Tuesday, July 30, 2013

MOMA: Bill Brandt: Shadow and Light

I had never been a great fan of Bill Brandt.  This was because I'd known him primarily through his nudes which I'd always found too abstract and inaccessible for my own taste.  Mainly consisting of extreme closeups of the female anatomy, they were extremely intellectual studies from which all hints of sensuality had been vigorously banned.  These black & white photos make up a substantial portion of the current exhibit Bill Brandt: Shadow and Light at MOMA, but there is much more to be seen here than just these.

Although Brandt worked as a photo assistant to Man Ray in Paris in 1930, I failed to see any direct Surrealist influence in his own work.  There was one photo, though, Woman in Hamburg, St. Pauli (1933), that to me was heavily reminiscent of Brassai.  Any such influence was lost, however, when Brandt emigrated to England and became the preeminent recorder of British society and its best known portraitist.  Many of these are featured in the exhibit and are intriguing simply for the glimpses they give us of the famous.  There is a wonderful portrait, for example, of Franco Zeffirelli (1962) in the days before his Romeo and Juliet launched him to worldwide fame.  Likewise, Brandt's portrait Francis Bacon - Primrose Hill (1963), taken with a Superwide Hasselblad, is one of the best photos in the exhibit and perfectly captures the personality of the sculptor.

To me, Brandt's greatest achievement was his mastery of low light photography.  The difficulty in preserving detail in the shadows makes this one of the most challenging forms of photography and Brandt excelled at it.  There are a great number of these photos on display, many of them taken during the London blackouts in World War II.  Perhaps the best is Hadrian's Wall (1943), a brilliant and evocative landscape.  Others include the well known Bombed Regency Staircase, Upper Brook Street, Mayfair (1942), which serves as the exhibit's avatar, and another of a silhouetted St. Paul's.  There are also examples of the documentary photos of the Underground bomb shelters, particularly the one at Liverpool Street Station, which Brandt was commissioned to take by the Ministry of Information in 1940.

Although the exhibit provides no technical details regarding Brandt's printing methods, the following statement is contained on the museum's website:
"Brandt’s work is unpredictable not only in the range of his subjects but also in his printing style, which varied widely throughout his career. This exhibition is the first to emphasize the beauty of Brandt’s finest prints, and to trace the arc of their evolution."
The exhibit continues through August 12, 2013.

Monday, July 29, 2013

MOMA: Walker Evans American Photographs

The current exhibit of Walker Evans American Photographs at MOMA is a recreation, on its 75th anniversary, of the museum's first one-person photography show.  In the intervening years, the photos on display have become such a touchstone of American culture that it is difficult to imagine how viewers of the original exhibit must have regarded these now iconic works.  In 1938, the Depression was still a vivid memory to Americans, a scar that had not yet healed.  Evans' FSA photos must have been to most viewers a painful reminder of the economic collapse that had given the lie, at least temporarily, to the promise of the American Dream.

The exhibit, as the museum's website notes, consists of two distinct parts:
"... the installation maintains the bipartite organization of the originals: the first section portrays American society through images of its individuals and social contexts, while the second consists of photographs of American cultural artifacts—the architecture of Main streets, factory towns, rural churches, and wooden houses."
To put it another way, the subject matter of the exhibit could be divided, on the most basic level, into architectural photography and "people" photography.  This is not an arbitrary distinction.  Many of the images seem the work of two different photographers.  Perhaps this is because they employed two very different photographic techniques.  On the one hand, there is the view camera work that captures its architectural subjects in a spare straightforward manner as shown in Negro Church, South Carolina (1936) and in the images of decayed New Orleans residences that were once palatial and now almost reduced to ruin.  The view camera's large format necessitates a studied approach to its subject that is almost contemplative in nature.  There is nothing offhand or spontaneous about it.  Considering the meticulous care with which the image needed to be composed, it's all the more striking that Evans did not print his own work.

On the other hand, Evans used a Leica to capture many of his photos of people.  What he was seeking here was "candid photography."  Looking at these latter photos, one cannot help be reminded of Robert Frank's later work in The Americans.  And indeed Frank was deeply influenced by Evans' work in American Photographs.  This should not be surprising since it was Evans who helped Frank secure the Guggenheim grant that enabled him to travel across the country to take his photos.  There is an excellent monograph by Tod Papageorge that explores the relationship between the two works in depth and finds any number of correspondences between them.  Beyond that, Evans actually wrote an essay in 1958 on Frank's photos and much of what he put down could have referred to his own work as well.  There is an undeniable similarity of vision in each of the two photographers' books.

