Early-’80s Madonna throws off a smoldering, over-the-shoulder look filled with youthful defiance. Debbie Harry tosses her Marilyn Monroe mane of bleached blonde hair back in a closed-eye moment of near orgasmic rapture. And Mick Jagger smiles a satyr-like grin as he prances across a stage, drinking in his fans’ fevered adulation.
These are but three of the pop-culture icons, mostly of the ’70s and ’80s, to congregate in a transfixing, comprehensive solo retrospective of photographer Kate Simon at Fort Works Art gallery.
Organized by the artist and gallery and showing only in Fort Worth, Chaos and Cosmos offers 137 photos (all but one rendered in Simon’s pristinely clear black-and-white format) with several never seen before in public. They form an exceptional, and touching, time capsule of the awe-inspiring creativity to emerge from that pre-internet era.
Set to a piped-in soundtrack of such quintessential ’70s musical stars as Tom Petty, the Eagles, and James Taylor, the exhibition is a photographic celebration of that remarkably fecund artistic era of 1970s to early ’80s. The intimate (as in close-up) photos of musicians, visual artists, writers, and actors, serve as visceral reminders of the indelible mark on the cultural scene left by these artists.
Simon –– born in 1951 in Poughkeepsie, New York, and armed with her trusty Nikon FTN and a disarmingly engaging manner –– convinced often wary artists to let down their persona long enough to reveal a sliver of their inner self.
Simon gained access and the trust of a who’s who of the epoch’s visual artists (Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg), gender-bending performers (Divine), and writers and poets (William S. Burroughs, W.H. Auden, Lester Bangs).
Simon was granted a prized backstage pass to the private moments of seminal classic rockers, punks, and New Wave artists. You can almost feel Freddie Mercury’s breath as he is captured (in one of the show’s rarest works) listening to the finished take of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Mercury’s expression hovers around ennui as he takes in what would become his recording career’s grandest moment.
Another of the exhibition’s history-making works is from Madonna’s first official professional photo shoot. Taken in 1983 and set on the rooftop of Simon’s then (and now) Manhattan apartment building, we see what Simon first saw: a star who had “it.” Madonna sports her soon-to-be signature ensemble of black top over black calf-length pants and shoots the camera a smirky look of material girl rebelliousness.
Simon’s works sometimes face one another, creating a cocktail party effect, with the viewer sharing the same intimate space with, say, the four members of Led Zeppelin. Simon’s Jimmy Page wears a page-boy innocent look belying his louche rock ’n’ roll life.
Simon captured random pairings of artists, reflecting how creatively entwined they were during the pop cultural laboratory of the ’70s. Neil Young and Patti Smith seem to be enjoying the same joke in one shot, while one of Andy Warhol’s entourage, Nico, all high cheek-bone imperiousness, smiles shyly at Leonard Cohen.
The solo artist who receives the most loving Simon treatment is Bob Marley, with whom she spent four years chronicling his life. Simon’s 12 shots of the Jamaican star find him in passionate mid-vocal onstage or wearing an infectious grin as he kicks a soccer ball with his bemused buddies.
Simon performs the photographic miracle of coaxing mid-’70s Ozzy Osbourne into the diffident smile of an English choirboy. And Simon strips away the garish stage persona with a make-up-free shot of Vincent Furnier, a.k.a. Alice Cooper, who, sans stage mascara, is revealed to have limpid eyes.
This remarkably humanizing touch applies to perhaps the most inscrutable of pop-cultural titans: Andy Warhol. In Simon’s lens, Warhol is clad in a mundane plaid shirt as he pages through a Daily News before sweeping up around his work space.
One of the underestimated virtues of Simon’s epochal portfolio is how each of her subjects makes a fashion statement mirroring the time. Robert Plant sports a brass bracelet and multiple rings as if they were cultural amulets. A serpentine scarf unfurls from the neck of Ronnie Wood, while Mick Jagger walks around in a suit whose pattern must have been inspired by an LSD trip gone badly awry.
And Simon’s images remind us how furry these ’70s icons were. Curly blond and brown locks tumble Musketeer-style down onto the shoulders of Plant and Groucho Marx-mustachioed Frank Zappa. And I barely recognized a pre-Pretenders Chrissie Hynde wearing a spiky-blond bob.
Sexual ambiguity –– think: pale-skinned androgyny with David Bowie as its prime avatar –– threads its way throughout Simon’s show. Among its final works is the pioneering transgender supermodel Teri Toye. Simon then portrays a nude Toye far removed from her ’70s heyday, baring her still taut body. Neither she nor Simon knew she was 40 years ahead of her time in embracing non-binary sexuality.
It seems appropriate to have one of rock’s pioneers, Bo Diddley, shot by Simon in 1982, culminate the show with what could be Simon’s artistic credo for the time she so meticulously captured: “If it feels good, do it” reads a sticker on Diddley’s guitar case.
Hard to think of a more succinct definition of that rock era and Simon’s always tender approach to a “long time gone.”
Kate Simon — Chaos and Cosmos
Thru Aug 31 at Fort Works Art, 2100 Montgomery St, FW. Free. 817-759-9475.