In some of his best portraits, Ritts invites us to forget, at least momentarily, who the subject is and to get caught up in the drama of the image. A gigantic closeup profile of Sinead O'Connor, taken in Malibu in 1990, is fascinating not because of its famous face but because of the details: the delicate whorls and curves of her ear, the contrast between her dark brow and eyelashes with the creaminess of her skin, the texture of her stubbly scalp set off by a small pale scar. Shadowy profiles of the Picassoesque Spanish actress Rossy de Palma and a real Picasso, Paloma, form bookends at opposite ends of one wall, inviting us to consider their similarities and differences.
Other times Ritts takes a cue from Robert Mapplethorpe and turns his subjects into abstract celebrations of form. The large, freestanding wall to the left as you enter the museum's main gallery is given to a huge, breathtaking nude of the black dancer Bill T. Jones, his graceful body crouched, head bowed, set against a stark white background. Directly behind this wall, a portion of another wall features eight more images of Jones, on large, contiguously mounted, white panels, in which the dancer's poses have a rising and falling arc of energy and rhythm that reminds me of The Swimmingpool, that magnificent Matisse mural at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Also like Mapplethorpe, Ritts has a distinct element of homoeroticism running through much of his work (the photographs of men far outnumber those of women), although the abundance of naked male flesh in this exhibition is of a considerably less explicit variety than Mapplethorpe's inflammatory nudes. As with the Bill T. Jones pictures, Ritts seems drawn to the subject matter more for its shapes and textures than for any specific sexual content. Duo IV, for instance, consists of two muscular male torsos entwined in the Mexican sand, and while it's a highly sensuous image, it's also an abstract study in lines and contours and chiaroscuro shadings.
Even the well-known 1984 picture Fred With Tires, a shot of a shirtless, tire-wielding hunk that in poster form adorns many a gay bar, is no racier than the average beefcake photograph. In it and its eight less static companion pieces, Ritts again appears to be more interested in the compositional elements that make up a gay iconography: the garage setting, military-style dog tags, washboard abs, tousled hair, smudges of grease.
But you can bet it's those glitzy celebrity shots that are attracting the mainstream crowds, and you have to give the Museum of Art credit for making an effort to reach people who might normally be intimidated by an art show. That's fine. There's nothing wrong with exhibiting a series of beautiful black-and-white photographs of the emperor in his many incarnations. Just don't try to convince me he's wearing clothes that aren't there.
"Herb Ritts: Work" is on display through May 2 at the Museum of Art, 1 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, 954-525-5500.