The exhibit continues through January 26, 2014.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Louis Stettner at Bonni Benrubi

This article was originally published on February 7, 2013

At age 90, Louis Stettner is one of the last great surviving NYC street photographers. His current retrospective at the Bonni Benrubi Gallery is a major exhibit of his work.

The highlights of the show are definitely the black & white shots taken at the old Penn Station and elsewhere in NYC. Although a large part of the show is given over to Stettner's Paris photos, he never appears as at ease in that milieu as in NYC -- his Paris shots, while technically excellent, often seem to have been taken by an outsider looking in.

After having recently seen the Allen Ginsberg exhibit at Grey/NYU, one question that came to mind while looking at Stettner's work was whether he had been at all influenced by the Beats. Certainly, Stettner's 1954 The Great White Way is reminiscent of the Beat aesthetic and prefigures Ginsberg's 1955 Neal Cassady and his love, right down to Marlon Brando's name on the marquee. Similarly, the mood of Robert Frank's The Americans from 1958 is reflected in Stettner's Penn Station photos Six Lights and Odd Man Out, both of which date from the same year as Frank's opus. 

As far as technical data, I was told that some of the prints were vintage and some not, and that none of the prints had been selenium toned for added permanence. The gallery did not have any information regarding the photographer's choice of film and paper.

I note with sadness the passing of Bonni Benrubi herself in December at only age 59. Through the years, the Benrubi Gallery was one of the very, very few in NYC to offer portfolio reviews to completely unknown photographers. Even if there were never any real hope of a show, it still meant a great deal to photographers to know that someone cared enough about discovering new talent to take the time to look at their work.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

NY Philharmonic Performs Beethoven #5

This article was originally published on February 3, 2013

The NY Philharmonic had a great idea in creating a Saturday matinee series in which one portion of the program was devoted to chamber music while the other was given over to the usual performance of orchestral works. The move not only allowed the audience to listen to their favorite musicians play chamber pieces all too rarely heard, but it also permitted the musicians themselves to express their talent in a different format than the purely orchestral. 

The big problem, though, in having selected members of the orchestra join together on a chamber piece is that they do not possess the requisite experience playing together as a unit. One thinks of the great chamber ensembles such as the Guarneri Quartet, the Beaux Arts Trio and the still extant Juilliard Quartet whose members played together for decades. This is a difficulty the Philharmonic members have easily overcome in the past through their sheer musicianship. But not so yesterday. Throughout Brahms' Sextet No. 2 in G, the musicians played as six individuals rather than as an ensemble. This was particularly unfortunate in a piece requiring total cohesion among its performers in the interaction of the string instruments. The problem may have been exacerbated by a last minute change in personnel which had Lisa Kim sitting in for the absent Marc Ginsberg.

The problem was all the more pronounced at yesterday's concert because the chamber portion of the program followed, rather than preceded, the orchestral portion in which Christoph von Dohnanyi led the orchestra in a rousing performance of Beethoven's Overture to Prometheus and Fifth Symphony. Once again, as at an earlier performance this season of the Fifth by the Juilliard Orchestra, the use of the composer's original metronome markings made the performance much more exciting than it would othewise have been.

Von Dohnanyi's appearance underscored the great problem now confronting many major orchestras. Though the great conductor was as vigorous as ever on the podium, he is now approaching age 84. As the small cadre of excellent conductors still active inexorably ages, there are no new great talents stepping forth to take their place. This has been an especially acute problem for the Philharmonic which has long struggled unsuccessfully to locate a worthy replacement for the late Leonard Bernstein. The lack will be all the more noticeable after next season when the concert master Glenn Dicterow retires. One of the world's greatest violinists, he has been a mainstay of the orchestra and the face of continuity for many years.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Allen Ginsberg at Grey Gallery

This article was originally published on January 30, 2013

Although I recognized Howl and Kaddish as major works, I never found Allen Ginsberg's beat poetry as accessible as that of his colleague Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I remembered the ubiquitous Ginsberg primarily as a stock figure in the 1950's and 1960's counterculture. One cannot read a history of those times without encountering Ginsberg over and over again, whether with the Beats, Leary, Kesey, Wavy Gravy or any number of artists and rock musicians. He was seemingly at every be-in, love-in, happening and protest held during that turbulent period. Additionally, his spiritual affinity with Buddhism led to a major awakening of interest in Eastern mysticism and that in turn had a great effect upon me personally.

