Tuesday, December 06, 2022

Notes on the Jasper Johns Retrospective

What follows is not a "review" of the massive Jasper Johns retrospective divided between the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum, nor is it an essay or formal critical evaluation.  While walking through the Philadelphia portion of the retrospective, I made notes on my cellphone with an eye toward later writing something formal.

I never wrote the formal piece. Instead, months passed as I let the experience percolate.  I had gone to the exhibition a doubter, suspect of Johns' reputation and largely unmoved by the random works I'd seen over the years.  I left the show a believer.  The exhibition accomplished what I always hoped would happen when going to a retrospective, an opportunity to deepen my understanding, confirm my preconceptions or, as was the case in this instance, to completely alter my perceptions.

Here are some of those notes:

The sheer size of the exhibition overwhelmed me at first.  Could there really be a companion show of entirely different works running concurrently in New York?  Such prodigious output.  Did he ever sleep?

The encaustics are so juicy and luscious.  You can lose yourself in their surfaces.  The oil paintings push back rather than draw me in like the encaustics.

Up front, let me get out of the way what many would consider utter exaggeration and hyperbole:  Jasper Johns is the most important artist since Picasso and as equally protean as the great figure.  If Johns can be considered at all flashy, it is essentially in the sense of wearing his existential angst on his sleeve like the Abstract Expressionists.  He is generally regarded as the transitional figure from AE to Pop to Minimalism but the work resists such pat categorizations.  For instance, even though the flags are loaded icons, he isn't cynical or mordant like so much Pop.  As for Minimalism, no matter how reductive some of Johns' work may appear at first glance, many of the painted surfaces are far too worked and reworked to fit that niche. 

The Ballentine cans, as famous as the target and flag paintings, are one of Johns' momentary and fleeting lapses or nods to Pop Art, but as with his two dimensional work, these make no pretense toward direct displacement; they, too, are reworked rather than simply appropriated.  Unlike Picasso, Johns only dabbled in sculpture though his combines were clearly three dimensional.  Still, they said more about painting and the surface of two dimensional works and Johns preoccupation with exploring both the process and meaning of what constituted a painting.  Working closely with his lover Robert Rauschenberg, Johns pushed out from the surface not into it, an unmistakable legacy of Picasso and Cubism.  Johns would later move on intellectually and aesthetically, while Rauschenberg didn't, as he explored every 2D medium he could get his hands on.

He is always questioning what is art or at least how it comes to be (the form) and since he is forever doubting the answer sufficiently, he must keep asking. The section entitled "Trials and Proofs" underscores this interest in the how and process and question of what is art.

He is forever breaking up the surface of the paintings while dazzling the eye.  He can be playful and somber, especially in the Japanese themed images.  The late work, as one might expect, meditates on mortality.

By the '80's there are many references to friends, the self, objects collected.  He is profoundly self-referential, not in the narcissistic way of Picasso but as an artist who is compelled to learn from himself as he goes along building and incorporating what he has just done.  Not since Monet with his haystacks, cathedral facades, etc. has an artist looked at the same thing or object over and over, endlessly seeing it anew and fresh.

Another way Picasso comes to mind is this: walking through the huge Picasso exhibition at MOMA many years ago I had the feeling as the exhibition unfolded chronologically that Picasso would look at, say, Manet,  and when doing so he would fully grasped his importance and incorporate his lessons into his own art.  Then, the next year, he would move on to Cezanne and do the same thing and then on to the next touchstone until he became the touchstone.  He was that facile and inventive.  And he refused to be seen strictly as a painter, or a sculptor or even a ceramicist.  Johns seems to have done the same thing, less flamboyantly, less facilely, but in his way just as convincingly.

Johns does not see targets, flags, numbers or letters as popular icons.  He sees them as signs so ubiquitous they almost disappear in their quotidian ever-presence until he calls our attention to them.  And as such, he can explore their appearance not for meaning but for appearance sake, and this is what really matters to him, for the ways they can become art objects.  The greatness of Johns is that he takes common, ordinary, familiar symbols and signs and plumbs their visual possibilities in ways we've never experienced them before.  He investigates them endlessly, ad nauseam even, always discovering something about them, something that is so unfamiliar about the familiar. And isn't that one of the things we most admire about artists?!

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Unexpected Beauty

The Philadelphia Museum of Art recently debuted portions of the $233 million renovations designed by Frank Gehry, and, no, they do not feature flamboyant waves of glistening titanium or swirling gestures of wood.  Indeed, many people who expected such histrionics from the famous architect of the Guggenheim Bilbao were disappointed by the understatements that greeted them.

I wasn't.

What Gehry has achieved is a soothing, fluid integration of the new and practical with the old and classical.  The only nod towards flamboyance, the staircase in the new Williams Forum, is something of a disappointment.  Featured in every article and press release about the new spaces, it appears to be a tacked on afterthought leading to or from what is ultimately intended as performance space.  While it awaits performers, however, the forum's daily function is nothing short of an extravagant waste of space.  Eschewing supports beneath it, the staircase bobs and weaves as it descends.  Close inspection beneath it reveals treads made of the same Kasota limestone that graces the original building with hollow back panels made of some composite to which the same "surface" is applied.  This clever solution lightens the load so that supports can be eliminated but does not, alas, give the stairway much grace.  Visitors could be seen ascending and descending the staircase while photographing it from every conceivable angle.

This "disappointment" is minor, however.  (It should be noted that more than a few members of the public did wonder aloud was "this all we got" for $233 million.)

The project is not finished, however; more exhibit space renovations are planned and underway. 

Frankly, while the completed renovations already improve some of the exhibit space, the real star of the "new" museum is in fact an old feature long since abandoned but newly resurrected.  The long barrel-vaulted passageway that serves as the newly re-opened north entrance to the museum is magnificent in its simple, elegant beauty.  New soft, discreet lighting has been added to smoothly, gracefully move visitors along its considerable length, and the glossy brick ceiling gently reflects light.  New floors were laid, of the same Kasota limestone (and reportedly from the same quarry as the original materials), and the entire blending of subtle beiges is soothing and in its dramatic length awe-inspiring.  Many visitors were unaware that Gehry and his team were responsible for these changes.

This entrance had been closed for years and most if not all museum goers (including this one) were completely unaware of its existence.  The museum was compelled to reopen it since the west entrance, the means by which most visitors had been entering the museum for decades, has been closed as further renovations get underway.  When Gehry was charged with renovating and restoring this corridor, he reportedly said "We just had to not screw it up!"  He didn't!  It is the greatest triumph thus far of his ongoing renovations and the pleasures of this corridor provide unexpected beauty.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Fanfare For The Common Denominator

If the Philadelphia Museum of Art wishes to lower its standards to appeal to broader audiences, Philadelphia Assembled (currently running at the Perelman Building through December 17, 2017) is literally the ticket.

In our politicized age museum administrators and donors feel enormous pressure to reach out to their surrounding communities, embrace and underwrite art and artists they have traditionally shunned and engage previously disenfranchised audiences in terms to which they can relate.

Locally, the headlong rush into community outreach began in earnest with the Zoe Strauss retrospective of a few years ago, continued more recently with the “Wild” exhibition that just completed its run and currently reaches its apogee in “Philadelphia Assembled”, an exuberant, muddled assemblage of folk art, fine art, indigenous commerce, ethnic memory, community activism and polemic.

One cannot help suspect these efforts may boost the Museum’s attendance bottom line in the short term but not engage the new audiences when more traditional exhibitions are mounted.  (“Old Masters Now,” a celebration of the museum’s justly famous Johnson collection, will be an immediate test.) One thing is certain:  the pay-as-you-wish policy in effect for this exhibition won’t help the museum’s financial bottom line.

Cultural institutions must evolve to survive.  Whether or not they need to turn their backs on their traditional roles is another matter.  The staff, donors and organizers would have us believe the doors to the Museum no longer secure a forbidding fortress set upon the hill but rather are permanently thrown open, becoming a supersized community center albeit one that predominantly houses priceless objects we still dare not touch!

Philadelphia Assembled, organized by the Dutch artist Jeanne van Heeswjick, gives voice to the dispossessed and oppressed populations of Philadelphia, principally but not exclusively peoples of color.  (I have no problem with outsiders coming to town, staying for a while to take its pulse and then mastermind an exhibition.  However, it is presumptuous in the extreme to believe a year or even two in residence is adequate to claim any meaningful understanding of such a large, diverse urban population.).

If nothing else, the exhibition confronts the viewer with imagery that is unfamiliar in museums and with voices unheard except in the streets.  This is the real thrust of Philadelphia Assembled, displacing alternative visions from their originating communities into a setting where one expects to see art.  It’s a form of illusion and if we grasp the idea, the objects become mere souvenirs of the occasion.  One might test this theory by trying to recall in detail most of the imagery from the exhibition.

Anyone who drives through parts of this city other than its glitzy center cannot have avoided seeing the neighborhoods “re-assembled” in the museum.   Philadelphia has huge expanses of these depressed neighborhoods whose populations have been marginalized and rendered mostly invisible to outsiders.  Museum Director Timothy Rub envisioned an experience “… when our galleries are appropriated to become a stage for the city itself.”  A “period room” reconstruction from a Kensington home that houses the Alumni Ex-Offenders offices is a prime example of Rub’s vision.  So, too, is a wall of street signs proclaiming “We Buy Houses”, all of which display the identical phone number that connects to a voice mailbox where visitors can record messages about personal stories of gentrification and displacement.  In fact, the entire undertaking is a two-way street since Philadelphia Assembled began with a series of community events and participation outside the museum’s walls such as the lighting of an underpass in Nicetown last spring meant to draw attention to mass incarceration.  The second phase is comprised of these installations at the Perelman.

