Here’s the bottom line: This show is a voyeur’s dream.
In the last year of Liz Taylor’s life, Los Angeles photographer Catherine Opie got the go-ahead to spend months shooting the starlet’s home and personal possessions. (Taylor died at 79 in 2011.)
The result, “Catherine Opie: 700 Nimes Road,” at the University of Michigan Museum of Art through Sept. 11, is a sumptuous, surprisingly affecting glimpse into the hidden parts of a celebrity’s life.
Opie is most famous for portraits of American diverse communities, which have included Tea Party members, high-school football teams, or lesbian families across the U.S.
But here she concentrates exclusively on objects (and one cat), with what UMMA assistant curator of photography Jennifer Friess calls “an insect-like closeness.”
Inspired by William Eggleston’s pictures of Graceland, Elvis Presley’s estate, Opie poked through Taylor’s closets, pulled open drawers and walked past endless shelves of perfectly arranged shoes and scarves to give an indirect, surprisingly intimate picture of one of the world’s most over-photographed individuals.
But as Opie herself has said, “ ‘700 Nimes Road’ isn’t about celebrity, but what is human.”
The first question, of course, is how in the world the photographer got such remarkable access.
“It’s a very L.A. story,” says Helen Molesworth, chief curator at Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art, which organized the show.
“Cathy and Elizabeth Taylor shared the same accountant,” she says. “These things happen. And the accountant knew they both were committed to AIDS activism and suggested that this would be an interesting project.
Taylor must have been intrigued, because she gave the proposal her stamp of approval, despite being a famously private individual in her home life.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Opie never got to meet the elderly star.
As a result, the only glimpses we get of Taylor herself are in framed pictures handsomely grouped on a side table — including one with husband No.5, Richard Burton — or in Opie’s shot of Andy Warhol’s gorgeous portrait.
“Opie never got to meet Taylor because she was ill,” Friess says, “and the fact that Taylor passed away halfway through the project, I think, really makes it all the more poignant.”
And there is poignance to this exhibition, which is every bit as voluptuous as Taylor at her peak. But there is alsothe thrill of the forbidden and the leering delight in looking on what we’re not supposed to see.
Taking a broad view, Wayne State’s Jerry Herron, professor of English and American Studies and dean of the university’s Honors College, thinks what connects with the viewer goes way beyond voyeurism, touching on our desire for insight into a figure we’ve heard about all our lives.
“There’s a longing for authenticity, by proxy, in the things that were close to her celebrity body,” says Herron, “a body always on display, from ‘National Velvet’ to ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ and finally the big-hair images at the end of her life.”
For her part, Molesworth suggests the photos might stir memories of older women now gone from our own lives.
“My grandmother had nothing like that,” she says, referring to Taylor’s elegant excesses, “but somehow the photographs reminded me of my grandmother. It’s not just Taylor that’s gone, but that entire generation of women and femininity.”
Still, Friess isn’t going to deny there’s plenty of guilty pleasure to be had walking around the show.
“How could there not be?” she asks with a laugh. “But a lot of art involves voyeurism — or visual pleasure,” she says.
“And Opie is definitely a voyeur. She’s even said, ‘I like to stare.’ And she does. Opie looks long and hard at things and doesn’t flinch.”
‘Catherine Opie: 700 Nimes Road’
Through Sept. 11
University of Michigan Museum of Art
525 S. State, Ann Arbor
11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, noon-5 p.m. Sundays