Fascination hangs over “Irving Penn: Platinum Prints,” which opens Sunday at the National Gallery of Art here. It is an often beautiful but overdetermined and subtly morbid show of 70 images, taken between 1946 and the late 1970’s, and 12 collages made in 1989. These works, along with 20 not on view, have been given to the museum by Mr. Penn.
Most visual artists, regardless of medium, want their work enshrined in a museum, and preferably on their terms. Clyfford Still donated large groups of paintings to prominent museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, seemingly to guarantee that entire galleries could be devoted to his work alone. Donald Judd went so far as to build his monument, in the abandoned military and industrial structures of Marfa, Tex. From the darkroom, Mr. Penn has conducted his own enshrinement project. In the end, this exhibition’s main subject is not so much his achievement as how he wants it represented.