11/12/2010 10:41 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

CultureZohn: Johnny STOP!

It is more than fitting that Larry Gagosian's exhibition of Johnny Pigozzi's Johnny STOP! sits atop the dealer's Madison Avenue gallery's exhibitions of John Currin and Pablo Picasso, as there is something kindred in these three men who obviously love women and are not afraid of a crotch shot.

Picasso was famously known to change styles as he cycled through the muses in his life. Currin riffs on the old masters and inserts his contemporary--often lusty-- replacements. Though Pigozzi's interests range narrower (from Jagger to Nicholson to Carla Bruni, before she was the Madame), it's his own connection to his subjects that give his notoriously star-driven images something more than the paparazzi-flavor.

Pigozzi does something that appears easy but is actually hard: he makes the famous cozy, as he cozies with them. If memoir is the art form du jour of twenty first century art, then Pigozzi is the master of photo-memoir, shameless in his pursuit of the beautiful people. He's not the first to put himself in the frame but he's adept at spinning it.

Additional images in Catalogue Déraisonné from Steidldangin Publishers.

On opening night of the exhibition, he was spied taking a photograph of Wendy Deng and Rupert Murdoch bookending the portrait he had already taken of Deng--as another gallery-goer behind him was also photographing him in the act. One could already imagine his next exhibition entitled Johnny Squared as the comments on the work multiplied exponentially.

The tradition of celebrated photographers who were also fascinated by celebrities and hoped to capture something of their inner nature is long: at a recent Cartier-Bresson exhibit at MoMA, Cartier-Bresson's wife Martine Franck told me he insisted, "You have to milk the cow a lot to get a little bit of cream, and the cream is what he was interested in."

Pigozzi , who defies Cartier-Bresson's more classically self-effacing photojournalistic ethic, is all about the cream: of society, of the arts, of beauty.

When I first met Johnny, he ran with a group of Euro-expats who were trying to put their storied families behind them and find their own way to creativity and renown in New York. He once gave me a ride to my mother's house, his outsized frame and conviviality hardly contained by the tiny VW Bug he then drove. Though he was always immensely in love with people, new people, and especially female people, there was a certain confessed galumpy awkwardness that inhibited; his little Leica then became the ice-breaker and eventual passport to the world--and women-- to which he aspired.

As the years wore on his bonhomie and generosity were the elixir that sealed his becoming as much a part of the fashionable world as a chronicler of it. Yet when I saw his photographs for Ruth Rogers' first River Café Cookbook, which perfectly captured the essence of her warm and convivial restaurant, I knew that he had passed from the amateur to the professional.

There are a few too many shots of Michael Douglas in the show and not enough of Diane, the dog who adorns Pigozzi's crotch, but there is a more catholic selection in his Catalogue Déraisonné from Steidldangin Publishers, which accompanies the exhibition.

Would Pigozzi have come this far without his larger-than-life personality and connections? I rode down in the elevator with three opening-night invitees who were trying to pin down the essence of his irrepressible spirit with simple adjectives like gregarious and eccentric. Mainly, sharing his insider view is great fun.

Johnny STOP! remains at Gagosian Madison Avenue until December 23rd.