The most striking example of the stark contrast between low and high art is the wall of polaroid photos of Philadelphia prisoners serving life sentences in Pennsylvania and Jeffrey Stockbridge’s photographs of drug addicts and prostitutes in the Kensington neighborhood.  The polaroids, with their frontal flash lighting, centered compositions and inherent small format, are of record-making at its most simple and direct.  Their sheer numbers overwhelm any individuality they might achieve despite being accompanied by statements and names.  

Stockbridge’s photographs, on the other hand, are carefully composed and lighted and in a few instances printed very large.  They are very individual.  Their polish seems strangely out of place here and indeed the images were not made with Philadelphia Assembled in mind.  This last point also dramatically underscores the clear racial distinction between Stockbridge’s nearly all white subjects and the peoples of color that predominate the rest of the exhibition.  His are the very few images that expand the notion of Philadelphia in its greater diversity assembled. (Stockbridge’s photographs also belong to that huge category of images of long-standing presence in museums and galleries that allow viewers who would normally cross the street rather than confront these subjects to feel safe if not compassionate about facing them in a setting of art.)

The museum’s website states the exhibition is organized around five principles: 
Reconstructions: How do we rewrite our histories?

Sovereignty: How do we define self-determination & unit? Sanctuary: How do we create safe spaces?Futures: How do we reimagine our tomorrow? Movement: How do we share knowledge?

All of these beg the larger question of how we begin to arrive at answers, however tentative, in the context of art and the museum.  After all, the Museum is the nexus of assembly.  According to the museum’s website, the “Sovereignty” working group “is exploring the concepts of the marketplace and cultural exchange as they relate to histories of self-determination and the preservation of community wisdom. PHLA will partner with various businesses along the 52nd Street corridor in West Philadelphia to offer spaces for creating unity and cultivating economic sovereignty.”

To that end, events were organized in West Philadelphia such as “Jewelry Making with Esau” , “Knitting for Unity and PaPosse Crafts”, and Essential Oils and Incense Production.”  In the end, however, displacing artifacts, symbols and signs into a museum does not address the fundamental question of what are our expectations of the institution.  And if the ultimate goal is the complete dissolution of boundaries, why move into the museum in the first place?  Why not simply declare Philadelphia an open museum city?

Denise Valentine, a Philadelphia storyteller collaborating in the exhibition, had this to say in Hyperallergic, a “forum for serious, playful, and radical thinking about art in the world today, headquartered in Brooklyn, New York”: “We intend to re-imagine the Philadelphia Museum of Art as a place to unearth stories hidden deep in the soil of Philadelphia. We envision a place where narratives of the enslaved, the incarcerated, the displaced, and the disenfranchised are held in as high esteem as Eurocentric ideas about art, history, and culture.”
The Philadelphia Museum of Art cannot be all things to all people unless, of course, it seeks to preserve and present the lowest common denominator.  Even then, however, if everything is art, nothing is art.

Thursday, July 20, 2017


Wild: Michael Nichols (at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through September 17, 2017) is an exemplary show for a major art museum in the 21st Century;  “exemplary” but not very satisfying.

Nichols, a renowned photographer of wildlife as well as a zealous advocate of habitat and species preservation, is also one brave dude.  He ventures into the most remote, forbidding and dangerous environments throughout the world.  He is also an admired technical innovator whose experiments and inventions have made possible images previously impossible to realize.

What he is not is an important artist.  But that isn’t the point the Philadelphia Museum of Art really wants to make though it tries to have it both ways.

Mounting a huge exhibition of oversized prints of wildlife and habitats seeks to draw a broader audience than do the usual sanctified works of, say, Impressionism or 17th Century Holland.  Think of this exhibition as part of the PMA’s new outreach program intended to encourage people not normally disposed to visit traditional museums of art to visit and find works that are immediately accessible and pleasing. Nichols’ work is certainly that, but
it is not particularly challenging intellectually or rewarding aesthetically.

Documentary or advocacy photography has had a long, sometimes tenuous relationship to the traditional art world of painting and sculpture.  Today, however, Walker Evans, Eugene Atget, or Sebastiao Salgado among many are revered, exhibited and collected by both worlds.  All of them made photographs on assignment or for commercial purposes that were later divorced from their original contexts and displaced into the museum or gallery.   Their entry into the pantheon of artists is secure yet few viewers regard their work in its original terms, documenting the Farm Security Administration (Evans), making documents to sell to artists (Atget), or documenting the gold mining industry (Salgado).

As if to lend further credence to the notion that Nichols’ work fits into that broader tradition, the PMA shows a number of paintings and sculptures from its own collection alongside the photographs.  Among these are Edward Hicks The Peaceable Kingdom, Henri Rousseau’s The Merry Jesters or Tommy Dale Palmore’s Reclining Nude.  Yet each of these works is not rooted in advocacy, cataloguing or the making of documents.  (Interestingly, one need only walk down the hall from the Nichols’ exhibition to the concurrent, magnificent show of Goya prints to recognize where documenting ends and art begins.)

Nichols’ work is flat aesthetically.  Big cats leaping towards the lens are dramatic while images of orphan elephants covered by handlers in protective clothing do evoke sympathy, but they do not excite the imagination the way Rousseau’s dreamy invented landscapes inhabited by oddly acting creatures do.  Nor do his photographs exhibit the spiritual origins of Hicks’ biblically inspired painting in which the leopard, kid and children “lie down” together in harmony.  Instead, Nichols gives us a pride of lions devouring its prey as a matter-of-fact statement about survival. And compared to the high irony of Palmore’s Reclining Nude, a huge ape assuming the pose of a classical nude, Nichols’ unambiguous photographs of apes are prosaic.

Photographs of Jane Goodall, monkeys and apes seek to educate and inform.  The series on elephants revolves around the dire conditions created by poachers, who have imperiled the population of wild elephants despite efforts to stop this illegal practice.  Nichols does reach the viewer emotionally, challenging our complacency about disappearance of habitat and the animals living within, but on a level we associate more with appeals from the World Wildlife Federation or the huge number of nature shows on television rather than the ways in which we respond to, say, Durer’s enigmatic and fantastic Rhinoceros.  This is not a bad thing. Indeed, judging from the good attendance I saw on an early, hot Saturday morning in mid-July, I would say the show is a success.  It just isn’t especially memorable.

A version of this article first appeared in the Broad Street Review

Sunday, August 28, 2016

New Mormon Temple Pitched

“Tours” of the new Mormon Temple in Philadelphia are now being offered to the public free of charge until the official dedication in September.  Lasting about an hour, they are preceded by a 10 minute inspirational film that sets the mood for presentations to follow.

“Tour” isn’t exactly the proper term here.  Yes, we were guided through the new space while our hosts, different ones in each room, and others stationed in every stairwell and corridor, briefly explained what each part was used for.  The main thrust of their talk, however, was concerned with devotion, baptism, the afterlife, the joys of belonging to the Temple and personal anecdotes about their faith.  I’ll limit myself here to the building itself.

The overall impression is of an immaculate, pristine space in which nary a paint roller brush stroke, crooked line or imperfect miter appears,  All surfaces, be they granite or drywall, are perfect. Not a single seam wavers.  Switch plate covers are perfectly aligned. Banisters and railings are all perfectly joined and silken to the touch.  Everything sparkles from the enormous chandeliers to stained-glass windows.  Visitors are required to wear booties to preserve the mostly lily-white carpeting, marble and hardwood flooring.  While understandable given the large crowds passing through in devotion or curiosity, one has the feeling the perfection will endure long after the "tours" end and the real business begins.  There is no room here for imperfections.

That said, the structure has as much character as a convention hotel or mortuary.

Worst are the god awful paintings adorning nearly every wall and corridor.  Many look as if they’ve been acquired from the firms that supply motel chains.  Badly painted and generic, they seem to be after thoughts intended to break up the monotony of the endless perfection.  Reproduction furniture abounds.  The overall impression is of Neo-Bland, antiseptic and unexceptional.

The colors of the walls are almost all a variation on white or beige, soothing to the point of boredom. There are no grand halls though a few larger spaces have soaring ceilings.  There are, however, dozens of small rooms, like breakout conference rooms in any of a thousand corporate centers and hotels.  These, our guides tell us, are where most of the real work is done, behind closed doors.  There is no main sanctuary with its row after row of pews, altar or bema.

The exterior of the building makes no pretense of being modern.  Indeed, it is unabashedly retrograde without ever defining any particular style.  There are plenty of classical elements to go around, all the more to establish pedigree and tradition.  There are occasional elements suggesting the Baroque and some that even attempt to evoke the 18th Century colonial traditions of Philadelphia.  In other words, it is a pastiche pure and simple.  Having seen Mormon temples in several other cities throughout the United States I can say they vary more than your average McDonald's but all clearly adhere to a style book.