It was something of a shock then to visit the excellent retrospective currently at NYU's Grey Gallery and realize that the well known poet was also an extremely talented photographer. Of course, the photos are worth seeing for their content alone. Where else can one find such intimate documentation of the early Beat movement? Here are all the major players, from Orlovsky, Kerouac and Neal Cassady in NYC to Paul Bowles and Burroughs in Tangiers. There is a wealth of history here.

Beyond the content, though, the photographs themselves are great art. Beginning in 1953, Ginsberg began taking black & white snapshots which he then had processed and printed at the local drugstore. These early photos are portraits of friends and lovers that never fail to capture their subjects in revealing moments. The most shocking are those of Jack Kerouac. They show his transformation from a handsome, clean cut young man in the early 1950's to a dissipated derelict in 1964 when he visited Ginsberg's apartment for the last time.

The second part of the show consists of photos from roughly the mid-1980's through the mid-1990's. Here Ginsberg used his celebrity status to document not only the aging Beats, but also the stars of a younger generation. There is a terrific shot of Lou Reed backstage, a photo of Madonna with Warren Beatty, and a portrait of Bob Dylan mugging as a homeless person in Tompkins Square Park. One particularly poignant portrait is of an older Herbert Huncke, a seminal figure from the Beats' Times Square days. According to his Wikipedia entry, Huncke did prison time for refusing to roll over on his roommate Ginsberg when the latter tried to run down a motorcycle cop in Queens in the 1940's.

An intriguing aspect of Ginsberg's art is that he often handwrote fairly lengthy descriptions in black ink on the photos' matting. Unexpectedly, this gives the work a greater immediacy than it would otherwise have.

There is a hardcover catalog with excellent reproductions available for $50. The exhibit runs through April 6, 2013.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Whitney: Hopper Drawing

There are times, after having been surrounded and jostled for hours by NYC's crowds, when one finds himself walking alone through a desolate Manhattan neighborhood where no other passersby are to be seen. At such odd moments, one experiences a palpable sense of apprehension.  There's something not right in suddenly finding oneself alone in a city of millions.  It's this feeling of unexpected loneliness in the heart a big city that informs Edward Hopper's best paintings and gives to them an aspect of desperation reminiscent of film noir.

The current exhibit, Hopper Drawing, at the Whitney is ironically dominated by the paintings for which many of the drawings are studies.  Nighthawks (1942) is on display as are Manhattan Bridge Loop (1928) and From Williamsburg Bridge (1928).  In both the latter paintings, it is the single solitary figure contained within them that give them their pathos.  But these figures are not to be found in the preparatory sketches.  It was only when Hopper added the figures to the final paintings that he brought the scenes to life and made them heartbreakingly real.

Another famous painting shown is New York Movie (1939) with its focus on the female usher standing to the side and lost in reflection while the patrons, seen only dimly from behind, are absorbed in the movie playing onscreen.  What is surprising here is the unusually large number of sketches Hopper executed before moving on to the painting itself.  He completed 52 drawings for this work including a number of life studies of Jo Hopper in the role of the usher.

Other paintings shown are Conference at Night (1949) and Office at Night (1940).  It's interesting that Hopper claimed to have gotten the idea for the latter painting while riding the "el" and glancing through the office windows he passed.  This accounts for the unusual point of view in which the artist actually looks down into the office scene he is recreating.

Although there are a number of female nudes on display, including the painting Morning in a City (1944), the only one which really comes alive for the viewer is the chalk on paper drawing of Jo Hopper Reclining on a Couch (1925 - 1930).  This one is filled with life and spontaneity while the others all seem stiff and academic.

There are other paintings, such as Gas and Rooms for Tourists, that are set outside the city. But these lack the impact and immediacy of Hopper's NYC works.  His painting Soir Bleu, a souvenir of a youthful visit to Paris, seems contrived; and the drawings he made during this same visit, while technically accomplished in their draftsmanship, are slick student exercises with the exception of one of a shifty street character entitled Un Manquereau.

