969 and completed not long before her suicide in 1971, A box of ten photographs is not well known, likely because she hand-produced only eight individual portfolios before her death. However, the project, which showcased some of her most iconic works, “bridged a lifetime of modest recognition with a posthumous career of extraordinary acclaim,” according to the exhibit.

The exhibit includes the vellum sheet on which Arbus practiced her hand-drawn captions, the (rather unremarkable) Plexiglas case the prints were supposed to be displayed in, a blurb in New York magazine that celebrated her work, and the (not all that interesting) backstory of how one of the portfolios actually ended up with 11, rather than 10, images.

As such, the exhibit swirls around two of art’s least compelling aspects—collecting (including the portfolios’ celebrity provenances and sales prices) and artist mythmaking (including an intense focus on how Arbus climbed the ladder of recognition from Artforum to the Venice Biennale).

What’s missing: Any broader discussion of the meaning and impulses behind her actual artworks.

Arbus’ photographs—displayed side by side in the exhibit’s middle of three galleries—are deservedly famous. Included in the selection are a pair of identical-twin girls with divergent expressions, a woman cradling a baby monkey that’s wearing pajamas, and an awkward-looking pro-war marcher. Less familiar and underrated are Arbus’ image of nudists reveling in the ordinariness of their living room, and her photograph of a suburban couple on their lawn in the throes of ennui.

Arbus photographed as if she was trailed by a little cloud, blocking out the warm, flattering rays of the sun and instead casting a grim pall on the proceedings. And as always, she demonstrated a rare gift for tracing the blurry line between ordinary and grotesque.

The main value in the SAAM exhibit comes from the display of the artist’s hand-lettered captions, which are a key part of her portfolios. Their significance stems less from their value as artifacts than from the additional pieces of information they impart.

For instance, her handwritten caption for “A Young Man in Curlers at Home on West 20th Street, N.Y.C., 1966” explains that the subject is preparing to take part in a drag ball, something that provides a little broader context for the image. And the wan expressions of the elderly man and woman in the “The King and Queen of a Senior Citizens Dance, N.Y.C.” are explained by Arbus’ notation that the two had “never met before.”

But even these captions provide only incremental leaps in understanding. The exhibit also offers little discussion of Arbus’ style and meaning, and no focus whatsoever of her earlier work, which was at turns dreamy, pictorialist and even pointillist.

Even within the context of these 11 images, however, viewers will wonder how Arbus made her photographs—and why. Was Arbus exploitative of her subjects? How did she woo them into participating, and what did they think of her work afterwards? Such questions linger, without any easy answers. The artist is a tangible presence in the exhibit, through a series of photographs documenting a class she taught at the Rhode Island School of Design before her death. One wishes we could just pull her aside and ask her: “Why?”

At the Smithsonian American Art Museum to Jan. 27, 2019. F Street NW & 8th Street NW. Free. (202) 633-1000. americanart.si.edu.