A baptismal font set on 12 bronzed oxen representing the twelve tribes of Israel is perhaps the most soothing room of all because unlike nearly every other space in the temple, one looks down, not up or across, into the cool, inviting water, which swirls softly in contrast to the stasis everywhere else.  This view is small consolation for an otherwise forgettable experience.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

A Triumph of Didacticism & Delectation

My first reaction to the news last year the Philadelphia Museum of Art would be mounting a major exhibition of the Impressionists this spring was that the last thing we need is another damn Impressionist show.

I was wrong, terribly wrong.

Discovering the Impressionists: Paul Durand-Ruel and the New Painting, revolves around Durand-Ruel, the prescient and shrewd Parisian dealer who championed, promoted, bought and sold thousands of works by the Impressionists.  His acuity and vision are attested to by the wondrous collection of paintings seen here, many for the first time in the United States and some for the first time together in more than a century.

The wall labels require as much scrutiny as the art itself.  On each we learn not only the year in which the painting was excecuted, but also the year it was first acquired by Durand-Ruel, to whom it was subsequently sold or auctioned, and, sometimes, the  year it was reacquired and resold--often by Durand-Ruel.  The last entry on each label names the current institution or individual who owns the work and from whom it was acquired.

Also included among the artifacts of the exhibition is Durand-Ruel's ledger, which lists, among its many columns, the asking and selling prices for each work he handled.  This was a dealer who was clearly willing to gamble but also one who maintained meticulous records of each transaction.

Audiences today are generally well aware of the role that major galleries and private dealers play, not just in the success of individual artists but in the prices realized for their work.  Indeed, beginning in the mid-19th century, dealers became celebrities themselves: in some cases, they became the subject of works.  This exhibition successfully limns not only the triumphs of the relationship between a dealer and his stable, but also its pitfalls and failures.

Durand-Ruel took risks in championing artists who were unknown or unpopular at the time.  He never doubted the revolutionary qualities of their work, but he was faced with hostile or indifferent critics and audiences and skeptical collectors.  He employed -- often for the first time -- all the strategies with which we are now familiar: bidding on his own artists’ works at auction to prop up the prices; purchasing paintings in bulk from the artists, sometimes before all in a series were even executed; and prodding his artists on aesthetic grounds.
Durand-Ruel would often visit an artist’s studio and buy 25 to 30 paintings or more on the spot. Needless to say, these purchases (or advances he would make for future works) were entirely speculative. Monet’s 1883 exhibition of roughly 60 paintings was a complete failure — nothing sold. A decade later Durand-Ruel exhibited Monet’s Poplars and all of them sold.
Durand-Ruel flirted with or went through a few bankruptcies. He purchased works in collaboration with other dealers. He borrowed heavily. He opened galleries in other European capitals and in New York. He traveled ceaselessly in support of his artists. Indeed, he first met Monet and Pissarro in London, where they and others had fled to escape the Franco-Prussian War.
The Impressionists’ first major exhibition as a group was in 1874. Two years later, they mounted their second important group show at Durand-Ruel’s gallery in Paris. It was not a commercial success. The first major commercial success from a show came in New York, not Paris — an 1886 exhibition at the American Art Galleries in New York was well received. A second exhibition followed immediately at the National Academy of Design in New York. Buoyed by the positive experiences in New York, including sales to a number of important American collectors (many of whom are represented on the wall labels of this exhibition), Durand-Ruel returned to Paris, where future exhibitions, including the Monet show of Poplars, were both critical and financial successes.
This exhibit is not simply about the making of reputations and the business of art. Durand-Ruel can be said to have discovered, as well as promoted, these artists, but had he not, someone else would have come along — the art is wonderful. Many of the paintings that fill the exhibit’s walls were unknown to me, even in reproduction; others I was seeing in person for the first time. All of them confirmed their original champion's intuition. 
(This article first appeared in the Broad Street Review)

Monday, July 13, 2015

Finishing First & Last

If nice guys finish last, the biggest SOBs must finish first, right?

Well, if your name is Robert Frank, the answer appears to be a resounding “yes.”

The cover story in the July 2 New York Times Magazine names Frank “the most influential photographer alive.” In the process of making that case, author Nicholas Dawidoff also paints a portrait of a misanthrope of epic proportions.

Both assessments have much merit.

Frank’s great achievement was the publication of The Americans, 83 photographs culled from the tens of thousands he shot as he crisscrossed the country on a Guggenheim fellowship in the mid-1950s.

Initially, the book was hardly a success. Indeed, Frank could not find an American press willing to publish it. Les Américains was first published in 1958 in Paris, where it found a sympathetic audience among left-wing intellectuals hostile to post-war American hegemony.

The first edition did not even carry a photograph by Frank on the cover; instead, a Saul Steinberg drawing graced it. The French edition also contained numerous writings by well-known authors, including Simone de Beauvoir and William Faulkner, and some critics felt these overshadowed the pictures. It wasn’t until 1959 that a U.S. edition was printed by Grove Press. In that case, the French edition’s texts were removed entirely, a forward was written by Jack Kerouac, and a photograph by Frank appeared on the cover.

That first American edition enjoyed limited success, but Kerouac’s introduction was instrumental in introducing Frank’s work to a small but sympathetic audience here. The second edition, printed in 1969, achieved tremendous success and established Frank’s place among the most influential photographers of his time.

The work was revolutionary, but its timing was also critical.

Unlike earlier “street photographers” like Cartier-Bresson or “documentarians” like Walker Evans, Frank was not interested in order, structure, decisiveness, or public policy. (Actually, Evans wasn’t interested in the latter either, but he produced some of his most important work under the aegis of the Farm Security Administration.)

Rather, Frank’s was a gruff, sharp-eyed and -tongued look at the underbelly of American society. He eschewed beautiful prints or, at times, even focus and perspective correction, to stare unflinchingly at the otherness of America, that is, the America that ended up on the metaphorical cutting room floor of the exhibition The Family of Man, which opened the same year Frank began his American sojourn.

Frank, a curmudgeon from an early age, openly disdained the sort of thinking that saw humankind as one big, happy family. He held institutions in general in contempt and professed disdain for the trappings of success even while he benefited financially from the acclaim he received and the support they provided.

The Times Magazine piece also makes it clear he was a lousy husband and even lousier father, as well as an unpredictable friend as likely to turn on you as not — neither of which, of course, precludes greatness in art.

Whether or not Frank consciously perceived the sea change about to get underway in America (and the argument can be made that as a foreigner he was in a unique position to do so), he did exploit two converging movements in the late 1960s in America. As the hippie movement expanded, American youth hit the road in record numbers not seen since the migrations of the Great Depression — the difference being that in the later period road trips were more often than not elective. Kerouac’s On the Road had been published a decade earlier, but by the time of the second printing of The Americans, it seemed as though everyone was headed for Haight-Ashbury or a commune in New Mexico or some music festival on some farm in upstate New York.

The other element of the zeitgeist coinciding with the second printing of The Americans was the antiwar, antiestablishment mood. The American dream had soured badly, and youth openly rebelled at racial and economic inequalities and the imperial arrogance of the best and the brightest. The Americans became a kind of visual anthem for a rebellious generation newly attuned to the outliers in its midst.

Meanwhile, Frank abandoned photography, and eventually New York, for film and rural life in Nova Scotia. He also divorced his first wife and more or less abandoned his children. Now celebrated in both the art and photography worlds (they were still seen as largely separate in those days), Frank nevertheless disdained elitism and high culture. “Once respectability and success become a part of it, then it was time to look for a new mistress,” he wrote in 1969. Occasionally he would appear in issues of Creative Camera — a short-lived photography magazine — writing his "Letter from New York", a missive so vitriolic and bitter regarding the art scene, the editors dropped it.

Frank no longer made photographs. He was spent, having said all he had to say in that medium. Dawidoff quotes more than a few indie filmmakers who insist that even had Frank not established himself as one of the gods of photography, his influence and reputation in film would suffice to secure his reputation. His films never achieved a significant audience. Pull My Daisy, his first film, enjoyed the most “success,” but not for its disjointed, rough, unorthodox appearance and “celebrity” cast of beat personalities. Rather, it was seen as a cultural document of irreverent hijinx.

Today, 90 years old and, as documented in Katy Grannan’s marvelous photographs, which accompany the article, disheveled in the extreme, Frank lives in New York part of the year. He still likes to hurl barbs at the self-important and entitled, but he knows the value of his name and his work as a photographer and isn’t above capitalizing on these when it suits him.

(This article first appeared in the Broad Street Review)

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Second Acts

One seldom realizes historic moments have occurred until well after the fact.  Fortunately, there are occasional second acts in life.  The Met's show of the Leonard Lauder Cubist Collection is just such an occasion. One hundred years after Cubism's revolution, visitors to this exhibition can witness history unfolding again in all its radical, inventive glory.

Cubism emerged over a decade, primarily in two studios, and in two stages.  The Lauder collection includes four artists, Braque, Picasso, Gris and Leger, but only the first two were making history.  The other two, along with peripheral figures, were drafting in their wake.

Of course Cubism did not emerge in a vacuum, and Braque and Picasso acknowledged as much with their numerous tributes to Cezanne.  But Cubism's grand gesture, drawing the blinds on the window of Renaissance tradition and convention, was a discreet moment in painting's history and everyone, especially its two heroes, knew it was happening and consciously took credit for it.

