Friday, August 29, 2008

When Color Was New @Saul

JTF (just the facts): 38 mostly vintage works, hung in both the small entrance way and the larger, light filled gallery. (Installation shot, at right.) Negative dates range from 1936 (Outerbridge) to 1985 (Eggleston), though most are clustered in the 1970s. Here's a list of the photographers included in the exhibit, with the number of works in parentheses:

Harry Callahan (2)
William Christenberry (2)
William Eggleston (2)
Mitch Epstein (1)
Walker Evans (1)
Luigi Ghirri (3)
Nan Goldin (2)
Dan Graham (1)
Jan Groover (2)
David Hockney (1)
Helen Levitt (2)
Joel Meyerowitz (4)
Paul Outerbridge (1)
Martin Parr (2)
John Pfahl (2)
Stephen Shore (2)
Arthur Siegel (2)
Joel Sternfeld (2)
Boyd Webb (2)
Terry Wild (2)

Comments/Context: After spending some time with this exhibition, my conclusion is that the time "when color was new" was a mixed bag, a chaotic period of experimentation, with an appropriately uneven selection of work produced. It seems as though each artist had his or her own challenges with "digesting" the new ideas color brought to the table. A few were successful in getting over to the other side, many failed, and another group abandoned the old ways and embraced the new. While different photographers experimented with different processes over a decently long period of time (where, by the way, is the representative autochrome?), it is clear that things really changed after Eggleston was canonized; the MoMA exhibit encouraged a whole generation of photographers to continue down a new road. Thirty years later, we now take color for granted.

A recurring thought for me as I looked at these pictures was that while some were clearly better than others, on the whole, this early work as a genre is under appreciated by collectors. I don't think I can name a single collector who has a large, deep collection of this kind of work, although they must be out there somewhere (there isn't a single color picture in our collection at the moment, but I think this will change over time). A few thoughts on a handful of the artists represented:

  • Shore: I think Shore will be the first color photographer in our collection. His work from this time was very consistently strong and is getting stronger with age. Looking at the images, you can see that he actually completely rethought how color influenced the process of picture making.
  • Evans: His late Polaroids are fun. I'd like to have a group/grid of these matted/hung together.
  • Parr: These pictures are deceptively well made, and resonate long after you have stopped smirking at the joke.
  • Pfahl: Why is this work forgotten? As an aside, we had a Pfahl that my mother bought hanging in our house when I was growing up. It was the one with strips of lace spread over the scrub brush, echoing the foam from the waves at the seashore (I don't know the exact title off hand.) I always thought it was a puzzling and amazing image. I think the same for his other work; really unlike anyone else.
  • Sternfeld: While his work won't fit as neatly into one of our genres, I think his pictures continue to be thought provoking, partly because of their use of color, partly because of their careful setting of scenes.
  • Callahan: I think his dye transfers are under appreciated. When I was first exposed to them, I didn't think much of them, but as time has passed, I think they are standing up better than I had originally thought.

Another reaction I had to this show was that I need to force myself to be more attentive to the different color processes (carbo, chromogenic, dye transfer, Cibachrome, Polaroid etc.) and the nuances of their color palettes - they really are aging at different rates. Some seem dated; others seem fresh.

Collector's POV: Prices in this show range from $1500 (Pfahl) to $50000 (Sternfeld), with the ever mysterious NFS (not for sale) obscuring the value of a few of the pictures (the iconic Eggleston in particular). I think Evans ($6000), and Shore ($8000-10000) seem close to reasonable for Chelsea retail. Christenberry ($6000) and Callahan ($8500) are higher than recent auction ranges for equivalent work. Joel Meyerowitz' work seemed astonishingly high to me ($16000-$45000), but I'm not following it closely.

All in all, this a worthwhile exhibit that gets you thinking about some work that may have drifted off your radar.

Rating: ** (2 stars) VERY GOOD (rating system defined here)

When Color Was New
Through September 6th

Julie Saul Gallery
535 West 22nd Street
New York, NY 10011

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Lisette Model @Zabriskie

JTF (just the facts): 18 total images, 2 of which are duplicates. 12 of the images are from a 1976 Lunn portfolio of Model's work; the other 4 are portraits of jazz musicians, including Louis Armstrong. The images were taken between 1933 and 1949, and measure approximately 19x15 or the reverse. (Installation shot of the gallery, at right.)

Comments/Context: Given the explosion in the Arbus market in recent years, I am glad to see some of that light being reflected back on Model who (as her predecessor and teacher) is deserving of more attention and respect. I think it is hard for us today to understand just how revolutionary Model's portraits were for her times. Back in the late 1930s/early 1940s, the dominant portraiture was cool, detached, even distant, and sometimes heroic (think of the FSA photographers of this time). Her images are of imperfect, ordinary, and sometimes extraordinary people, with whom she has connected in a way to reveal their humanity, their dignity, and their humor (without mocking). I think that it was this willingness to "get involved" with her subjects, to meet them on their own terms without looking down on them, which was her true innovation, one which she happily passed on to a generation of photographers after her (especially Arbus, nearly 30 years later).

This small show does a good job of giving a viewer a feel for her approach to portraiture. (It closes tomorrow, so make haste in getting to see it.) While there is really only one semi-vintage piece in the exhibit, there are still many great pictures to see and be reminded of. I particularly like the only non-portrait in the show, Window Reflections, Fifth Avenue, New York City.

By the way, Model's work can also be seen at Arbus/Avedon/Model, currently on at the ICP (see here). There are only 5 of her portraits in this small show (all of which are in the Zabriskie show I believe), but they are placed in the context of the work of the other two, which helps to clarify her influence on the photographers who came after her.

