For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight.

     T.S. Elliott, "The Dry Salvages"

The new Henry Martini exhibition, The Week's Festivities, which opens today at New Horizons Gallery on Twenty-third St., is causing more than a few distraction fits. In accordance with his earliest work in theme-based portraiture (the despairing faces of men caught in traffic jams, the angelic faces of children mesmerized by television), the latest chapter in Martini's oeuvre consists of fifty-six black and white photographs of the faces of women in the throes of orgasm.

The 11"X14" photographs, all extreme close-ups, girdle the gallery in a continuous loop. Traveling clockwise, the viewer begins the Festivities with "Melissa, Sunday, 2:13 a.m." and after circling the gallery at a clip of eight orgasms per day ends where he started with "Petra, Saturday, 11:48 p.m." Martini, who is sometimes compared with Henri-Jacques Lartigue, Mozart of the snapshot, has carefully avoided the time-honored clichés, the teeth buried in lower lips, eyes clamped, nostrils flaring and the like. Technically the photographs are spare, relying on fast lenses and available lighting to exaggerate the élan of the moment. These are not the saucy, glossy orgasms of men's magazines. In fact some of the photographs are so inert that one wonders if Martini's claim that they "were taken at the moment of greatest pleasure by the woman herself using a shutter extension" is in fact true.

The majority of the photographs are captivating in subtle ways. In "Christine, Monday, 3:19 p.m.," we peer at the woman's face directly from the side, as if we were kneeling beside the mattress only inches from her head. The hills and valleys of her profile dominate the hair-strewn foreground. Her head is tilted back slightly, her upper lip paused in a smeared bray, her eyes not quite closed, not quite open. Beyond her, in the hazy distance, we see the edge of a window frame and suggestions of a sun drenched yard cluttered with the remains of broken down cars. No matter how often our eyes roam the terrain of her face it is her ear, the mystery and elegance of its cartilaginous arches, the comedy of its convoluted swirls, the tenderness of its lobe slitted by the weightless tug of an absent earring, and most compellingly, the dark vortex of the aural canal itself, which seduces our eyes again and again. Back and forth, from ear to nose, from ear to lips, from ear to eyes, our own eyes sway in perpetual motion between shame and comfort, always returning to the ear for the rest it gives our eyes.

The reception to the photographs is uneven. "Frankly, I find it pretty damn affected," stated one woman at last night's VIP/Press preview. She was staring at "Saba, Tuesday, 3:22 p.m.," (one of the gentler orgasms) with her mouth screwed up as if she'd just bitten into a sour apple. "This is adolescent crap." Other female patrons, in varying degrees of discomposure, expressed similar doubts about the validity of Martini's objectives, clearly stated in the exhibition notes: "Each orgasm radiates its own vibrant energy, comparable to the tone of a musical instrument. All of the instruments must be in tune with one another if the symphony is to transport you. My best hope is for you to surrender to the Orgasm, to its mysterious energy, not imagine yourself the cause of it, nor imagine the circumstances of the photography."

Orgasms, like oceans, repel metaphors, but Martini's symphonic analogy is surprisingly apt in regards to this exhibition. Standing in the middle of the room, turning in a circle, one gets the uncanny impression of being in the visual equivalent of a surround-sound theater feedbacking on a harmonic. Right when you think it's going to die out, you see something new and are swept away once more.

Men and women in evening dress waded around the gallery, nibbling on crackers and Brie, sipping wine, observing the faces of orgasm with the reverence and subdued anticipation common to patrons of the arts -- the casual stroll, the quiet hands and open mind. Nine times out of ten they ignored the carefully orchestrated chronology and strolled in a counter-clockwise fashion, or eschewed order altogether. The heady smell of perfume mingled with the adagios of Mozart's "Elvira Madigan" wafting in from the courtyard where a string quartet played in the mothy light of their music-stand bulbs. Martini himself, wearing a tailored suit the color of Campbell's Cream of Asparagus Soup and a yellow tie, ambled in with his wife (whose own boisterous orgasm is titled "Remi, Tuesday, 11:13 a.m.") at half past nine and was mobbed by a throng of the curious, concerned, and contemptuous.

With the grace of an ambassador in enemy territory, Martini deflected the barrage of questions aimed at his intentions. "I refuse to apologize for being a man." His English was flawless. Behind his square glasses his smoky eyes were generous and warm, twinkling with mischief. "I refuse to apologize for exploring what to me is a great mystery. I don't think we should be so intellectual about these pictures. Goethe said 'It is good to think, better to look and think, best to look without thinking.' Orgasm is a beautiful thing, as much as a lion eating a gazelle or the demolition of inhumane architectures, and yet serious artists resist photographing this moment. Why is this?"