Try as we might, the objects and figures referenced in the matter-of-fact titles bestowed on their canvases by Braque and Picasso led the viewer into dead ends.  One could not penetrate the canvas, that is, look through the window.  Even their reductive monochromatic palettes thwarted the expectations built up over four hundred years of painting.  The framed canvas was no window on the world. Modernism's water had broken.

A few years later the second stage emerged as Braque and Picasso began incorporating newspaper clippings or chair caning among other objects in their canvases.  Thus, these masters of representation willingly stepped aside and allowed things to represent themselves.  Modernism was born.  Paintings were indeed flat panels on wood, canvas or other material with paint and things on them.  Pure abstraction was unleashed and Modernism surged ahead.

The Lauder collection is extraordinarily rich in surveying these dramatic moments as they burst onto the scene.  As a bonus since all 81 works in the collection now permanently reside at the Met, the gift not only makes that museum a prime destination for anyone wishing to understand Cubism, but a mere 30 blocks south sits MOMA, which owns the greatest, large-scale triumph of Cubism, Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.  Thus, the visitor to New York can see the birth of modernism in a single afternoon.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Ray Metzker

Innovator.  Formalist.  Intellectual searcher.  Legatee of the American Bauhaus.

Ray Metzker, who passed away in early October at the age of 83, has been called all of the above.  He has also been called one of the most important photographers of the second half of the 20th Century.

These labels are accurate albeit incomplete.

Ray, who was my mentor in graduate school and my friend and colleague after that, was one of the most important artists of the second half of the 20th Century and first decade of this one.  Despite the often brooding, mysterious, intense and foreboding nature of much of his work, he had a whimsical, playful side to him as well.  Light dances.  Lines pulsate.  Titles such as "Flutterbye" and "Hot Diggedy" are hardly expressions of existential angst.

The last important body of work he completed, images of reflections in car windshields and bodies, was executed as late as 2009. These capped a career of relentless discoveries and summarized the qualities that set Metzker apart and defined his legacy:  curiosity, an eye for the ordinary and a resultant extraordinary vision in bold black and white.  He could see in layers, combinations, simultaneity.  Like the late modernist he was, he learned the lessons not only of photography but of art in general, distilled them and synthesized his own take.  He understood photographs were objects themselves and went about rethinking how they could be realized, how they could appear.

Metzker was never a big star, nor did he seek celebrity.  He wasn't even particularly famous most of his career, recognition coming relatively early and then quiet and subdued for many years.  He spoke of receiving little recognition from colleagues where he taught, but, then, he was too jealous of his time to work to let them intrude socially. He did, however, receive important recognition from the Guggenheim Foundation (twice), the National Endowment for the Arts, and other sources.

When I would tell people I had studied with him they invariably would say, “Oh, yes, the photographer who did the composites.”  These were clearly his breakthrough pieces, the ones that established him as a formidable figure.  Not satisfied with the single image, Metzker explored multiple images, assembled or printed as uncut rolls of film, rhythmic and pulsating and dazzling.  They were also quite large in many cases, well before the current era of huge prints, many of which are large simply because it is possible, not because the vision demanded it as was the case with Metzker.  The multiples were, ironically, predominantly one of a kinds, another challenge to the notion that the photograph was endlessly reproducible.

But the reception of the multiples (or composites as some labeled them) were hardly laurels upon which he rested. Double-frame images, single images, landscapes, non-representational photograms, figures lying on the beach preceded and followed them and ultimately constituted a prodigious output in both numbers and quality.

Ray's studio walls were covered with found objects, many of which did not make it into his work but clearly influenced it.  He was a flaneur, roaming with and without his camera.  To walk the streets of Philadelphia with Ray was to see them anew if not for the first time! He'd noticed a new business or renovation underway and recall what was there previously.  He would marvel at some architectural detail and, suddenly, stare at a shaft of light fallng across a façade.

After graduate school and a stint in the military, Ray traveled in Europe for more than a year, taking walks and pictures, developing his film in makeshift “darkrooms” in hotels and pensions.  When I asked him how he would work during that sojourn he said simply, “One day I would walk out the door and turn to the left; the next day I would turn to the right.”

As arbitrary as that sounded to me then, I realized later he always carried what he called “terms” with him.  Some thing or quality of light or forms had caught his attention on one of his walks and he went out the next day with them in mind.  He didn't have a specific picture planned, just these qualities that made pictures worth taking...and looking at.  This approach was the key to what made Metzker an artist of importance and what made his work challenging.  He understood that the artist begins his exploration by admitting what he doesn't know.  Then he sets out to try and discover meanings.

(Versions of this piece first appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer's Op-Ed page and The Broad Street Review)

Monday, January 27, 2014

Oddities R Us

David Graham has made a career of searching for and finding cultural oddities and modest  -- very modest -- visual ironies.  A survey of them is on view at Gallery 339 in his show "David Graham: Thirty-five Years / 35 Pictures",  through March 15th.

Graham has covered a lot of territory lo these three and half decades and Gallery 339 chose a single picture from each year summarizing his peregrinations across the Continent.  Most of these images are of the built environment and man's interaction with it and are predominated by the vernacular architecture and signage that dots mostly rural and small town America.  Many bring to mind the tall tale postcards of another era. Indeed, one image of the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward, WI, is a direct descendant of those Tall Tale postcards captioned "The fish are big here", which usually showed a bass filling up an entire canoe or held aloft by a fisherman who is the same size. 
Tall Tale Post Card
In Graham's take the fish are so enormous people can be seen inside the open mouth of one of them gazing over the landscape.

Huge novelty dinosaurs outside a McDonald's in Benson, AZ., or a giant black and white dairy cow tethered to a trailer looming over a parking lot south of Oshkosh, WI, typify Graham's quest for the odd or incongruous. (In the Wisconsin photo a black and white dog is seen in the foreground lapping water from a puddle, announcing to anyone insufficiently impressed merely by a big cow "Look, they're both black and white!")

There are several photographs of pictures as well, some the interiors of artists' studios with still life setups and canvases on easels, others of trompe l'oeil paintings on building walls and still others of the pictures that make up the artifacts with which people surround themselves.  In one, from Claremont, KY, a framed photograph presumably of the deceased stands next to a grave and fresh flowers.  In front of them is an image on fabric of a telephone with the receiver off the hook and the caption "Jesus Called". One might be tempted to say this subset constitutes Graham's foray into an examination of the process of making pictures itself, but the probing is strictly for effect, not insight.

There are colorful views of old cars parked in front of a garage offering batteries; multi-colored doors on motels; public monuments of canon aimed at wall murals of the Statue of Liberty; road signs out in the middle of nowhere offering "Good Luck"; football players doing drills beneath a huge tower capped by an ear of corn; and an abandoned gas station in Golden Meadow, LA,  at which the huge canopy over the pumps has partially collapsed.

Unlike the work of his best-known predecessors who focused on vernacular expression, Walker Evans in particular, Graham's work inevitably plays for the easy laugh rather than anything penetrating.   Indeed, what impresses most here is how Graham treats every subject the same without nuance or distinction, just an endless supply he needs to collect and add to the catalog.

Though he started his project nearly forty years ago, long before the age of computers, Graham's work most reminds me of today's internet jokes.  You read them and then delete them.

(A version of this piece first appeared in the Broad Street Review:  Read it here)

Tuesday, September 17, 2013


Much more than just the art was moved when the Barnes Foundation relocated its collection from Merion to Philadelphia a year and a half ago. The powers-that-be also packed up and moved the attitude for which the collection was equally famous.

Many people unfortunate enough to purchase memberships in advance of opening day were more than a little miffed to discover that their privileges expired in exactly one year, even though it was months before they could first exercise them. Even more subscribers were angered when repeated phone calls and emails protesting this policy went unanswered.

One anecdote in particular stands out in underscoring just how unreasonable and outrageous the Barnes staff remains.

A friend and her out-of-town companion went to the museum on a summer weekend. Midway through their visit, both went to the rest room. When they returned by the only route available to re-enter the galleries, they were told to stand in line and wait to be admitted.

They explained that they’d already been admitted earlier and simply went to the rest room. The attendant wouldn't budge.

For years, the old Barnes restricted the number of people who could enter the institution at any given time. Even certain kinds of footwear were restricted. Visitors were eyed with suspicion. Many residents in the immediate Merion neighborhood objected to the numbers of cars (not to mention buses) parked along Latches Lane.
Apparently the new Barnes continues to view attendance as a necessary evil.

Then, of course, there are the eccentricities of the collection itself. For every fine Matisse or Cézanne, the Barnes offers mind-numbing quantities of saccharine Renoirs. For every fine Glackens, there are pedestrian others. 

Albert Barnes knew a stick in the eye when he saw one. All of that hardware sprinkled among the paintings, hinges and other pieces of medieval ironwork purporting to support his peculiar notion of art were transferred to the new location with absolutely no changes permitted.

It’s all of a piece: the bizarre theories and uneven quality of work, coupled with indifference spilling over into outright hostility. Then and now, the Barnes is no unalloyed pleasure to visit. The people who run it have maintained that tradition! 

A version of this first appeared in the Broad Street Review.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Face Time

"Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus", at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through the end of October, is exemplary of exhibitions in our era of diminished resources, relatively small, didactic shows occupying more space on the calendar if not museum walls than ever before.