Collector's POV: For collectors, there is a big gap between Model's vintage and non-vintage work. Due to the relatively large number of later portfolios made (edition of 75 plus 15 APs), many have been broken up and sold off as individual images, depressing the prices a bit I imagine. At auction, later prints have gone in a range of $1000-5000 in recent years. The vintage work is another story: there has been very little that has come to market and those that have appeared have sold in a range between $25000-60000. Zabriskie is selling the entire 12 print 1976 portfolio for $65000. Other pictures in the show range from $7000-8500 for the more unknown jazz musicians up to $38000 for the 1950s print of Singer at the Cafe Metropole. These are, of course, Fuller Building retail kinds of prices.

Some questions to ponder about portfolios: when does a collector get large enough in his/her activities to be interested in buying entire portfolios of work? What is the right edition size for a portfolio, so that it is large enough to serve the audience of museums and large collectors, without flooding the market? And how many collectors get so big that they begin to support/subsidize the creation of specific portfolios of new work by their favorite photographers?

Rating: * (1 star) GOOD (rating system defined here)

Lisette Model
Through August 29th

Zabriskie Gallery
41 East 57th Street
New York, NY 10022

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Framing a Century: Master Photographers, 1840-1940 @the Met

JTF (just the facts): 154 pictures, displayed in 5 rooms on the 2nd floor of the museum, with a selection of teaser photos on the exterior hallway walls. 3 rooms of 19th century work and 2 rooms of 20th century work, with differing paint/lighting. Here's a list of the photographers represented in this exhibit (alphabetically), with the number of works by the artist in parentheses:

Eugene Atget (12)
Edouard Baldus (9)
Brassai (16)
Julia Margaret Cameron (11)
Henri Cartier-Bresson (11)
Walker Evans (14)
Roger Fenton (11)
Gustave Le Gray (11)
Charles Marville (11)
Nadar (12)
Man Ray (12)
William Henry Fox Talbot (15)
Carleton Watkins (8)

Comments/Context: The curatorial task of using the permanent collection to tell the comprehensive story of an art form must be as old as the idea of a museum itself. No museum (not even the venerable Metropolitan Museum, my vote for the best museum in the world) has every great masterwork, and so curators must carefully pick and choose from among the holdings to bring together a representative sample that supports the narrative they have selected. The danger of such exhibits, especially in smaller museums, is that they have the tendency to devolve into a "greatest hits" exhibit that is often boring, or they expose the weaknesses of the collection in glaring ways. So while the concept of the historical summary exhibit isn't a new one, it isn't as easy as it looks.

In this exhibit, the folks at the Met have bitten off a meaty task: telling the story of the first 100 years of photography. With the addition of the Gilman Collection to an already staggering body of work, the Met has the depth in its collections to experiment with new ways to educate us about the history of the medium. Rather than go down the predictable road of the "parade of masterpieces", they have chosen to focus on a dozen or so seminal photographers, and to show their work in more depth (plus or minus 10 pictures each).

The first three rooms are "19th century photography", and seem to me to make a point about the evolution of the medium and the dominant subject matter themes of the times. There are three "landscape" photographers (Fenton, Le Gray and Watkins), two "portrait" photographers (Cameron and Nadar), three "city" photographers (Baldus, Marville, and Atget), and Talbot, who gets a category all his own, given his early and groundbreaking innovations. (The image at right is an installation shot of these galleries; I apologize for the blurriness, but the light is turned down so low in these galleries, it's hard to get a crisp shot.)

I found these first three rooms to work extremely well in telling the story "economically", getting the main points across without droning on too long. I also think that the concept of selecting a handful of pictures for each artist, a few of which were well known images, but others of which were equally stunning lesser known works, helped clarify the idea of the "point of view" of the artist - these are not just historical documents; an artist's eye is at work. I did find myself wondering about Watkins as the only American, and the omission of the Grand Tour as a thematic concept, but these are quibbles, which probably deservedly ended up on the cutting room floor in the name of staying focused.

The exhibition then transitions into another set of rooms, which are less expansive than the first three, and are painted a lighter color and lit more brightly (see another sub par installation picture at right). In here we find Evans, Cartier-Bresson and Man Ray in the first room, and Brassai in the last, on his own. While there are plenty of amazing images in this section as well, I think the multiplicity of views and voices found in the first forty years of the 20th century (along with the transition to the gelatin silver print) isn't particularly well represented by this grouping. It's not that these four aren't a key part of the story; they clearly are. From my view, there is just too much to tell (particularly in the 1920s and 30s); the motif of the representative photographer seems too restrictive. The last two rooms left me scratching my head and unsatisfied, given how splendid the first three rooms were.

Collector's POV: As a collector, there were many images to covet in this exhibit, knowing full well that they would never be available in the open market, and even if they were, they would be too expensive for us. As flower collectors, two highlights were Talbot's purplish Botanical Specimen, 1835, and Dandelion Seeds, 1858. I also came away with a more general appreciation for Marville and the consistency and quality of his city scenes. Finally, while not in our collecting sweet spot, Cameron's Sappho, 1865, with her patterned textile dress, was exquisite.

In general, this is a thoughtful, well-executed survey exhibition, which starts out with a bang, and limps a little to the finish (in my opinion). Overall, however, these are nitpicks. You're not going to find a more comprehensive and well-constructed historical show of truly spectacular work any time soon anywhere else, so get down and see it before it closes.
Rating: ** (2 stars) VERY GOOD (rating system defined here)
Through September 1st

1000 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10028

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Documenting the Face of America: Roy Stryker and the FSA/OWI Photographers

A thought-provoking documentary on the FSA photographers recently aired on PBS, and I finally got around to watching it over the weekend (after saving it on the DVR when it originally ran on August 18th). I must admit that prior to seeing this film, my knowledge of the FSA was limited to a few high points: Walker Evans in Alabama, Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother, and maybe Arthur Rothstein's dust bowl pictures.

