Monday, November 30, 2009

Robert Bergman, A Kind of Rapture @Yossi Milo

JTF (just the facts): A total of 14 color images, 12 hung in the main gallery space and 2 in the back alcove. The digital c-prints are framed in white and matted, each 37x25 or reverse. All of the works are untitled, and were taken between 1987 and 1995. (While photography is usually allowed at Yossi Milo, unfortunately no installation shots were permitted for this show. The image at right, Untitled, 1989, is via the Yossi Milo website.)

Comments/Context: In the past month or so, the photography press has been full of the underdog makes good story of the photographer Robert Bergman. After toiling in self-imposed obscurity for decades and intermittently digesting more than his fill of rejection and discouragement, Bergman now has three shows on simultaneously: museum exhibits at the National Gallery and PS1, and this show at Yossi Milo. The works on view at all three locations were published in a monograph in 1998, so it's taken a more than a decade for these exhibitions to come to fruition.

Part of the reason I think Bergman's work was backburnered for so long is that it almost perfectly contrarian: it rejects virtually all of the major trends that have dominated contemporary photography in recent years - it is not cool or detached, it is not staged, it makes no appropriations, it isn't interested in process, it is not manipulated or altered, it has no biting commentary, conceptual framework or ironic viewpoint. That said, I don't think Bergman made his pictures to buck the trends or thumb his nose at the establishment; my guess is that he just wasn't very interested by all of what has been going on and instead closed himself off and looked back to the traditions of painting for his education.

When we apply the word painterly to photography, it is often used to describe color used in different ways (Impressionistic, Expressionistic etc.) or to explain surface texture reminiscent of hand applied paint (Pictorialism, Pointilism etc.). Bergman's lush, saturated portraits are unabashedly painterly, but in an entirely different manner. They are structurally painterly, formally composed in such a way as to draw on the lessons of the Old Masters, where attention is focused on the face of the sitter, and the rest of the elements of composition (hair, clothing, background, even color itself) are used as carefully controlled supporting features to enhance the overall feeling of the work.

All of the images in the show are head or torso shots, blown up to larger than life size. The best of the works are penetrating, evocative and viscerally human: the visage of the man in the tan fur-lined coat clutching a book with his long fingers (reproduced above) stares powerfully out from the frame. Bergman's portrait of this man could easily hold the wall with an Old Master portrait of a priest or nobleman; they draw on the same aesthetic conventions, albeit with different subject matter. To my eye, a handful of the works in this show rise to this searing level of success, the rest falling back into well-crafted if less than entirely moving street portraits of people from all walks of life. I also think that many of close-up heads are printed too big; they would work better and capture a more intimate mood if scaled to match normal human proportions.

Overall, I think it is no accident that Bergman's portraits have resurfaced during these uncertain economic times. Perhaps we are searching for a much needed dose of authenticity, of real people with less than perfect lives with whom we can empathize. We need somewhere to project our own anxieties and see reflected back some unexpected strength of spirit, and Bergman's portraits fill this niche in a way that few others have bothered to consider.

Collector's POV: The prints in the show are priced at $12500 each. Bergman's work is not available in the secondary markets, so gallery retail is the only option for interested collectors at this point.

Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)

Transit Hub:

  • Exhibits: NGA (here), PS1 (here)
  • Book: A Kind of Rapture, 1998, Pantheon (here)
  • Features: WSJ (here), Washington Post (here), New York (here)
  • Interview: Brooklyn Rail (here)
Robert Bergman, A Kind of Rapture
Through January 9th

Yossi Milo Gallery
525 West 25th Street
New York, NY 10001


Anonymous said...

It wasn't clear to me when I saw the show, but are the works editioned?

The prices seem fairly high anyways, which makes me curious about the number of prints, and considering the work is relatively unknown. Even taking the museum exhibitions into account, it's tough to say what the longevity of the work is...

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure what you mean in claiming that Bergman's "not interested in process" or that the images are "not manipulated or altered." Even setting aside the fact that (1) every photograph is about the process / medium of photography, and (2) every photograph involves manipulation / alteration of the world-out-there, Bergman engages in quite a bit of handiwork to make his pictures look the way they do.

E.g., those striking, lush colors -- perhaps the core of the "painterly-ness" that's often ascribed to him -- probably come from his printing process. There's an NPR article in which he describes his pictures as:

"multiple impression inkjets with various isolation coats of conservator chemicals used to intensify the colors, some of them with three days of hand-applied micro-crystal and waxes over the isolation coats."

(I believe that this is a process used also by Richard Benson in his own work. I'm sure it is no coincidence that the Bergman photograph you use in the post -- the one most often used when Bergman's name is mentioned -- is in Benson's "Printed Picture" book, and was prominently displayed in the MoMA exhibition of the same name this past year).

Anyway, I'm glad that Bergman is finally hitting it big on the gallery - museum circuit. But I confess to not knowing exactly why, or why now. Some of the pictures are terrific -- but so are those of thousands of still unknown photographers.

And although the myth of an "unknown" Bergman's recent "discovery" may sell tickets and pictures, let's not kid ourselves. Bergman's 1998 book 'A Kind of Rapture' is quite well known in photo circles. (And let's not forget that no less than Toni Morrison wrote its introduction). And Bergman's had the public support of Meyer Shapiro and John Russell (the NYTiimes' chief art critic for some time) as well.

Anonymous said...

Oversized and, like nearly everything at Yossi Milo, priced at an over-the-top premium.

dlkcollection said...

I'm checking on the editioning. It wasn't on the price sheet or in my notes.

I could have been clearer in my choice of language to explain my point about his work being contrarian to the major flows of contemporary photography. What I meant is that Bergman's work is not primarily about experimentation with process or manipulation in and of itself (as many works out there today are); it is about portraiture. Of course, his work and all photography includes these ideas to some extent as subtexts, and I certainly agree with your subpoints about the details of his printing.

I too have a little trouble swallowing the "discovery" narrative. That said, his work will be brand new to most collectors and museum goers, so perhaps the story has some validity in that sense.

Anonymous said...

Bergman himself, and his reviewers, present him as a traditionalist. While this may apply to his work method in the field, it does not apply to the presentation of the work.

I don't understand why these photographs need to be larger than life-size. The intimacy of these photographic portrait feels lost to me at this scale. It feels like a blatantly commercial motivation. Perhaps Bergman could shed some light on this.

dlkcollection said...

To close the loop on the first comment above, the gallery has confirmed that Bergman does not edition his prints and therefore the prints are in an "open edition", like Frank or Friedlander. Prices will increase gradually as more prints are produced.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for following up. That seals it though: definitely overpriced.

Your description highlights the problem: "like Frank or Friedlander."

But I'm sorry, he's not in their league. And his prices shouldn't be either.

I saw the show and immediately thought of Avedon's "In the American West." Admittedly these are highly visually seductive photographs of people who might be a little down on their luck or have lived hardscrabble lives. And some of them are really lovely portraits.