While the blockbuster remains beloved of the general public and finance departments, it is simply too expensive to mount given rising insurance and shipping and the ever-growing reluctance of lenders. (It is worth noting that the huge DeKooning retrospective that just opened at MOMA occupies an entire floor, consists of nearly 200 works, and was described in the opening paragraphs of two reviews in the NY Times as being "exhaustively comprehensive, exhaustingly large and predictably awe inspiring" and "...[including]more than $4 billion worth of art: an enormously costly group of works to transport and insure, making it perhaps the most expensive exhibition in the institution’s history.")

The Philadelphia exhibition is far more modest in every respect but the one that counts: it is an illuminating reexamination of an icon nearly everyone thought he already fully understood.

Prior to Rembrandt, the traditional ways of understanding the face, indeed the whole figure, of Christ were based on officially approved sources, which included two holy relics that were considered miraculous "true" images of Jesus not made by human hands: the face on Veronica's Veil and the Mandylion (a cloth that Christ was believed to have pressed to his face).

A third reference used by artists was the Lentulus Letter believed to have been written by a fictional person, Lentulus, a governor of Judea before Pontius Pilate. In it, he described Jesus as "...a man of medium size (statura procerus, mediocris et spectabilis); he has a venerable aspect, and his beholders can both fear and love him. His hair is of the colour of the ripe hazel-nut, straight down to the ears, but below the ears wavy and curled, with a bluish and bright reflection, flowing over his shoulders. It is parted in two on the top of the head, after the pattern of the Nazarenes. His brow is smooth and very cheerful with a face without wrinkle or spot, embellished by a slightly reddish complexion. His nose and mouth are faultless. His beard is abundant, of the colour of his hair, not long, but divided at the chin. His aspect is simple and mature, his eyes are changeable and bright. He is terrible in his reprimands, sweet and amiable in his admonitions, cheerful without loss of gravity. He was never known to laugh, but often to weep. His stature is straight, his hands and arms beautiful to behold. His conversation is grave, infrequent, and modest. He is the most beautiful among the children of men."

That image had long been defined by the Mandylion of Edessa, a piece of fabric thought to contain a direct impression of Jesus’ face. Northern European painters like van Eyck took their cues from this Byzantine icon, and from apocryphal sources like the Lentulus letter: “His hair is the color of a ripe hazelnut, parted on top in the manner of the Nazirites, and falling straight to the ears but curling further below, with blonde highlights and fanning off his shoulders.”

It is thought Rembrandt was among the first to see Jesus as a Middle Eastern or Semitic face, possibly taking as his model a young man from the Jewish quarter in Amsterdam. where the artist lived. The idea of setting biblical figures and stories in local, familiar surroundings was not new. Northern European artists from the Gothic to late Renaissance had frequently painted biblical scenes using local costume and landscape.

It is thought these conventions owed less to a lack of familiarity with historical examples or worldly travel than to the impetus to make their subjects more relevant to local audiences. Surely many of these artists and their successors including Rembrandt knew of classical references from paintings and sculpture they'd seen. And even if all art were local, which it was not, artists adhered strictly to the canons when rendering the face of Jesus. Why, then, did Rembrandt break rather dramatically with these conventions?

Rembrandt never made the sojourn to Italy that many Northern European artists did. Indeed, he never left Holland. Living in Amsterdam at precisely the moment when it became the mercantile center of the globe, he let the world come to him. As such, artistic trends and worldly goods were deposited at his doorstop non-stop. The world came to Amsterdam's doorstep in all its worldly forms.

Having delighted in a cornucopia of goods being unloaded on the wharves of Amsterdam -- rugs from Asia and Asia Minor, ceramics from China, exotic maps from newly surveyed lands -- how much of a leap was it for Rembrandt to notice the young men of the immigrant Jewish population of this international city?

Above all it was the obviousness of Rembrandt's choice of a local Jewish model for his face of Jesus that stands out in this exhibition. Why wouldn't this artist who was used to, indeed collected, the exotic and quotidian of the the wide world in the shops of his adopted city look to his neighbors for models? Wasn't the Hundred Guilders Print the group expression of such a process?

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Ordinary For All That

 Zoe mania, aka Zoe Strauss: Ten Years, recently began its third and final month, and when the media frenzy surrounding it finally exhausts itself, we will have witnessed the most hyped extravaganza (labels like "show" or "exhibition" being far too restrained) ever mounted by the Philadelphia Museum of Art for a local artist, living or dead.

The curator of photography, Peter Barberie, was not content merely to install the 150 photographs by Strauss in what the museum officially called a "mid-career retrospective".  He and the museum's PR machinery had their own agenda, seizing on the opportunity to market Strauss as a  one-woman outreach program aimed not only at the usual museum-going crowd but at her disenfranchised and marginalized subjects -- as well as their friends and neighbors -- many of whose visits were likely one-offs.  (Frankly, in our Twitter age that may be all the attention span a museum board should expect!)

The proceedings got underway with a lavish and raucous opening night dance party attended by thousands.  (See the obligatory YouTube here) Strauss' work was also installed on 54 billboards around town replete with a trolley tour making the rounds.  In addition, an office was set aside at the museum to allow visitors to sit and chat with the photographer.  It all had a carefully planned common touch.

The forty-two year old Strauss took an unorthodox route to the big time.  She had no formal training in either art or photography, beginning her public career by mounting photographs she'd taken in the adjacent neighborhoods on the support columns beneath I-95.  "Invitations" to this ultimate open studio went out to the hood by word-of-mouth, flyers and the internet and the show became an instant sensation and annual event.  Strauss even sold photo-copies of the pictures for $5 a piece.

The art world soon took notice.  Strauss received a PEW grant and was included in the Whitney Biennial.  She acquired a New York dealer.  In the process, she was anointed an artist of the people, for the people and by the people.  No one seemed willing to consider whether her celebrity begged a larger question: just how important is her work?

Strauss' photographs fall into four general categories:  portraits, the urban environment, signage, and graffiti.  Nearly all the images were made in Philadelphia with occasional forays to the hinterlands.  With rare exception the subject is smack dab in the middle of the frame.  Everything is meant to be simple and honest.  And it is.  Lots of people in tank tops with tattoos. Endless dilapidated store fronts seen head on. Signage, some ironic, but in a sophomoric way.  Scrawled graffiti such as "You shouldn't of taken more than you gave."  In the end, however, one should never mistake bad grammar for profundity, and therein lies the rub with Strauss' work.

The overriding approach here is of straight forward description and relentless cataloging.  There is nothing particularly artful about what she does.  Indeed, given her outsider origins it isn't surprising Strauss eschews artifice, considered composition or handsome prints, focusing solely on content, specifically the downtrodden and decay..  The work certainly isn’t original, nor is it particularly imaginative (apart from the I-95 venue).  If her intent were to evoke sympathy or offer insight into the worlds of people living hard lives in tough environments, the work falls flat, competing as it must with endless daily images of a similar persuasion to say nothing of a long tradition of concerned photography.  Strauss is empathic but apart from her subjects, those looking at the pictures are more likely to feel inured from overexposure.

Did Strauss deserve such unprecedented exposure and treatment on the merits of the work?   I'm afraid not.  There is no mistaking her sincerity, but the work fails to challenge our preconceptions or expectations or to engage us in any discovery.  Strauss' photographs are like snapshots in other peoples' albums;  we recognize them for what they are but we cannot know the stories behind them.  More to the point,  Strauss does not enlighten us or compel us to understand more. 

Since the curator considered this a mid-career treatment, one has to wonder what Strauss will do in the second half.  The guess here is more of the same.

(A version of this piece first appeared in The Broad Street Review.  Click here to see it.)

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Enhanced Status

Kurt Schwitters occupies a spot in the pantheon of modernism, peripheral perhaps, but he's in there, off to one side in the wing reserved for those hard to classify.  The Color and Collage show at the Princeton University Museum of Art should  go a long way toward improving his position.

Featuring approximately 100 works, a full-scale facsimile of his Merzbau, along with some writings and sound recordings, this is the first major exhibition of his work in the United States since the retrospective at MOMA in 1985.  If it took a generation to gather these pieces from collections all over the globe, the prospect for future shows of this scope promises to get even more difficult given the insurance, logistics and related costs of such undertakings.

Organized by the Menil Collection in Houston, it is curated by Isabel Schulz, co-editor of the Kurt Schwitters catalogue raisonné and curator of the Kurt Schwitters Archive at the Sprengel Museum in Hannover.

Schwitters has long been thought of as one of the chief proponents of non-traditional media, incorporating every-day found objects into his collages and constructions.  There were precedents, to be sure, including Picasso's Still Life with Chair Caning of 1912 and Duchamp's Readymades of 1913 - 17, but unlike these artists, Schwitters would make incorporation of common objects the centerpiece of his aesthetic.  As this exhibition makes clear, however, treasure-hunting, displacement and recombination were hardly the sum total of his legacy, a lesson not altogether convincingly understood by some of the artists who acknowledge his influence on them, particularly Robert Rauschenberg.  On the other hand, artists who may not have openly spoken of their debt to Schwitters, especially Joseph Cornell, shared more of his feel for color and organization than is commonly thought.  They were clearly on to something long before the Princeton show reinforced this central point: Kurt Schwitters was an image-maker whose palette included things as well as pigments and forms.