The exhibit continues through October 6, 2013.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Renee Fleming and Susan Graham at Carnegie Hall

This article was originally published on January 28, 2013

Yesterday evening's performance at Carnegie Hall was definitely intended as light hearted entertainment. Friends and colleagues Renee Fleming and Susan Graham, well supported by pianist Bradley Moore, joined together for a recital of French songs from the Belle Époque. The program included duets by Saint-Saens, Faure, Berlioz and Delibes as well as solo pieces by Debussy (Fleming) and Reynaldo Hahn (Graham). The level of performance throughout was magnificent.

The relaxed "Perspectives" format gave both singers the opportunity to chat and joke between pieces while introducing each of the composers. The two had a great deal of fun as they played with the concept (and misconceptions) of the diva, both in their remarks to the audience and in their fond remembrance of formidable singers of the past, such as Mary Garden.

For me, the high points of the recital were the duets by Faure, including his 1886 Pavane, and the songs by Hahn, especially his Fetes galantes.

The first encore was a Mozart duet from Cosi fan Tutte. I didn't catch the second. 

All in all, it was an extremely pleasant evening. It would be difficult for anyone to resist Offenbach's lovely Barcarolle and Debussy's piano music in Claire de lune. But what wouldn't I give to see these two sing opposite one another at the end of Act I of Donizetti's Maria Stuarda.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Garry Winogrand's Unseen Photos at SFMOMA

This article was originally published on January 25, 2013

Garry Winogrand was one of the most prolific photographers ever. He seemingly could not pick up his 35mm camera without seeing examples of Cartier-Bresson's "decisive moment" all about him. "At the time of his death in 1984, he left more than 2,500 undeveloped rolls of film," according to the Getty Museum's short bio.

According to an article in The Huffington Post, a number of these posthumous photos will be on display this spring at SFMOMA in an exhibit that then travels to Washington, D.C., New York, Paris and Madrid. 

It took me a while to appreciate Winogrand's work. At first, many of his photos seemed little more than haphazard snapshots. I saw the influence of Robert Frank's The Americans quite clearly (both he and Winogrand had been awarded Guggenheim Fellowships to travel through America with their cameras); but while Frank saw America through the sensibilities of a European, much as Nabokov once had, Winogrand's photography was more that of an insider. It was only after viewing a number of Winogrand's photos that I was able to appreciate how extraordinarily well he composed commonplace scenes into meaningful images.

The Huffington Post author, Priscilla Frank is on target in pinpointing the source of Winogrand's genius:
"Winogrand expressed American truths with a poetic eye. Whether capturing the overcrowded, amorphous New York streets or a lone sailor hitchhiking on the highway, Winogrand possessed an eye for that funny sense of isolation that lies beneath the American way."
The SFMOMA show opens in March 2013. In the meantime, The Huffington Post article contains a photo gallery that gives a good sense of Winogrand's style.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Met Opera: Maria Stuarda

This article was originally published on January 16, 2013

Yesterday evening's performance of Donizetti's Maria Stuarda was one of the most enjoyable I've seen at the Met this season. It's hard to believe that this masterpiece only became part of the standard repertoire during the bel canto revival of the 1950's and that the composer's original two act score was only discovered and restored in 1989. The current production marks the opera's premiere at the Met.

First, director David McVicar deserves credit for resisting the Met's dubious inclination to update opera scenarios to the present day. It must be apparent by now that this search for "relevance" is becoming increasingly tired and, in some instances, grotesque. This piece, in particular, makes much more sense as the period costume drama shown in the current production. The sets and costumes designed by John Macfarlane are uniformly elegant.

The libretto by law student Giuseppe Bardari, based on the play by Friedrich Schiller, is filled with drama. The climactic scene, of course, is the confrontation between Elizabeth and Mary at the end of Act I. It is here that Mary hurls her insults at Elizabeth: "Obscene unworthy whore... Vile bastard, by your foot!" There is the famous story of the two divas who became so involved in their roles during a dress rehearsal for the original production that, according to a lurid 1834 account:
"... Elizabeth pounced on her rival, pulling her by the hair, slapping her, biting her, punching her in face, and nearly breaking her legs in a flurry of kicks... Elizabeth was the stronger, and mademoiselle Del Serre [sic] fell stunned, almost unconscious. She was carried to her bed..."
The great problem with putting on bel canto operas today is the absence of such great singers as Callas, Sutherland and Sills. But both Elza van den Heever (as Elizabeth in her Met debut) and Joyce DiDonato (as Mary) rose to the challenge. In particular, in the opera's moving final scene, DiDonato did full justice to Donizetti's music in one gorgeous aria after another and was well assisted by Maurizio Benini's conducting.