So let's start with a bit of background that I learned from this documentary, which while obvious to experts in the field I'm sure, was generally new to me. Starting in the mid 1920s, rural America, and those engaged in agriculture more specifically, started a period of steady decline, as commodity prices around the globe came down after the end WWI. When the financial markets crashed in 1929, a broad and deep depression gripped virtually all parts of the country. As FDR worked to get his New Deal programs passed through Congress, it became clear to him that Washington and much of urban America was out of touch with the suffering going on in rural communities across the nation. People were not up in arms about rural poverty, or the plight of sharecroppers and tenant farmers, or the larger and larger numbers of displaced people and migrant workers. A sustained political effort was going to be needed to change people's perceptions; he needed a way to "introduce America to Americans" and thus was born the idea of sending photographers out to document what was happening.

Roy Stryker was brought in to run this effort, and he gathered together the photographers, gave them assignments, defended his budget to Congress, and generally got things done. Over the period of 1935-1943, this effort was housed in a variety of places: the historical unit of the Resettlement Administration, the Farm Security Administration, and later, the Office of War Information. Throughout this time, all of the pictures were gathered together into one "big file" (which eventually ended up at the Library of Congress). Here's a list of the photographers mentioned in the documentary who contributed to the effort:

Esther Bubley
John Collier Jr.
Jack Delano
Walker Evans
Dorothea Lange
Russell Lee
Edwin Locke
Carl Mydans
Gordon Parks
Edwin & Louise Rosskam
Arthur Rothstein
Ben Shahn
John Vachon
Marion Post Wolcott

The documentary follows a generally historical timeline, interspersed with vignettes and anecdotes about specific photographers. There are interviews with Louise Rosskam and Gordon Parks which are particularly interesting, and more gossipy tidbits are thrown in periodically for flair (Walker Evans was the first one fired from the FSA, since he wouldn't follow the rules and manage his budget; Marian Post Wolcott was so beautiful that she often wasn't taken seriously etc.). The iconic images from this period are also given a fuller treatment, with discussion of how and why the pictures came to be taken.

In general, this is a terrific documentary that is well worth an hour of your time. I think it also begs the question of how and where today's documentary pictures are being stored and archived. While we think of the group above and others (like Margaret Bourke-White and Weegee) as "artists" today, in their time, they were photojournalists. So who is taking care of the flood of images being created by the photojournalists of today?

By the way, there is also a very fine website in support of the film, which can be found here.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Auction: Sotheby’s Contemporary Art, September 10, 2008

You know auction season is just around the corner when the first of the wrist breaker catalogues thumps down on your doorstep. The first to arrive at our house was for Sotheby’s Contemporary Art sale on September 10th. This is generally lower end/lower priced sale, spreading out the lots that don’t get into the bigger Contemporary Art sales later in the fall. Out of a total of 418 lots for sale, there are 21 lots that could be described as “photography”. I’ve listed them below alphabetically:

Pierre Bismuth, Most Wanted Men/NYC, 2007
James Casebere, Toilets, 1995
Rineke Dijkstra, Almerisa Wormer, 1999
Sam Durant, Landscape Response (Pigs Heads), 2002
Steve Giovinco, Untitled (Night Landscapes, #1626), 2004
Richard Kern, No Dogs (Long Island), 2003
David LaChapelle, Pamela Anderson, Miracle Tan, 2004
Louise Lawler, Pleasure/More, 1998
Philip Lorca-diCorcia, Calcutta, 1998
Loretta Lux, The Dove, 2006
Paul McCarthy, Heidi Drinks, 2000
Ryan McGinley, Sam at Ground Zero, 2002
Ryan McGinley, Dan and Eric, 2002
Tracey Moffatt, Something More, No. 1, 1989
Yasumasa Morimura, Self Portrait (Actress)/White Marilyn, 1996
Jack Pierson, Flower No. 6, 1995
Thomas Ruff, Nudes Obe 06, 2001
Ed Ruscha, Five Views from the Panhandle, 1962/2007
Sandy Skoglund, Walking On Eggshells, 1997
Hiroshi Sugimoto, Mathematical Form 0004, 2004
Andy Warhol, Dolly Parton, 1985

The real thought behind this post is to consider the continued, blurry question of which pictures are “photographs”, and which ones are “photo-based art” or some other moniker used to place them more in the realm of Contemporary Art (with capitals). Just what is "photography" these days? In the list above, there are more than two thirds that would (in my opinion) do just as well or fit just as appropriately in a normal, run of the mill Photography auction. So it begs the question, why are they here? Are some of these inherently more Contemporary Art than Photography? How has the Photography market evolved in recent years?

It seems that these pictures/artists (and others like them, whatever that might mean) have been singled out from the larger world of Photography for their qualities that make them attractive to Contemporary Art collectors. Perhaps they are large, or colorful, or provocative, or touch on themes that are "beyond" photography. But the underlying thought must be that they will sell for more in a Contemporary Art sale than in a Photography sale, maybe because different people go to the different auctions, or maybe because there is more money flying around Contemporary Art than ever before. Does the data bear this concept out? I haven’t checked side by side, but it seems unlikely to me that savvy collectors will pay higher prices for a Sugimoto simply as a result of which sale it was placed in.

Perhaps the inevitable and ultimate outcome will be that the world of Photography (capitalized) will split, into a “classic/vintage photography” world, say pre 1985, and a “contemporary photography” world, for everything after. Phillips seems to believe this, and has headed aggressively in this direction. And for those artists on the bubble, which box are they put in? There must be an ultimate "list" somewhere that is the final arbiter (I'm sure the auction house specialists have a working list they use) of where an artist fits, although it has to be fluid, as artists' reputations and collectors' tastes evolve and change. Will Avedon, Penn, Arbus, or Mapplethorpe be "pulled forward"? Perhaps the sales in the next few seasons will see this become clearer. We'll try to keep this question open as the rest of the sales this season come and go, and perhaps when all the data is in, a better pattern will emerge.

