Robin Williams Embraces Duane Michals

THE DAILY PIC: Our critic sees the pain, and generosity, in Williams's cheer.


Duane Michals shot this self-portrait of himself with Robin Williams somewhere around 1980. The image would once have seemed straightforwardly cheery, but the news of Williams’s suicide, on Monday, now makes it feel deeply poignant. Even before that tragic announcement, the image had been chosen for reproduction in the catalogue to a major Michals retrospective being held in November at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, where the artist took classes as a boy. (So, by the way, did Andy Warhol, who was the subject of some of the earliest portraits that Michals shot.)

I’ve been doing some digging around about Michals, and as far as I can tell, he’s a genuinely cheerful guy, whereas we’ve known for a while that the comedy in Williams’s persona was camouflage for deep-seated pain. With 20/20 hindsight, it’s tempting to read that distinction into today’s Pic. And once you get to know their two very different biographies – Williams was a lonely child in a fancy household; Michals was born into a blue-collar clan – it’s hard not to see some kind of lesson about class in America in their two personalities.

One final thought on today’s picture: One of the lovable things about Williams was the sense he gave of being open to every kind of human being (if only, sometimes, as an equal-opportunity offender). Here, with a lustful grasp on Michals’ breast and waist (not to mention that shirt)  he seems to be saying that, as a straight man, he’s not afraid to embrace a famous gay. When this shot was taken, at the beginning of Williams’s career, that wasn’t such an obvious declaration. (Photo courtesy Duane Michals)

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