Frequently viewed in the light of Dadaism and Constructivism, in the end Schwitters was sui generis.  He coined the term merz, derived from the German word for commerce, to express his ambition to synthesize quotidian experience with art but without the nihilism and polemics of the Dadaists, nor, frankly, their posturing..

The collages and constructions that issued forth were the distillation of this ambition, the marriage of every day commerce with the more rarefied world of the studio .  The public, including many of the artists he would subsequently influence, took away only part of his message, the finding, displacement and synthesis.  This exhibition restores the full force of his vision, acknowledging his magnificent feel for color, composition and surfaces.  Schwitters may have begun with ordinary, common objects of no apparent "value", but the results were uncommonly beautiful and tranquil.  He understood it was just as reasonable to "dab" a patch of newsprint onto his "brush" as a cadmium yellow.

Schwitters also experimented with the effects produced by the glue he used, creating subtle layers above and beneath the tram tickets, newspaper clippings and product labels he incorporated.  Trained as a painter, he would embrace Modernism's challenge to Renaissance tradition by shedding the frame altogether in some of his assemblages of three-dimensional found objects.  (It is worth noting that even the frameless assemblages are presented here with newer frames around them.  Some conventions just don't die.)

Many of Schwitters better-known images are the large assemblages, bold, dimensional and masculine.  The Merzbau he built in Hanover, destroyed by Allied bombing during World War II, was the logical culmination of this strain in his work, literally a walk-in sculpture that began in one room in his home and extended finally to six of them.  The reconstruction of a single room in Princeton relied on the few extant photographs of the original but is forced to leave out many of the surface details and objects the source pictures' fuzziness and distance could not reveal.

Naturally, the walls of the "room" have no right angles as their surfaces organically veer off in multiple directions, a variation on this framelessness.  And just as naturally, the logical extension here was Schwitters' literal combination of every-day life, his own living space, and his art.  In the end, however, this facsimile, stripped of most of the color and ordinary objects he incorporated, barely hints at the culminating spirit of the original, the dichotomies of messy, chaotic, random life and ordered, considered, practiced art.

Had this survey stopped here, it would have fulfilled its organizers' dream, the bringing about of a reassessment of Schwitters' importance; however, there is much more in Princeton to enhance his value.  Included are several collaborative lithographs made with a commercial printing establishment in which Schwitters combined his own drawings with portions of advertisements from previously printed litho stones lying about, i.e., found in, the printing plant.

Along with samples of his written work (poems, essays, childrens' stories), the gallery is filled with the sounds of Schwitters reciting his phonetic poem “Ursonate,” or “Sonata in Primeval Sounds.”  Nonsensical sounds usher forth in a staccato pattern beneath a large series of photographs of the artist himself, arranged on the wall, repetitive themselves save for subtle changes in facial expression.

This audible accompaniment to the overall experience of standing in front of and walking into Schwitters' art underscores his insistence on a total experience that makes no distinction in forms or media or where they come from.  There aren't many artists about whom that can be said, even those in the pantheon.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Street Find

The photography world is all agog over the emerging  trove of astonishing pictures by a heretofore unknown street photographer, Vivian Maier, and there is something deliciously appropriate about the role the internet is playing in spreading her posthumous fame.

Miss Maier, who died a few years ago at the age of 83, is simultaneously the subject of a very flattering piece in the New York Times (online), a profile in Chicago Magazine, a show at the Chicago Cultural Center and several blogs.

She is also the subject of a televised interview showing, where else, on YouTube, conducted with the chief guardian and most likely beneficiary of her work.  Moreover, she is the subject line in thousands of emails from photographers, curators and admirers of the medium, most of whose messages begin with a variation on "Have you seen this amazing stuff?!".

Born in New York in 1926 to a French mother and Austrian father, she lived off and on in the U.S. and France many years before settling in the States for good in 1951.  In the mid-fifties she moved to Chicago where for the next forty years she worked for various families as a nanny.

Some time around 1930, Maier and her mother appear to have lived briefly with Jeanne Bertrand, a successful portrait photographer, but little else about that relationship or influence is known.  What remains of her personal effects included a number of monographs of photographers.   What we know of her years as a nanny can be read and heard in various interviews with former employers and charges alike.

Whatever else propelled Maier to take pictures remains something of a mystery.

Maier is hardly the first photographer to work the streets, but she is that rarity among those who command our attention precisely because she appears never to have sought it.  How much she knew about  contemporary photographers is unknown at this time. The monographs found among her possessions and a well-documented penchant for routinely taking the children under her care to cultural events strongly suggest she was familiar with at least some of them..  Moreover, she lived in one of the major photographic centers in the country at a time when Harry Callahan and Ray Metzker among others were actively working.  One can clearly see echoes of Callahan, Weegee, Diane Arbus, August Sander and other contemporaries in her work but these similarities may be due as much to period dress, a square format, and a preponderance of odd, eccentric characters in the city as to conscious emulation.

The freshness of her vision is undeniable.  Maier's sense of light and composition is impressive.  Her feel for humor and irony is Gallic and profound.  (The French, in particular, always see right through Americans on their home turf.  Witness the work of Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank, who was Swiss.)

Apparently, on her days off Maier walked the streets of Chicago, Rolleiflex in hand.  No neighborhood nor subject was off limits to her. She was as likely to photograph women in mink stoles standing on downtown streets as a young boy riding an over-sized horse underneath the Loop.  She was also as likely to photograph herself reflected in the mirror of a cigarette vending machine.  Self-portraits abound, her camera nearly always visible, as if she would occasionally pause to record herself as the artist she aspired to be but perhaps could not quite bring  herself to believe she was.

The sheer range of her subject matter and sensibility further underscores that Maier worked with few apparent conscious constraints, particularly of audience.  The thousands of unprinted negatives she left along with hundreds of undeveloped rolls of film strongly suggest she was too busy looking to worry about being seen.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Traditional Stroke

If there are two disciplines graduates of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts value above all others they are drawing and painting. According to Claes Oldenburg, however, similarly inclined artists are in short supply elsewhere.

The Academy and Oldenburg announced recently the famous Pop artist would produce an enormous sculpture of a paint brush and dollop of paint for the new Lenfest Plaza planned for the block of Cherry Street directly across from the towering extension to the PA Convention Center and between PAFA's original building and the Hamilton Building.

The sculpture will rise 53 feet and be pitched at a 60 degree angle over the sidewalk fronting Broad Street with the dollop of paint on the ground below and illuminated bristles at night. It is doubtful this looming instant cliche will intimidate pedestrians as some fear, but it seems certain the dollop will eventually take on the color of a palette on which too many colors have been mixed.  Perhaps funding will be available to periodically repaint the dollop.

In describing the impetus behind the work, Oldenburg decried the lack of interest in painting among today's young artists and expressed the hope his planned piece would remind visitors, students and passersby of its primacy. The guess here is few observers will be persuaded.

Oldenburg is well known to city residents for his Clothespin at Center Square, directly across from City Hall, and the lesser seen Split Button on the campus at Penn. The former has long held a special place for city residents, especially those looking for an easily identifiable meeting spot downtown. Installed in1976, the Clothespin spoke volumes to a culture so imbued with the Pop phenomena that commercial enterprises had already gladly taken over the role of transforming everyday pop icons into consumer goods. Nearly 35 years later, however, this sort of illusionism no longer excites the imagination.

The issue here is hardly one of questioning the value of a foundation rooted in painting and drawing; rather, it concerns the particular kinds of painting and drawing that result from such training. In PAFA's case the emphasis remains squarely on the most academic approach. As such, the proposed Oldenburg sculpture seems more likely to underscore the conservative initiatives of the sponsoring institution that prefers looking backwards than to spur new commitments if not directions.

Follow up:  The reality is far worse than the renderings.  The brush itself is a pasty orange and the dollop on the ground is a huge mound.  It's hard to imagine anyone would willingly set his course for this travesty as a meeting place. 

Monday, May 17, 2010

Minor Show

Spring time and baseball, perfect together; and what better time to mount a show of portraits of aspiring baseball players than the season in which hope if not actual prospects for success spring eternal? Gallery 339 is currently showing Andrea Modica's "Minor League", B&W photographs taken in the early 1990's of ballplayers in the Yankees' farm system.

These portraits reveal little other than a mostly bored-looking bunch of young men lounging around, stuck in the low minors and unlikely to rise. If participation in sports builds character, little if any is much in evidence here. Bad food, long bus rides and less than ideal playing conditions describe the life of most minor leaguers and Modica's portraits succeed merely in contributing to the drabness.

Among those pictured here are catcher Jorge Posada, who did reach stardom in the big leagues, and slugger Daryl Stawberry, in a Dodgers uniform no less. (Someone should tell Modica that Yankess and Dodgers don't mix...ever!) Since Strawberry began his big league career with the Mets in 1983, was traded to LA in 1991 and to the Yankees in 1993, it's hard to fathom what his portrait is doing here among the hopefuls other than to possibly raise the overall level of Modica's game. It doesn't.

Minor League indeed!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Grateful For Old Friends

Thoughts on an extended weekend in the museums and galleries of New York.


Arrived in New York, checked into the hotel and went straight to the Morgan Library & Museum to see Palladio and his Legacy: A Transatlantic Journey and Flemish Illuminations in the Era of Catherine of Cleves.