And by the way, is it just me, or did the Sotheby’s Buyer’s Premium thresholds go up, yet again? This catalog has the step down thresholds at $50,000 and $1,000,000 versus $20,000 and $500,000 (where they were in the spring sales). Maybe there was a press release with this in it, but I must have missed it. Collectors get squeezed again.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Of The Refrain @Robert Mann

JTF (just the facts): Total of 53 images, all black and white, none larger than 20x24, spanning a period from the mid 1920s to the mid 1960s, with most clustered in the 1930s and 40s. Hung in one large gallery space with plenty of natural light.

Here's a list of the photographers included, with the number of images in the show by that artist in parentheses:

Berenice Abbott (6)
Hazel Larsen Archer (6)
Ellen Auerbach (4)
Walter Auerbach (1)
Ilse Bing (6)
Carlotta Corpron (2)
Trude Fleischmann (1)
Horst P. Horst (1)
Lotte Jacobi (2)
Andre Kertesz (1)
Dora Maar (1)
Barbara Morgan (3)
Man Ray (3)
ringl + pit (11)
Josef Sudek (2)
Margaret Watkins (3)

Comments/Context: It's ironic that the summer group show is the one time of the year when gallery curators really get to flex their muscles, freed from the relentless parade of one person shows (where the work "speaks for itself"), and yet, these shows hang in quiet empty galleries, as the entire art world has decamped to greener pastures to escape the heat. These shows allow curators to reclaim the lost arts of storytelling and narrative, of juxtaposition, of education; they encourage us to see familiar work in new ways and to see unexpected connections with less known artists.

A well-executed example of the group show is now on view at Robert Mann (it's closing at the end of the week, so get over there soon). Of The Refrain is based (not surprisingly) on the simple premise of the musical refrain, where a common melody or theme is brought back again and again, to reinforce the dominant ideas of the piece, while also showing contrast and change over time. Transposed to the visual world of photography, we are shown a carefully sequenced series of images, where themes of dance/movement, portraiture, and commercial photography (eyeglasses, lace, hats, soap, bubbles and the like) are intermingled, repeated and harmonized. Camera angles and scale also keep changing to ensure the connections and variations aren't too staged or obvious.

Care the in crafting of this show was also clearly taken in the installation of the images themselves (see above and particularly to the right). Notice how the images drift up and down (like a musical score or a wave). While it's hard to see from these small digital images, the linear sequencing of the images introduces one subject matter theme for 2 or 3 pictures, moves to another idea, and then reintroduces the original theme 10 or 12 pictures down the line, again and again, around the room. The effect works and the whole exhibit "hangs together" well.
You'll notice I have yet to really highlight any singular images found in this show. And while I'll do that in a moment, the show isn't really about stand out, earth shattering images (in my opinion). It's more about the voice of the curator, and the journey taken walking through the gallery.

Collectors' POV: The prints in this exhibition range in price from $4000 on the low end to $25000 at the top. These prices seem to me to be at least 20% too high, but keep in mind, this is a well established gallery, selling at retail, in Chelsea, so perhaps the prices aren't that much out of line. I have always been a fan of the scientific photography Berenice Abbott did at MIT, and there are several nice prints of this work included in the show, in larger sizes (16x20) than I have seen them before ($6000 each). Another stand out was the work of Helen Larsen Archer (who was previously unknown to me). Her fragmented portraits of Merce Cunningham are fluid and simple, yet very evocative; they are sprinkled throughout the show and help to keep the pace up (prices range from $5000-7000).
All in all, well worth a trip down to deserted Chelsea in the dog days of summer.
Rating: ** (2 stars) VERY GOOD (rating system defined here)
Through August 22nd
210 Eleventh Avenue
New York, NY 10001

PS. This will be the last post this week. Back on Monday.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Sunday Afternoon at the Strand

The Strand Bookstore near Union Square in New York is a truly spectacular place if you love books. The key to their sustained success is volume: there are simply more books available in one place (new, used and out of print) than nearly anywhere else I have ever been. I remember when their slogan was "8 miles of books"; it's now "18 miles of books". They are constantly buying libraries, collections, and review/remainder books, so there is always something new to find. The books are piled high, bursting from 10 foot high bookshelves that you need a ladder to reach (luckily, there are hardware store ladders everywhere). Spending an hour or two browsing at the Strand is like going on a treasure hunt; you just never know what you're going to uncover.

The Strand is a particularly good place to buy art books, especially photography books. In addition to the extensive selection, the prices are the best you're going to find, sometimes as much as half (or more) off that $75.00 monograph price that made you gulp in the museum book store, for a book still in the shrink wrap.