Monday, July 15, 2013

NY Historical Society: Swing Time: Reginald Marsh and Thirties New York

Reginald Marsh has become something of an overlooked figure in American art, possibly because his style - a mix of regionalism and realism - is not so much in fashion as it once was.  The current exhibit at the NY Historical SocietySwing Time: Reginald Marsh and Thirties New York, will hopefully do much to correct this neglect.  Certainly, for anyone with an interest in NYC, Marsh was the most important artist to follow the Ashcan School (actually, his teacher at the Art Students' League was John Sloan himself) in depicting the vibrant life of the city's lower classes.

Marsh used the medium of egg tempera and that gives his work not only a sense of flowing motion across the surface of his paintings but also a palette of rich colors that seem not to have faded at all with the passage of time.  In his work, he concentrated on four major aspects of Depression-era NYC: the Union Square neighborhood where he had his studio; the subways; the movie and burlesque theaters; and the Coney Island beach and amusement park.  All four subjects are represented at NYHS by a number of masterful paintings: Ten Cents a Dance (the title presumably taken from the 1931 Rodgers/Hart song), Starr BurlesqueMinsky's Chorus (with a curious bluish green tint given the dancers moving onstage), Harris TheaterTwenty Cent MovieA Paramount PictureBMT 14th Street and In 14th Street.  Other works illustrate the hardships of the Depression as well as the resilience of those living through it in paintings such as Holy Name MissionThe Bowery and Tuesday Night at the Savoy, the last notable for its depiction of an interracial crowd intermingling on the dance floor at the famous Harlem nightclub with no apparent self-consciousness.

One unfortunate omission from the exhibit is any example of Marsh's graphic work.  Marsh was an extremely accomplished etcher and explored in his graphic work the same themes, and very often the same subjects, as in his paintings.  It could be argued that certain scenes seeking to convey a sense of stark realism actually work better in graphic form as in the 1932 Bread Line - No One Has Starved.  A number of these etchings, as well as engravings and linocuts, are contained in the 1976 The Prints of Reginald Marsh by Norman Sasowsky.

In addition to Marsh's paintings, the NYHS exhibit features the art of a number of his contemporaries, most notably Paul Cadmus and Raphael Soyer.  There is also a wonderfully moody small oil of a woman sitting alone in a cafe by Yasuo Kuniyoshi.  Beyond that, there are a number of black & white photos from that same period not only by Marsh himself but by such renowned photographers as Berenice Abbott (including her famous Blossom Restaurant), Weegee and Walker Evans as well.  In this regard it is interesting to compare the subway portraits photographed by Marsh with those Evans took using a hidden camera as later published in Many Are Called.  Marsh was a capable photographer but apparently pursued the medium only to provide studies for his paintings. Indeed, one of his photos can clearly be seen as the source for his Hudson Bay Fur Company.  Finally, there is an excerpt from a documentary film, The City, directed by Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke that captures perfectly the city's bustling crowds and constant motion that are very much the same today as they were in the 1930's.

The exhibit continues through September 1, 2013.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Diane Arbus: Revelations

This article was originally published on January 12, 2013

Diane Arbus: Revelations is one of the most lovingly designed monographs I've seen. Its reproductions are uniformly excellent and faithfully reproduce the warm tones of the original Portriga Rapid prints. Unfortunately, the book designer is nowhere credited in the volume, though I did search. 

Any large format "art book" that reproduces the photographer's contact sheets and provides technical information is to be commended. When photographers peruse monographs, they are looking not only for inspiration but also for insight into the means the photographer used to create his/her individual style. This book provides that. There are detailed discussions of the cameras with which Arbus worked as well as the differences the use of these cameras made in the final images. There is also a detailed essay by Neil Selkirk on the methods and materials Arbus used in the darkroom that is unusually informative. Arbus' technique was somewhat idiosyncratic (e.g., no dodging or burning) and allowed her to make prints that were immediately recognizable as her own and that complemented her shooting style very well.