The Morgan is always welcoming with its emphasis on small-scale contemplative art, its library reminiscent of a bygone era and the absence of crowds. Not so welcoming is the latest addition to the building, designed by Renzo Piano and completed in 2006. The central court may be the most profligate use of museum space in all of New York, standing in sharp and banal contrast to the intimacy of the work the Morgan collects and shows.

Once inside the exhibition space, however, the serenity that is the Morgan is re-established immediately. Palladio's renderings and scale models of some of his and others' projects directly influenced by him draw me in with their detail and intricacy. What impresses me most is learning about Palladio's exhaustive determination to observe classical traditions first hand and later recapitulate them in his own elegant modern terms for both individual and institutional patrons. He was, among many things, a first rate student of the traditions out of which he came. The fruits of this studiousness ultimately resulted in his Four Books of Architecture, published and republished throughout Europe and America, sometimes with substantial liberties taken by publishers as the exhibition makes clear. The books became and remain among the most influential works on architecture.

The presence of scale models cannot be overestimated here, providing scope to Palladio's theories and practices, especially for those of us who haven't seen many of his buildings. Among the pleasant surprises is a rendering by Thomas Jefferson, Palladio's most fervent American adherent, of a rejected submission for the competition to design the White House. Compared to the structure eventually built, Jefferson's proposal is positively palatial...an irony in a new democracy apparently not lost on the judges.

Illuminated manuscripts are the Morgan's stock and trade. No institution save the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore approaches (but does not match) their impressive collection overall. The current show of Dutch illuminations by the Master of Catherine of Cleves are among the most treasured in the world. Deeply satisfying for their rich detail, ornamentation and narratives, their vibrant colors offer a respite from Palladio's monochromatic drawings.

The emphasis on visualizing biblical events in ordinary, every day settings is typical of northern artists during the profoundly sacred Middle Ages and anticipates the far more secular Golden Age of Dutch still life and genre painting that will follow. The elaborate borders surrounding these scenes are unprecedented as far as I can tell not only for their variety but for their avoidance of the sort of repetitive decorative motifs that we shall see the next day at the Met in the Limbourg Brothers work. Instead, all sorts of ordinary objects, some quite whimsical, surround the narratives and contrast sharply with them. I find myself wondering whether or not this particular book anticipates the tradition of drolleries seen in later works. I am also left wondering how other illuminators and scribes managed to see works such as these given their private nature and individual, cloistered if you will, ownership!

Before departing we spend time examining the ongoing exhibition Masterworks from the Morgan: Near Eastern Seals. These always curious objects fascinate as much for their technical brilliance and difficulty as for their iconography.


Up early to walk from our hotel in midtown to the Met. I always approach the Met with some trepidation, scanning the normally overflowing front steps to gauge the size of the crowds awaiting us inside. Being early and cool this particular morning, the scattered visitors on the steps belie the throngs indoors. All [unrealistic] hopes of a quiet interlude are immediately dispelled.

The Met may always be packed and bustling yet once past the entry points it becomes manageable. Our principal objective today is The Art of Illumination: The Limbourg Brothers and the Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry. Only in New York, I muse, can two of the greatest examples of manuscript illumination be on display at two different institutions at the same time.

This exhibit of arguably the most famous manuscript illuminators of all time, is brilliantly displayed, each page given ample space either on the walls or at free-standing podiums that invite close inspection while leaning on inclined display cases. A rack of magnifying glasses greets visitors at the entrance and makes viewing the details very rewarding. We are informed that "because [the book] is currently unbound, it is possible to exhibit all of its illuminated pages as individual leaves, a unique opportunity never to be repeated." (The Morgan lacks the space for such an extensive display and can only show a few of the 157 pages from the book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves.)

Fortunately, the exhibit is sparsely attended, allowing as much time to linger over each page as I want. I am struck by how dazzling the colors remain, due no doubt in some measure to the limited exposure of the folios to light of any kind. The colors used by the Limbourg Brothers and their contemporaries seem unique to illuminated manuscripts of Medieval Europe, much as the colors of Indian miniature paintings have always struck me as having their own special palette. In these Belles Heures deep royal blues, rich carmine and aquamarines abound while gold leaf is liberally and delicately sprinkled about. Each page seems more dazzling than the next.

The unanticipated highlight of our visit turns out to be a nearby display of The Mourners: Medieval Tomb Sculptures from the Court of Burgundy. Their loan is made possible by renovations at their permanent place of residence at the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Dijon. Temporarily separated from their normal location spread among the carved cloisters that form the base of the tomb of Duke Philip the Bold itself, these figures by Claus Sluter and his workshop are displayed in two free-standing rows at the Met. They can be seen here https://framemuseums.org/the-mourners-tomb-sculptures-from-the-court-of-burgundy/. What makes the Met's display such a unique opportunity is that we see each figure in the round for the first time since they were carved, unimpeded by their placement in the supporting structure that forms the tomb's base. Momentarily freed, the individuality of the mourners comes through, especially the pathos in their faces, posture and gestures. We found them quite moving.

After our morning sojourn in the Middle Ages, we began our chronological march forward with the Bronzino drawings which surprisingly did not particularly interest me and followed these with visits to old friends including Vermeer and Rembrandt whose work always does. The Met owns five of the 34 paintings experts agree are by Vermeer and together with three more a few blocks further south on Fifth Avenue at the Frick, one can see nearly a quarter of his oeuvre in a single afternoon. To my mind this fortuitous proximity is one of the great museum-going opportunities of our age.

Next came my mandatory visit to the American collection, particularly the Hudson River School painters whose sublime interpretations of the American landscape always leave me nostalgic for a country I have never experienced. Mine is a rather odd response, I'll admit, but nonetheless I am exhilarated!

We concluded our visit to the Met breezing through the photographs from the permanent collection with a stop at the exhibition Surface Tension: Contemporary Photography from the collection, purporting to show how a substantial number of photographers exploit the tension between the medium's inherently heightened three-dimensional illusionism and actual two dimensionality. This is hardly a contemporary notion, the whole of modernism's realism strain having addressed this concern beginning more than a hundred years ago, but, then, photography still suffers an inferiority complex at times in relation to its older brethren and seems fated to reinvent the wheel every few years. Few photographers shown here managed anything approaching insight on the subject and only one, Andrew Bush, produced images of any fascination and these owed far more to the 19 Century trompe l'oeil paintings of Harnett and Peto than to modernism.

After leaving the Met we made a slight detour en route to the Frick to visit the Acquavella Galleries which have mounted a much-talked about exhibition entitled Robert & Ethel Scull: Portrait of a Collection. The most remarkable thing about this exhibition was the reunification of 37 pieces from the now widely scattered collection, a triumph of the curator's art of persuasion if nothing else.

The Sculls were not only among the earliest and most prominent collectors of Pop and Minimalism, they were themselves the subjects in several instances, most notably Andy Warhol's "Ethel Scull 36 Times," and George Segal's "Portrait of Robert and Ethel Scull," both of which were loaned to the show. The Sculls friendship with these artists blurred the line at times between patron and participant and that, in the end, is the real interest of this show, not the work seen here which despite having entered the canon no longer excites for the most part. (Perhaps some of the works not made available would alter my opinion...though I doubt it.) The Sculls had a good eye for the work of artists who would eventually enter the pantheon as their eventual sale of the collection for then-record prices only underscored, but time has dulled much of the work itself...though not the prices which have soared since that auction.

Our last stop of the day is the Frick where we continued to reacquaint ourselves with old friends, especially Van Eyck, Vermeer, Rembrandt and Holbein. It wasn't that long ago that one virtually had the Frick to oneself, so tranquil was the atmosphere and leisurely the pace. The crowds have grown here, too, but remain manageable because the space for special exhibitions is limited and not capable of blockbusters, which after all are what draw the masses.

As we stroll at a leisurely pace we enter a room in which Holbein's portrait of Oliver Cromwell hangs on one side of the mantle and his Sir Thomas Moore on the other. Holbein's ability to see surfaces and the character beneath them with equal intensity has never been matched in portraiture even by Rembrandt, for whom character and light, not surface, were paramount.. These two paintings remain fascinating year after year.

Standing in front of the Moore portrait I am reminded of an exhibition at the Morgan several years ago of Holbein's drawings from the Court of Henry VIII. Loaned entirely from the Queen of England's collection, the dozens of drawings provide a comprehensive portrait of the royal court's many and varied personalities to a degree not undertaken of any particular subculture or group as far as I know prior to the advent of photography. Many artists painted numerous members of a given court, but never on a scale comparable to that of Holbein.

The drawings, many done in silver point on a pink paper, probe character to the same depth as the paintings mentioned above but with far more economy. Many barely outline the upper torso and clothing but finely render the facial features and expressions.

To my surprise and delight, I am also intrigued by some of the Gainsborough portraits here including Elizabeth and Mary Linley - the Linley Sisters, in the special exhibition Masterpieces of European Painting from Dulwich Picture Gallery. Gainsborough had always seemed quite rarefied to me, his society portraits of gentlemen and women remote and mannered, but today the sitters' personalities emerge from the dreamy attenuation of his technique and palette.


This was the day we had set aside to "do" MOMA. Arriving early, we were greeted by long lines that stretched from the entrance at mid-block nearly around the corner of Six Avenue. We struck up a conversation with four Spanish women from San Sebastian and gathered some information for a forthcoming trip.