After a hour or two on Sunday, picking through the photography aisles and tables, here's the crazy group of books I came home with for the library:
  • Vera Lutter, published by Gagosian Gallery for an exhibit of her work in the spring of 2007. This small catalogue shows her work from Venice, Rheinbraun, New York, London, and Philadelphia. We think Vera Lutter is one of the most exciting contemporary photographers working today. We have one piece of hers in our collection (see here), and would be interested in more if they weren't so huge (most are wall/mural sized images) - they really belong someplace like the DIA Beacon where they can breathe a bit more. This is one book on her work that we didn't own, so I was glad to find it.
  • Robert Adams, The New West, originally printed in 1974, reissued by Aperture in 2008. We had been looking for this book for a long time, searching places like Abebooks or the Photo-Eye book auctions, to see if we could find an original copy that was reasonably priced. We're not mylar covered book fanatics: we're not interested in whether a book is a first edition, or has a mint dust jacket, is signed, or was owned by someone famous. We use photography books for reference, and we fill them with post-it notes and strips of paper, marking images we like. So we weren't ready to pay $300-400 for The New West, even though we knew it was a great book. So thanks go out to Aperture for reissuing this, so we can have a perfect copy for a lot less.
  • Nino Migliori, Crossroads - Via Emila, 2006. We like Migliori's work from the 1950s of walls and signs. This book brings together recent city/highway images that Migliori took along the Via Emila, which traverses Italy.
  • Nicholas Nixon, no date (although clearly recent), published by Tf. Editores (Spain). Everyone knows Nixon's iconic series, The Brown Sisters. We had been looking for a monograph on all of his work, as we have an interest in his city scenes of Boston and his nudes of couples. This is just what we had been looking for.
  • In Plain Sight, The Photographs of Beaumont Newhall, 1983. Newhall was of course a well respected photography historian and curator. We have seen a few of his images at auction from time to time, and felt like it was time to have a monograph on his work in the library so we can better understand his entire career as an artist.
  • Peter Henry Emerson and American Naturalistic Photography, 2008, published by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, in conjunction with a traveling exhibit. This a well produced volume and a good looking exhibition (which I doubt we'll see in person unfortunately). Since we are collectors of floral/botanical images, we are interested in how this catalog helps to trace the origins of American nature photography. We are fans of the work of Edwin Hale Lincoln (we have a couple of his images in our collection, here), and his work is included in this exhibit.
  • Modernist Photographs from the National Gallery of Canada, published 2007. We are suckers for books on collections. The process of collection building is endlessly interesting to us, so seeing other collections is always intriguing. Why did they choose a particular image by a particular artist (is it one of the "greatest hits" or an image more unknown)? Why this artist we have never heard of, versus one who is so obviously (to us) omitted? Why the focus on a certain period or group of artists? Did they go for breadth or depth? Always fascinating.

And there were half a dozen more that lost the final triage and were put back on the shelves for another time. It's nearly impossible to walk out of the Strand without buying something. If this place isn't already on your list, get down there and check it out.

Strand Books
828 Broadway
New York, NY 10003

Monday, August 18, 2008

Heavy Light: Recent Photography and Video From Japan @ICP

JTF (just the facts): Large group show, spanning all of the upstairs galleries and most of the downstairs as well. 13 artists represented by photography and video displays, as well as a series of photo books. ICP has prepared an excellent exhibition website to accompany the show (here), with details on each of the photographers. There is also a printed catalogue available.

Here is a quick list of the artists in the show:

Makoto Aida
Naoya Hatakeyama
Naoki Kajitani
Hiroh Kikai
Midori Komatsubara
Yukio Nakagawa
Asako Narahashi
Tsuyoshi Ozawa
Tomoko Sawada
Risaku Suzuki
Miwa Yanagi
Kenji Yanobe
Masayuki Yoshinaga

Comments/Context: This is a consistently thought-provoking and engaging show, well worth your time. I have had the good fortune to spend quite a bit of time in Japan over the years on business, and this exhibit touches on many different facets of the uniquely Japanese culture and psyche. Taken together, the show covers a broad array of working styles and engages a variety of provocative issues. I have selected a handful below to give you a feel for what's on view:

Asako Narahishi: These series is made up of large color photographs of city and landscape scenes from the vantage point of half submerged in the ocean. Standing in front of them, they make you feel like you are drowning. I kept thinking that they were somehow representative of the Japanese fixation on being an island nation. As I thought back on seeing the exhibition several days later, these stuck out as memorable. She is also having a show at Yossi Milo of this same work (site here). (Asako Narahishi, Half Awake and Half Asleep in the Water (Makuhari), 2001 at right. Copyright held by the artist.)

Tomoko Sawada: There is a mural sized image from her series School Days on the wall as you enter the exhibit and another image downstairs. At first glance, they appear to be standard school portraits, until you realize that the artist is every single one of the people in the picture. The works are startling, and bring home the nature of conformity in Japan, and the small ways that people express individuality inside this societal norm. I also began to wonder about the relationship of her work to that of Nikki Lee. (Tomoko Sawada, from the series School Days, 2004 at right. Copyright held by artist.)

Hiroh Kikai: While we are not portrait collectors, I think Kikai's pared down Asakusa portraits stand up well to the best of the recognized masters. They are extremely well crafted, personal, and insightful. I was amazed at how consistently good they were (there are about a dozen in the exhibition).

Masayuki Yoshinaga: There is a digital slide show of Yoshinaga's images of Harajuku girls and their "wicked style" (as Gwen Stefani would put it). While these feel a little anthropological, they are certainly fun. (Masayuki Yoshinaga, Goth-Loli: Ageha 24 Aoko 23, 2006 at right. Copyright held by the artist).

For me, there were two missing photographers. Where was Rinko Kawauchi, the "it girl" of Japanese photography? I also wonder about the omission of Osamu Kanemura and his Spider's Strategy city scenes (Cohen Amador had a good show of this work last year.)

Collector's POV: For our particular collection, the ikebana flower images of Yukio Nakagawa would be the best fit, although they definitely push the edges of what would be considered beautiful in a traditional Western sense. I also think the work of Naoya Hatakeyama and Naoki Kajitani merit some further exploration, for their images of cities. In general, I came away reminded that there is a ton of great work being done in Japan and that we as collectors need to stay better informed.
Rating: ** (2 stars) VERY GOOD (rating system defined here)

Through September 7th
1133 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10036

Friday, August 15, 2008

Two Books: Otto Steinert, Parisian Forms and Toni Schneiders, Fotographie/Photography

JTF (just the facts): Otto Steinert, Parisian Forms, published in 2008, in conjunction with an exhbition at the Museum Folkwang, Essen. 104 pages. In English. Toni Schneiders, Fotographie/Photography, published in 2008, in conjunction with an exhibition at the Museum Bad Arolsen. 208 pages. In English and German.