It is only in the "Chronology" section that the book's design fails. The layout here makes the biographical content difficult to read, and the tiny reproductions of an arbitrary assortment of images become increasingly annoying. I suggest readers skip this section and instead purchase the biography by Patricia Bosworth. Although the biography is unauthorized and its reliability has been questioned, it contains details of Arbus' personal life that are essential to understanding her development as an artist and are not to be found in the thoroughly sanitized "Chronology."

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

George Tice at Nailya Alexander

This article was originally published on January 9, 2013

Going back almost thirty years to when I attended George Tice's course at Parsons in Making the Fine Print, I remember him telling the class that he had once asked Irving Penn about the process the latter used in making his own platinum prints and that Penn had replied it was a "secret."

In his current exhibit at the Nailya Alexander Gallery, Tice shows he did not need to learn anyone's secrets in order to master this medium. These are among the best platinum prints (most actually use a combination of platinum and palladium salts) I've seen. Photographers who have worked with alternative processes know the difficulties involved. Chief among these is coating the paper evenly, under low light, with an emulsion of light sensitive salts. It's a frustrating process, especially when working with large sizes, and the photographer must be prepared to experience a number of failures for every successful print. In Tice's work, the emulsions are spread so evenly that one might think he was using professionally manufactured papers. (As a historical note, platinum paper was in fact manufactured until the outbreak of World War I when soaring prices for precious metals caused Kodak to discontinue the product. The great British photographer Frederick Evans was so chagrined at this loss that he retired from photography altogether.) 

A platinum print is the ultimate achievement for any photographer working with black & white film. Not only is it more archival than any silver gelatin print, even after selenium toning, but it has a tonal range that allows all the detail in the negative to be shown in the print. One has only to look at those on display here to recognize their superiority to traditional silver darkroom prints.

I was curious whether the enlarged negatives used to make these oversize (20" x 24") prints were analog or digital and whether they had been made by the photographer himself or by a third party. There was no documentation regarding this, though, and the gallery attendant did not know the answers to my questions.

George Tice, who was Steichen's last exhibition printer, is simply the finest black & white photographer ever to have worked in a darkroom. These photographs have been selected from Tice's best over the past several decades and many are already well known to those familiar with his work. He is especially skilled at low light photography as can be seen in Petit's Mobile Station and Telephone Booth, 3 A.M., both shot in 1974.

The exhibit continues through February 16, 2013.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Bob Dylan at Gagosian

The article below was originally published on January 5, 2013

The pieces in Revisionist Art: Thirty Works by Bob Dylan, the current exhibit at the Gagosian Gallery on Madison Avenue, really need to be seen together (as they obviously are at this show), in order to fully appreciate exactly how subversive they are. Each is a huge poster size "blowup" of an imagined magazine cover. Viewed together, they present the viewer with social commentary as biting and incisive as that contained in any of the artist's early songs.

Walking through the exhibit, one passes thirty blowups of "imagined" magazine covers. While some might fool the viewer into thinking at first glance they were real, others contain shocking content (such as Jack Ruby playing cards with strippers) or pornographic images that reveal them at once to be impostures. Interestingly, all the works refer back to the 1960's. I don't think this represents nostalgia on Dylan's part, though, as much as it does a nod to pop art. Just as Warhol neatly repackaged everyday consumer items into artworks and then used them as a reflection of his own dystopian era, so does Dylan in his current work and for roughly that same period. This is a turbulent era as reimagined through the eyes of one of its major players.

The Gagosian deserves credit for putting on this exhibit in the first place. The gallery had already received a great deal of criticism in the media for putting on a show by an "amateur artist." As a particularly uninformed article in The Huffington Post states in reference to Dylan's "Asia" series:
"Let's be honest, the Gagosian gallery is partly to blame here for giving an amateur artist valuable real estate... But his artwork is essentially unknown, and as such, the Gagosian should have known better than featuring 18 examples of what's turning out to be Bob Dylan: The Paint By Numbers Edition."
While I agree that exhibits of "celebrity art" are always suspect, it is not as though the artist in this instance were the empty headed star of a reality show. For over fifty years, Bob Dylan has been a major force in American culture. There can be no doubt today of either his genius or his artistry. If at this point Dylan wishes to express himself in any media, his work most definitely deserves a forum at a major venue.