The lobby requires cattle chutes to process the large crowds purchasing tickets but the line moves quickly and efficiently. Once inside we take the elevator to the top floor and begin working our way down starting with one of my primary objectives of this visit, Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century.

Was there ever a photographer who possessed such equal parts profound sympathy and skepticism as Cartier-Bresson? I think not. His pictures share absolutely nothing with the pablum comprising the core theme of The Family of Man yet they took for their departure many similar circumstances and were executed around the same time as quite a few.

Cartier-Bresson possessed an uncanny sense of timing, an acute understanding of the underlying structure of whatever scene unfolded before him and a Gallic sense of irony. It is also worth noting he possessed considerable personal courage as well, venturing into alien, sometimes hostile territories and situations that daunted lesser men. His three escape attempts from a German POW camp during WWII, the third successful, testify to this courage.

The show contains nearly all the iconic images of his enormous oeuvre and more than a few surprises, too. Several things always strike me in his work:

1. How did this diminutive man with short cropped hair manage to place himself before dozens of people, sometimes out in open country but nearly always in a setting where he was the only Westerner present, raise his small Leica discreetly to his eye and shoot many frames without being noticed? Oh, sure, occasionally one individual in the crowd will be looking at him, but this is the exception. He managed to slip into a situation, stalk the "decisive moment", snare it and slip away. The results were hardly mere National Geographic tourism in other peoples' realities. One need only look at images such as those he took of the bank runs in Shanghai as the Communists took over or at the funeral of Gandhi to understand the differences.

2. Though he is not particularly well known for his landscapes, these are always magnificent. The cypresses lining a French road are pure Cartier-Bresson, seemingly glimpsed as he passed by on an adjacent road yet supremely ordered and considered. The decisive moment is rarely if ever an accident; rather, it is anticipated, planned, stalked patiently and finally identified swiftly.

3. His pictures in America are almost universally his weakest, descending at times into cliche but nearly always tinged with an underlying disdain. It is clear he held Americans in little regard and like many of his countrymen failed to see how the vulgarity he despised here had its counterpart in the French bourgeoisie .

The chief surprises were the inclusion of several spreads from magazines such as Life showing the picture stories resulting from his assignments. Adjacent to the pages were some of the images themselves, always full frame, allowing the viewer to clearly see the legendary tension that existed between photographers and editors, who routinely cropped pictures to fit layouts disregarding the original framing. Though the photographer's stamp clearly indicates cropping is to be avoided, editors had their priorities, too.

We tend to forget Cartier-Bresson was a photojournalist much of his professional life and a founding member of Magnum, still the most famous cooperative of photojournalists, because his images are rarely shown in the context of assignments. The inclusion of these spreads addresses a needed reminder but do not alter the perception that Cartier-Bresson was less interested in narratives than in forms.

The show is the first mounted since his death earlier this decade and is a fitting tribute to those who already knew his work and a marvelous introduction to those who did not. Cartier-Bresson, one of my earliest influences, is both old master and old friend of the first water.

After leaving this exhibition we happened upon Lee Bontecou: All Freedom in Every Sense, a mini survey of her work covering roughly four decades. Though familiar with her name, I'd never seen a substantial number of works in one place. The show here features works on paper, wall-mounted sculptures and a recently acquired piece suspended from the ceiling and strikes. Bontecou's work is appealing but strikes one note.

Next, we passed through the permanent collection of Photography. These sort of survey installations of a great institution's holdings invariably omit some people the viewer believes important and includes others thought undeserving. Nowhere do I see a photograph on display by Ray Metzker, one of the most important American photographers of the last fifty years [full disclosure: he was my mentor in graduate school], but John Szarkowski, longtime curator of the department at MOMA, is included. I am appalled by both decisions. The rest of the installation seems skewed in so many directions as to give very little feel for the history of medium the collection no doubt well illustrates...in its vaults.

From Photography we move on to the many of the galleries showcasing the museum's magnificent collection of later 19th Century painting and early to mid 20th Century masterpieces. Here the old friends pour forth. Rousseau, Delvaux, Matisse, Cezanne, Cornell, Ernst et al. As I pass through these galleries I am suddenly struck by the number of people having their pictures taken in front of this or that masterpiece. They are not photographing the paintings; rather, they are having themselves photographed in front of the paintings. "I was here," the pictures declare, just as people have always done in front of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Famous pictures have become tourist destinations.

The great surprise of our visit turns out to be the show Picasso: Themes and Variations. Comprised entirely of prints, the exhibition focuses on themes ranging from his portraits of women (lovers and wives) to the Minotaur and Bullfighting. What makes the exhibition so revealing is that as Picasso aged he avoided repeating himself; he reinvented and reinterpreted himself and the people and things around him, but he never grew stale. He remained vital and engaged, his art growing well into his eighties.

Mention Picasso and eyes won't roll, but brows invariably furrow. His persona and work are so overwhelming one is daunted at the prospect of fully grasping what he has meant. He is prodigious and awe-inspiring, racing through the history of art that preceded him, acknowledging old masters like Velazquez and nearer contemporary ones like Cezanne, fully integrating their lessons and remaking their legacies in his own image. Then he abruptly turns from painting and makes three-dimensional objects of extraordinary imagination and ingenuity. Now ceramics. Next prints. Back to painting. He is less Protean Man than he is the master of self-invention and reinvention. The show at MOMA captures this lightning in a bottle.

We are now exhausted and after pausing for a late lunch decide to depart, our brains and our feet aching. One more stop is scheduled for this afternoon. We head over to the Edwynn Houk Gallery and the show Pioneers of Color: Stephen Shore, Joel Myerowitz and William Eggleston.

Pioneers may not be an exhaustive survey but it is clearly a representative one including several well known images. This trio was pioneering in their exclusive use of color when the preponderance of photographers with artistic aspirations or credentials were still using B+W but much of the work is hardly pioneering in any other respect.

Eggleston's reputation may be the most overinflated in 20th Century photography. While he occasionally has an uncanny feel for chaos and the messy appearances of things his work frequently falls flat. Consistent with his uncanny sense is an even rarer feel for garish color, most notably his iconic image of the red ceiling with cords sloppily intersecting at the light bulb. This is a marvelous photograph...and a rarity in his career.

Shore seems the most derivative of the three, taking his cues from a variety of sources, most notably Walker Evans, and applying color. His color views of American roadside life and the man-made landscape might have held some initial fascination in the way that rare color movies from World War II always surprise viewers who thought the war was fought only in B&W, but beyond their curiosity they show little else. Other pictures contain large hints of the work of Lee Friedlander and Robert Frank but without the former's wry wit or the latter's edginess.

Myerowitz is the only one of the three who seems to have had a subtle feel for color, particularly what happens to colors in crepuscular light, but too often his images seem best suited to coffee table books, decorative and nostalgic.

I note that some of the works here are being offered for $40,000 or more. Pioneering can be profitable, at least in the eyes of the seller.


Our final day begins with a diversion to a flea market followed by a leisurely brunch and concludes with visits to the Whitney and the International Center for Photography.

It's biennial season at the Whitney, not only the current show but a retrospective of previous ones occupying several other floors. Many big names from the past are here, of course, but their presence doesn't add much luster to this year's installment. The most disturbing contributions from the current winners are the photographs by Nina Berman of former Marine sergeant Ty Ziegel, who was horribly disfigured by a bombing in Iraq. The images focus on Ziegel and his fiance in the weeks leading up to their wedding. The photographs are a blunt, unflinching reminder of the terrible human toll of the war and of the human spirit but their presence here in this context is troubling.

War photographs are no strangers to museums beginning with Roger Fenton and running through Alexander Gardner, Robert Capa, Larry Burrows and Eddie Adams among others but their inclusion always underscores several difficulties beginning with how should we treat documents intended as artless polemics on the one hand and images that while they share formal qualities with works of art were not originally intended to be see in that context. Photography was born straddling this fence and has remained astride it through the eras of picture magazines such as Life and online sites like Flickr.

Berman's pitiless approach to her subject grabs our attention by the throat, but my inclination is to turn around and jamb them down George Bush's throat rather than to contemplate the meanings of the images themselves. Berman succeeds in raising the temperature of my blood but having done so, my thoughts wander to the lies and deceits fundamental to the prosecution of this war and her images become mere souvenirs of the occasion. They are worthwhile but artless.

After the Berman images we decide to depart for our final destination, the International Center for Photography.

Regrettably, we arrive near closing time and scurry through the principal exhibition, Twilight Visions: Photography, Surrealism and Paris. The show is quite large and meanders more than a few times from the purported central theme of surrealism, particularly the well known images of Paris after dark by Brassai. The curators speak of contrasting "real and imagined" versions of Paris, but the inclusion of Brassai's petty hoods, prostitutes and cafe types seems a stretch when speaking of Surrealism or its influence. Ironically, in the next room there is a small and disappointing cache of Atget photographs on display. Many Surrealists acknowledged a far greater debt to his work than to that of Brassai but Atget, who never considered himself as Surrealist, is set apart.

With few exceptions, chiefly Man Ray, photographers were the second stringers of Surrealism and this exhibition attempts to put forth the notion that nothing is more "unreal" or "surreal" than reality itself. It doesn't succeed.

We end the long weekend exhausted and looking forward to returning to our own reality.