Comments/Context: We have been trying to get educated about 1950s German photography for the past year or two, trying to figure out where it fits in the history of photography in general, and where to add representative examples to the city/industrial genre of our collection more particularly. There really haven't been too many good monographs available in English on these artists, so it was great to see these two get published recently. They are well worth adding to your library.
Here's what we know about 1950s German photography, in short form. After the second World War, there seems to have been a general rejection of the Neue Sachlichkeit or New Objectivity, which had been the prevailing photographic mind set of the 1920s and 1930s. The photographers wanted to get back to a more humanized, individualistic approach, in contrast to the colder, more objective viewpoint that had dominated the previous decades. A group of photographers, calling themselves the Fotoform, started to take German photography in this new direction. The founding members of this group were Toni Schneiders, Otto Steinert, Peter Keetman, Ludwig Windstosser, Siegfried Lauterwasser, and Wolfgang Reisewitz (Heinz Hajek-Halke would also join later). This group was the genesis of a movement, called Subjektive Fotographie or Subjective Photography, which encapsulated the ideas of these artists, and tried to offer a more moderate form of moderninsm.
What we have found really interesting is to place these artists and their work in the context of what was going on in American photography, and in the art world more generally. What we have found startling is to put the German work next to the work of Callahan and Siskind, and then again with the pillars of Abstract Expressionism, all of which who were working in the late 40s/early 50s. Try this combo:

(Harry Callahan, Untitled Light Study, 1946; Willem De Kooning, Painting, 1949; Otto Steinert, Luminogram, 1952).
Or this group:

(Barnett Newman, Onement III, 1949; Toni Scheniders, Signale, 1951; Aaron Siskind, Kentucky 15, 1951.)
This interaction, and reusing of similar forms and ideas, is worth exploring some more we think. How much contact did all these folks have? Or did they evolve separately from differening roots? Someone out there should do an exhibition on this, or a doctoral dissertation...
These two monographs provide broad sets of the work of Steinert and Schneiders, and should be considered Essential Reference, mostly due to the lack of excellent books on these artists in English.

Collector's POV: Vintage work by these artists, and the rest of the Fotoform group, is remarkably affordable in our opinion. Great pieces can still be had in the $3000-10000 range, with superlative examples going somewhat higher. While you can't find this work at Sotheby's and Christie's much if at all, we have found the work to be consistely available from the leading German auction houses (Villa Grisebach, Van Ham, Lempertz). On the gallery front, Kicken Berlin is the dominant player in this area in our view, with significant expertise and inventory. I hope they'll comment on this post if I've missed anything important about this group or grossly misstated the facts in any way.
In general, if you are a collector with interest in Callahan and Siskind, Steinert and Schneiders are artists you should take the time to explore more fully.

Book: Ruud van Empel, Moon World Venus

JTF (just the facts): Ruud van Empel, Moon World Venus, published in 2006, in conjunction with an exhibit at the Museum Het Valkhom, Nijmegen. 151 pages. In English and Dutch. (World #11, 2005 at right.)

Comments/Context: When I saw this book in a museum bookshop recently, I knew we had to have it for our library. Even though we don't collect portraits, we've been interested in the Dutch artist's work since we were introduced to it a few years ago. His large format portraits really jump off the wall at you, full of saturated color and mystery. When looking back a few decades from now, I think we will think of the 2000s as a time when digital manipulation first came into widespread use and photographers really began to use the new tools to actually rethink the practice of picture making, rather than for quick and cheap visual trickery.

van Empel's work seems to reference and echo the art historial past in interesting ways. It is hard for me to look at his work and not be reminded of both the paintings of Henri Rousseau (see The Dream, 1910, below left) and the photographs of Mike Disfarmer (see Little Blond Girl, below right)

The van Empel potraits are very painterly, with lush, high precision tableaux set behind the figure. And yet the figures themselves are very straightforward. The combination lends the pictures as sense of impossibility, or innocence, or contrast, or an aura of sinister trouble awaiting. They're definitely not boring, and not anything that could have been done before the advent of the new technology.

The monograph has a complete set of all of van Empel's work to date, so the evolution and refinement of his ideas can be seen more clearly.

Collector's POV: I think these images are going to hold up well over time. (Moon #1, 2005 at right.) They can also be paired/contrasted with the work of the German photographer Loretta Lux (her site is here), who is perhaps slightly better known here in the US and riffing on a similar theme. The work of both artists has begun to appear on the secondary market. The value of Lux' work has been strong, consistently running in the $10000-20000 range, with quite a bit of material coming up for sale. There has been less of van Empel's work in the auction market, so I'm not sure where the prices are shaking out, but my impression is that his prices are somewhat higher and rising fast.

Ruud van Empel's artist site is here. He is represented in the US by Stux Gallery.

Polaroids: Mapplethorpe @Whitney

JTF (just the facts): 90 small black and white images, all approximately 3 1/2 x 4 1/2 (or the reverse), displayed in two rows, two images high, in white frames, in one room. Found in the hard to get to Mezzanine gallery (up to the top floor, through the permanent collection, down the back stairs by the Calders). Mostly portraits and self-portraits, with a mixture of other subjects as well. (Untitled (Self Portrait) 1973 at right. Copyright held by artist.)

Comments/Context: All of the images in this exhibition are from the period between 1970 and 1975, when Mapplethorpe was experimenting and learning how to be a photographer. Not surprisingly, there are many "exercises" in form, camera angle, framing, and the usage of light. The subject matter is the stuff of his everyday life: his friends, their apartments, their things. The images are intimate, personal, and sometimes lovely. (Untitled (Catherine Tennant's House, London) 1973 at right. Copyright held by artist.) You can also see how Mapplethorpe was beginning to think about paring down an image, to get at its essence, even if that image was therefore a bit more staged.
As I walked through the show, I kept coming back to the similarities between this early work and the work of Francesca Woodman. (There was an excellent show of her work at Marian Goodman last fall.) Her photographs also have an experimental feel, with a personal, and feminine, point of view. It would be fascinating to see these two shown together.