"Maybe because it's personal and sacred?" one woman offered with unabashed sarcasm.

"Precisely," said Martini, lifting his arm from his wife's graceful shoulder and clasping his hands together as if to squeeze a diamond from a piece of coal. "The orgasm is a highly pressurized moment, emotionally, politically, spiritually, even intellectually." He glanced at Mrs. Martini for approval, which she gave with a seasoned smile. "Everything conspires against me to produce orgasms, multiple-orgasms, that actually move you in a quiet but profound way. This is what I've tried to do. Whether or not I succeed or fail we shall know tomorrow morning. Drink up, please."

Some guests were too preoccupied with certain practical questions to appreciate the full thrust of the exhibition: as one man put it, quite bluntly: "Do you think he ****ed them all?" Judging by the comments of many of the men, the answer is a resounding Yes! This man was staring at "Michelle, Tuesday, 10:27 p.m." in which the woman has raised her hand to shield herself from the lens. The hand, open wide like a traffic officer's, dominates the majority of the photograph, and because the lens is focused on the plane of her face, the hand is blurred, becoming an abstract form of shadow and skin more naked than anything else in the exhibit. Between the fingers, as if through the bars of a window, the woman's face is a horrific contortion. The hand, so sensual, innocent even, is a mask that does not quite conceal the brutality of the orgasm behind it.

Women seemed less concerned with the practicalities than with the moral and aesthetic value of the enterprise and the state of Mrs. Martini's self-esteem.

"Did you have any reservations about your husband embarking on this project?" one woman asked her.

"I am not the one to judge what Henry does or does not photograph." Mrs. Martini, who won two bronze medals in women's diving in the '56 Olympics in Melbourne, seemed more bored than her husband with such questions. "Let the photographs speak for themselves, please."

But most could not.

"What if you turned it around, and these were faces of men having their orgasms?" one woman asked.

"That's disgusting." A man stepped forward to defend his honor. "It's completely different. A man's orgasm is not a mystery. There's proof of it. A woman's orgasm, on the other hand, is an internal phenomenon with no concrete evidence, so the face and the voice have to express the equivalent of a man's ejaculations."

"I've never heard anything more ridiculous in my life," scoffed the woman. "You've only confirmed the absurdity of these pictures. They're about as mysterious as a hot poker up your ass."

"Then don't look at them."

Martini himself seemed pleased with the contentious energy in the gallery. He periodically raised his head above the throng and glanced about with a great, Machiavellian smile. At one point he turned to Mrs. Martini and gazed into her eyes with such tenderness that all light and sound seemed to fade around them, leaving only their faces lit like the reflection of a flashbulb in a pupil. For a moment they stood there, beyond the assault of words.

The only sour note of the evening came when a woman looked at her male companion and said, "What the hell are you laughing at?"

He stared at her like a child yanked from a swimming pool. "Do I really need to explain it to you?"

"I knew I shouldn't have come. I don't see anything funny about it at all."

"Maybe that's because you wouldn't know a real orgasm if you saw one."

As if on cue, a smiling waiter holding a tray of wine glasses rolled to a smooth stop before her. She grabbed a Cabernet and dashed a red Rorschach all over the front of the man's starched white shirt.

Judging from the applause, some would say that was the climax of the show.

In the final analysis, as the last wine bottles of the night were tilted into the last woozy glasses, the pictures seemed to sag on the wall. What at first glance had been threatening and exciting was now familiar and banal, and everyone's attention turned once again to the infinitely richer mysteries of the living moment. The rumble of voices lowered to a purr. Easy laughter graced the gallery. The bodies of men and women, formerly stiff and estranged by distrust, sought out one another once again. Hips and shoulders and hands lost their symmetrical alignment with the walls and reoriented themselves to other hips and shoulders and hands, suggesting an unstable condition in need of resolution. The string quartet clicked off their music stand bulbs and packed away into the night.

"So, what do you plan to do next, Henry?" a departing guest asked.

"Well," said Martini, lighting Mrs. Martini's cigarette and then his own. "I suppose I shall do what one does at the end of a long, hard week. Relax."

About the author:

James Terry has published or has stories forthcoming in Fourteen Hills, The Dublin Review, Third Coast, The Barcelona Review and in the on-line journals Juked, 42Opus, and Dark Sky Magazine. He lives in Dublin, Ireland.