Charges of plagiarism have also surfaced just as they did at the artist's prior show. This is an especially sensitive point for the Gagosian in light of the recent Richard Prince lawsuit in which it was involved. I should note that the gallery attendant with whom I spoke assured me that Dylan had received permission from the original photographers to use the images shown in his work. But can it be considered plagiarism in the first place when artifacts of a given culture are later used by artists to comment on the nature of the society that created it? In this case, at least, I think not.

The exhibit continues through January 12, 2013.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Life's Pleasures: The Ashcan Artists' Brush With Leisure

This article was originally published on December 30, 2012

Life's Pleasures: The Ashcan Artists' Brush With Leisure, 1895–1925 is recommended not only to those studying the course of American Realism, but also to anyone with an interest in the history of NYC at the turn of the twentieth century. The book was orginally compiled as a catalog to an exhibit at the NY Historical Society, but is much more readable -- perhaps due to its subject matter -- than most such volumes. Vincent DiGirolamo's essay "New York in an Age of Amusement" is particularly instructive.

The work of the Eight and the Ashcan School cannot be understood outside the class warfare that has enveloped NYC since its founding. This always was and is a city of "haves" and "have nots." NYC is where billionaires live uneasily alongside the poor, often in the same neighborhoods but belonging to a different world. Prior to the development of American Realism, the art world in NYC existed solely for the rich. The millionaires had their own artists to paint their portraits and their social milieu just as they had their boxes at the Met Opera

The Eight, many of them working as newspaper illustrators, were the first to turn their attention to recording the lives of NYC's working class and their own entertainments, which generally were much more lively and fun than those of the wealthy. Some of the Ashcan School were socialists and deeply concerned by the plight of the poor and unemployed in a city of unimaginable wealth. These artists presented the lives of the downtrodden as worth recording for its own sake. They painted scenes of McSorley's Ale House and tenement children at play that now provide us with a window into a period of the city's history that otherwise would have gone unrecorded.

The founding spirit of the Ashcan School was Robert Henri who developed a following while teaching at the NY School of Art and who famously wrote in 1923:
"The greatness can only come by the art spirit entering into the very life of the people, not as a thing apart, but as the greatest essential of life to each one. It is to make every life productive of light -- a spiritual influence."
Other important artists of the Ashcan School were George Bellows, William Glackens, George Luks and John Sloan. All tirelessly painted the street life of NYC underneath its "el's" as well as Manhattan's drinking places, music hall entertainments, and small Greenwich Village restaurants where artists regularly congregated. We should be forever grateful for the rich legacy they have left to us.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Best Photo Books of 2012

This article was originally published on December 28, 2012

I have to admit at the outset that I haven't even seen, let alone read, most of the photo books contained in the annual year end roundup. The sheer volume of books contained in these lists, though, is encouraging to photographers hoping one day to publish their own work. From what I can see here, large format photo books are not only alive, but flourishing.

The most comprehensive list I found was that published by American Photographer. After culling the usual celebrity "coffee table" books, such as those on Marilyn Monroe and the Rolling Stones (I'd much prefer to listen to their music), those I found of greatest personal interest were: Robert Capa (text by Richard Whelan), Lillian Bassman: Lingerie (text by Eric Himmel), and Lewis Hine. Although all three are among the very best American photographers, they rarely receive the attention they are due, perhaps because their work has fallen out of fashion or perhaps because it was never "flashy" enough to begin with.

An "alternative selection" published by the Guardian was a more idiosyncratic list and contained works inexplicably ignored by American Photographer. Chief among these was Billy Monk: Nightclub Photographs and Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album. The examples I had previously seen of Hopper's unknown photos from 1960's New York had only made me eager for more.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Met Museum: Matisse: In Search of True Painting

This article was originally published on December 24, 2012

For anyone with the least interest in the development of modern art, the Met Museum's current exhibit, Matisse: In Search of True Painting, is a must see. The artist's work method, in which he painted the same subject twice, or even several times, serves almost as a visual primer illustrating for the viewer the diverse influences affecting artists in the first half of the twentieth century. Few painters have gone to such lengths as Matisse did in painstakingly documenting the stages of artistic creation that led to the evolution of an individual style. This went so far as to include the use of a photographer, beginning in the 1930's, to reveal the day by day progress of later works.

