Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Irving Penn: Archaeology @Pace/MacGill

JTF (just the facts): A total of 21 black and white photographs, framed in white and matted, and hung against grey walls in the divided gallery space. All of the works are platinum palladium prints mounted on aluminum, sized 16x24 or reverse, and made between 1979 and 1980. Nearly every image in the show comes in its own edition size, each ranging somewhere between 6 and 64 prints, with dozens of intermediate sizes. A catalogue of the exhibition has been published by the gallery and is available at the reception desk for $30. There is no photography allowed in the gallery, so the installation shots at right are via the Pace/MacGill website.

Comments/Context: That Irving Penn was a master of the photographic still life is probably a foregone, obvious conclusion for most collectors at this point. His flowers, frozen vegetables, melted brie, mozzarella, playing cards, cigarette butts, and street trash have all become truly iconic visual works. Not only did he discover new juxtapositions between objects that have rarely, if ever, been placed in the spotlight, but during his long career, he thoroughly and consistently redefined the edges and expectations of the entire genre.

This exhibit dives into some lesser known Penn still lifes from 1979 and 1980, all executed in luscious, tactile platinum rather than his more recognizable bold, saturated color. While his subjects might be loosely categorized as "junk", and a good bit of dirt and rust lies scattered around, these images are nothing short of exquisitely elegant. Machined steel blocks and cylinders balance in piles that seem to defy the laws of physics. Hollow bones are stacked in towers. Plumbing fixtures with threaded ends, bent elbows and pipe fragments are arranged in rhythmic assortments that echo quiet Morandi paintings. Brooding skulls sit atop one another. Rusting, eaten away car parts become weathered medleys of debris.

Each one of these images is both a master class in composition and a bravura performance in printing. Regardless of the object's former function or purpose, Penn has understood its physical qualities, its shape and form, and meticulously placed it in concert with its nearby companions. The geometric blocks become almost Cubist in their jumbled piles, sides and faces angled just so to create aesthetic balance and capture the light (or dark); who knew a concrete disk with a circular hole in the middle could be so unbelievably perfect? His masses of bones play with subtleties of organic curvature and texture, their surfaces mottled or worn smooth. The grey scale tonality in the prints runs the entire spectrum from pure white to pure black, with a consistent crisp grace that is truly staggering.

My conclusion is that while these works are perhaps lesser known, secondary images in the context of Penn's overall output, their level of craftsmanship and original thinking is no less superlative. His assortments of found objects have been transformed into something sculptural, simultaneously intricate, delicate, and thoroughly engrossing.

Collector's POV: The prints in this show are priced between $15000 and $180000, with a sweet spot between $20000 and $50000. Since Penn's death, there has been a flurry of activity in the secondary markets, as collectors and institutions try to find the new equilibrium. Prices have ranged from $5000 to $400000 in recent years, with many lots moving up with surprising speed in the past few sales. A good proxy for the current Penn market can be found in the results of the Christie's Penn sale in April (here and here).

Rating: ** (two stars) VERY GOOD (rating system described here)

Transit Hub:
  • Reviews/Features: New Yorker (here), Photo Booth (here), Vogue (here)
Irving Penn: Archeology
Through January 15th

Pace/MacGill Gallery
32 East 57th Street
New York, NY 10022

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