Collectors POV: As collectors of floral/botanical images, Mapplethorpe is clearly a core artist for us, and adding one of the florals from this early work would help show the evolution of his style of image making. Nearly all the images in the exhibition are held by the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation (website here), although a few Polaroids can be found out in the marketplace as well. Given Mapplethorpe's popularity, there are a large number of galleries and dealers who carry his work (42 on artnet); we have had success working with Sean Kelly and Alison Jacques. At auction in the past few years, the Polaroids have been a relative bargain (compared to the iconic work), running in the $3000-7000 range.
Sylvia Wolf and the Whitney put out a nice monograph of the Polaroids in conjunction with the exhibition. While Mapplethorpe and The Complete Flowers would be Essential Reference on Mapplethorpe, this book is clearly POTS (Part of the Story) and therefore worth adding to your library.
Rating: * (1 star) GOOD (rating system defined here)
Polaroids: Mapplethorpe
Through September 7th

Whitney Museum of American Art
945 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10021

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Frank Gohlke: Where We Live - Queens, New York 2003-2004 @Greenberg

JTF (just the facts): 20 images of Queens, New York, in the main gallery. (See image at right, copyright held by artist.) Images are 20x24 (or the reverse), in editions of 15, most taken in 2003 and printed in 2008. A group of vintage material from the 1970s and 80s, entitled Frank Gohlke: Houses, is found in the smaller gallery with bookshelves. There are 11 images in this gallery.

Comments/Context: Going into this show, I was really primed to like it. We have been fans of Gohlke's work for many years now and have two images from the 1970's grain elevator series in our collection (see here). I had actually stuck the opening announcement card up on a bulletin board in our house, so as not to forget to see the exhibit.

So it was surprise for me to find, after wandering around the gallery a time or two, that I was underwhelmed. The introductory wall text (written by Gohlke) referred to the idea of "urban tomography", where an image of the city would be assembled "in slices" (like the medical instrument does). This seemed to me to be another example of obtuse, overly analytical artist-speak. So I looked carefully again and again, hoping one or more images would jump off the wall at me. But they just stayed there, showing me quiet moments, of semi-suburban houses and street corners (with very few people, if any) in mixed neighborhoods. These are very well made pictures, with precise framing and meticulous printing, but I couldn't, in the moment of seeing them for the first time, get my head around why this point of view mattered, and whether it had already been done before.

It seems this project was a commission by Queens College, where Gohlke and his friend Joel Sternfeld made a proposal to work in conjunction (where and when Sternfeld's views of these same streets will surface isn't known by me). So later that night, I started to think more about where I might have seen this work "before" (especially since he was a member of the original New Topographics exhibit) and where it might fit into a more historical context. After a quick dash over the bookshelves at home, I came up with half a dozen potentials to compare with the recent Queens work:

  • Robert Adams, 1970s images of Colorado from The New West: Adams' images are much harder, with much more comment built in on the harshness of suburbanization. Gohlke's Queens pictures are softer and more assimilating. Not a great match.
  • Lewis Baltz, late 1960s/early 1970s images from Tract Houses: Baltz' work is also harder, with more geometry and fragmentation. Gohlke's images are more inclusive and less about pattern (although a few have fencing/latticework that provides visual interest). Not a great match.
  • John Divola, contemporary images from Isolated Houses: Divola's large color images speak very much to isolation (hence their title I'm sure). Gohlke's work seems to be more community-oriented. Not a great match.
  • Joel Sternfeld, early 1980s images from American Prospects: Sternfeld's work has much more narrative going on, with people carefully placed and a edge of wry humor. The narrative in Gohlke's work is much more subtle. Not a great match.
  • Lee Friedlander, contemporary images from Sticks and Stones: While there are some somewhat comparable images in this group, no one would ever mistake Friedlander's flattened picture planes and patterns for the Gohlke work. Not a great match.
  • Henry Wessel, 1990s images from Real Estate Photographs: Wessel's images of homes in Richmond, CA, taken with a straight forward approach seem to be closer in terms of noting how a community evolves its own look and feel. But they lack the tenderness that Gohlke has brought to the Queens pictures. Closer, but still not a great match.
  • Stephen Shore, mid 1970s images from Uncommon Places: Shore's work of houses in this series, although in color, was the closest I could find in terms of aesthetic approach and overall tone.

So I found myself, standing in the living room, having exhausted my avenues of exploration (who did I miss?), slowing coming to the conclusion that there may have been more to these Gohlke pictures of Queens than I originally gave them credit for. While they fit into a larger context of work about suburbanization, assimilation, and Americanization, they are quieter (less showy), with more emphasis on community, and more generally positive than any of the other work I have identified. Certainly, they make sense in the context of the rest of his career. And maybe this "urban tomography" idea wasn't so ridiculous after all. These images, taken together, provide an interesting window into Queens (and into America more generally), even if they aren't as earth shaking in my view when taken as individual images.

So go and see this show before it closes. And don't to the hit-and-run flyby we are all apt to do once in a while. Take the time to be patient with the work and allow it to bring you in.

Collector's POV: Gohlke is generally under appreciated by collectors I think. The new images in this exhibit are retailing for $4000, with the vintage material in the other room ranging from $4000-7500. At auction in the past few years, Gohlke's pictures have found their way to a range of about $3000-6000, although there haven't been too many sold, and not many were his best images, so perhaps it is hard to plot a line from so few data points. The travelling retrospective of his work Accommodating Nature currently at the CCP, having started at the Amon Carter Museum, will likely increase the interest in his work.