Henri Matisse never held for me the charisma of other French artists of the period. Perhaps this is due to the conservative persona of the artist himself. In photos where he is seen wearing glasses and dressed neatly in suit and tie, he appears more a school teacher or banker than a fauve (wild beast) painter. This impression is only strengthened by Matisse's deliberate work method.

Studying the paintings on display, the viewer realizes that Matisse's work was much more the result of planned experimentation than of any burst of spontaneous inspiration. For example, in looking at the two versions of Young Sailor, one senses Matisse agonizing over the choice of style that will best express his vision. As the catalog states:
"Upon his return to the fishing village of Collioure in the summer of 1906, he depicted a local teenager in a work that has all the hallmarks of his own vividly colored, expressive Fauvism. He then painted a second version of the composition on an identically sized canvas, this time employing flat color and deformation to produce a drastically different effect. Unsure of his new direction, Matisse told friends that Young Sailor II had been painted by the local postman."
For me, the most interesting works were the 1918 paintings Interior at Nice and Interior with a Violin, both depictions of his room at the Hôtel Beau-Rivage in Nice. It was in these works that Matisse claimed to have painted light with black.

The exhibit continues through March 17, 2013.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Met Museum: Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop

This article was originally published on December 23, 2012

Any photographer who has ever worked in a darkroom knows that very few b&w prints can be made without some form of manipulation, even if only burning and dodging. In putting together the current exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum, Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop, the curators were therefore faced with the problem of which photos to include. Unfortunately, their final selection represents a random assortment of images with no underlying unity other than that they were all "falsified" in some fashion.

It is somewhat unsettling to see a souvenir Civil War photo of General Grant placed in close proximity to Steichen's famous portrait of Rodin. Though technically both may be composites, the one is kitsch while the other is art. And this disconcerting placement continues throughout the exhibit. Photographs that really have nothing to do with one another are casually hung side by side. The inference is that a masterpiece such as Steichen's The Pond -- Moonrise is no more than a piece of trickery if only because the photographer chose to add hand coloring to his work.

This is a shame because the exhibit had an opportunity to confront one of the great hoaxes of the twentieth century -- Ansel Adams' insistence that only the straight photography of the f64 School could be considered legitimate. This intolerant position not only negates the great work done by such pictorialists as William Mortensen but more importantly damages photography itself by limiting its scope.

In the absence of any coherent argument, it would have been better for the museum to have limited itself to exhibiting the work of one photographer, such as Mortensen, the great surrealist Dora Maar, or else Jerry Uelsmann (who brilliantly uses montage to create otherworldy images that can most appropriately be described as dreamscapes), all of whom are represented here totally out of context. In its present form, the exhibit is a huge disappointment.

The exhibit continues through January 27, 2013.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Met Museum: African Art, New York, and the Avant Garde

This article was originally published on December 22, 2012

The current exhibit at the Met Museum, African Art, New York, and the Avant Garde, seems a bit lost in the huge halls of the museum's African art collection. Its theme would have been much better served by a small gallery setting, such as 291 itself once provided. 

The exhibit has many charms, especially for those interested in the history of Stieglitz' Photo Secession and 291 as well as in African art itself. It was Stieglitz, of course, who arranged for one of the first showings of African art at 291 and was largely responsible for its introduction to New York's artists, photographers and collectors.

African art had already had an enormous impact upon the development of modern art by the time examples first reached NYC. One has only to glance at Picasso's most famous painting, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, to realize that it was the incorporation of African tribal masks in its depiction of the models' faces that contributed to the work's revolutionary departure from previous European art and foreshadowed the development of Cubism

As a photographer, what I found most interesting were the photos included in the exhibit. Stieglitz himself was represented, not only by his photos of the 291 show itself, but also by gorgeous platinum prints of Georgia O'Keefe posing with African artifacts. Charles Sheeler's photographs of various art collections, particularly the Arensbergs', are notable for the strong shadows he created about the art works themselves. There is even a lovely portrait by the unjustly forgotten pictorialist Clara Sipprell of the painter Max Weber studying an African statuette. 

The true stars of the show, however, are the African masks and artifacts themselves. The masks are eerie and unsettling, and one can easily understand how magical properties were attributed to them. They represent an alternative theory of art, one that had not yet distanced itself from its shamanistic roots as had European art over the course of centuries. These are much closer to prehistoric cave paintings than to traditional Western art.

The exhibit, originally scheduled to close on April 14, 2013, continues through September 2, 2013.