The catalog from this retrospective show should go on your Essential Reference list, as should Measure of Emptiness, which focuses on the grain elevators.

Rating: * (1 star) GOOD (rating system defined here)

Frank Gohlke: Where We Live
Through August 22nd

Howard Greenberg Gallery
41 East 57th Street
New York, NY 10022

Bernd and Hilla Becher: Landscape/Typology @ MoMA

JTF (just the facts): 14 typologies, totalling 186 individual images, displayed in the temporary exhibit space (1 large room with a dividing wall) adjacent to the series of rooms showing selections from the permanent collection of photography. 10 3x3 typologies, 2 3x10 typologies, and 2 3x6 typologies, covering most of the Bechers' major subject matter groups: water towers, winding towers, coal tipples, blast furnaces, coal bunkers, gas tanks (Gas Tanks, 1971-1997 at right, copyright held by artist), cooling towers, and industrial landscapes. Most of the individual images are 14x11, except the industrial landscapes, which are 20x24.

Comments/Context: This is a terrific exhibit. Since the Bechers' work has crossed over into the world of Contemporary Art (capitalized), it seems to me that you tend to see a single typology example of their work, set among a variety of other contemporary art (not photography). Rarely is such a large group of typologies assembled, which makes it all the more visually arresting. Much of the commentary on the Bechers' work is full of words like systematic, functionalist, conceptual, pattern, forms, details and the like. And while these words do tell the story of the work, I came away with a few other ideas from this show.
The first is that the typologies are a profound exercise in theme and variation, in an almost musical sense. Much like Bach's Art of the Fugue or Goldberg Variations, I found myself looking at these works as beginning with a melody line, and then each succeeding image adding a variation on that melody or harmony. (Water Towers 1966-1989 at left, copyright held by artist.) I also began to wonder whether my eye was actually traversing these typologies in a manner different than any other art, moving from left to right and down and back again to compare and contrast different images and forms.
The second idea was brought home by the Industrial Landscapes in the middle of the room. Virtually all of the Bechers work has the same dead-pan look: flat light, same camera angle, same framing, no people etc. They are devoid of context, omitting any information about their relationship to their environment. The Industrial Landscapes pan back and take in the whole setting of the structures. In many ways, I think these images are less successful than the frontal views, as the theme and variation idea breaks down quickly due to a lack of comparability. I do think however that by showing this work, which is fully "in context", side by side with the "out of context" work, it makes the contrast more thought provoking.
The third idea was that I became more interested to know more about how the Bechers have taught photography at the Dusseldorf Art Academy (in contrast to methods used anywhere else in the world). With such esteemed pupils as Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth, Candida Hofer, and many others, I found myself wondering about the details of how they ran their classes, and whether there are more obvious or literal remnants/influences of their teachings in the work of the students. Their school is one of the most important sources of photography innovation in the last few decades: where is the exhibition tying all these folks together coherently?

Collector's POV: The market for the Bechers' work seems to be divided into three ranges: a low end range, where offset prints, mostly of diptychs, in large editions are available in the $1000-2000 range (all prices at auction); a mid range, which includes larger format gelatin silver prints of individual structures, small gelatin silver print diptychs, and other small gelatin silver print typologies, in the range of $15000-50000; and a high end range, with larger scale, iconic typologies of multiple images, at $75000 and up into six figures. (Series of Winding Tower and Coal Tipple typologies at right, copyright held by artist.)

We have been looking for just the right image from the Bechers to add to our collection for a while now, realizing that an amazing large typology doesn't work for us for many reasons (size, cost, etc.). Our ideal would be to find a small, early gelatin silver diptych (typology on one side, single image on the other) that was well priced (ha!). This has been next to impossible so far, given the strong interest in the Bechers' work. We thought we had found a good substitute this spring in the auction at Villa Grisebach, where a small working page diptypch (contact prints with glue and notations all over) from the Framework House series was available at a low estimate. Unfortunately, the image went for 5 times the high estimate, before the buyer's premium! And in Euros as well. Ouch.

The Bechers are represented by Sonnabend Gallery and Fraenkel Gallery among others.
There is a series of excellent monographs put out by the MIT Press on the various Becher subject matter groups. Essential reference for your photo library.
Rating: ** (2 stars) VERY GOOD (rating system described here)
Through August 25th
11 West 53rd Street
New York, NY 10019

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Notes on the Link Lists

A few background comments on the various links we're recommending on the right:

Galleries/Dealers: While we have met with and purchased from a wide variety of galleries and dealers from around the world over the years, the ones on the right have consistently provided us with both great material and great service. The best of these have spent time getting to know our collection and our aesthetic taste and have proactively introduced us to work that fits our point of view. They have truly acted like partners in the process of collection building and have become friends. More broadly, these galleries and private dealers put on excellent exhibitions, publish high quality catalogues and are a tremendous source of expertise and learning.

Auction Houses: All of the houses at right have semiannual (or more often) sales dedicated to photography and we have purchased from each of them at one point or another. Auction previews have been a great opportunity for us to see (and touch) a wide variety of world class work and to learn first hand from the specialists.

The houses in Europe offer a different slice of material than the US based houses, and provide excellent packing and shipping services to make it easy for foreign collectors to buy and sell. Many other smaller houses around the world are getting tuned into photography, so the market is getting broader.

Museums: These museums consistently offer thought provoking and challenging photography exhibitions (even the ones that don't have a full time photography mandate). For the ones in our home city, we are members of the museum or at least visit often; for those out of town, we make a detour when we can.

Magazines/Newsletters: We read and subscribe to all the publications listed on the right. They each provide interesting/valuable insight into the world of photography and are worth your time/money.

Blogs: There are a multitude of blogs out there that have something interesting to say from time to time, so many that one can get lost just trying to keep up with them all. We find these blogs to be on a short list of those consistently worth checking out.

Let us know what we've missed in each category!