Thursday, March 31, 2011

Frederick Sommer: Choice and chance, structure art and nature @Silverstein 20

JTF (just the facts): A total of 11 black and white photographs, framed in silver and matted, and hung in a small single room gallery space just off the reception area (the main body of the exhibit includes a large number of Sommer's collages, as well as few sculptures, and continues into the adjacent gallery space of Ricco Maresca Gallery (here)). All of the photographic works are gelatin silver prints, made between 1939 and 1951 (the single nude is an outlier and was made in 1963). The prints are a mix of vintage and later prints, with physical dimensions ranging between 9x8 and 11x7 or reverse, with most 10x8. (Installation shots at right.)
Comments/Context: Following up on the success of the excellent Circumnavigation show last year (here), Bruce Silverstein has come back with a deep dive exhibit focused mostly on Sommer's output of collages. What I liked best about last year's show was that it put Sommer's photography in the context of his other artistic endeavors, mixing photographs with drawings, musical scores, collages, and paintings, using both chronology and commonality of form to make exciting connections. This show goes back to the old formula of separating the different media, sequestering the photographs into a single small room, primarily as background material. This mutes the interplay of the pieces and makes it harder to follow the intellectual and visual threads. But no matter, the photographs are outstanding, as always.
Nearly all of the photographs on display are assemblages of found objects, layered groups of textural items that have been carefully combined into compositions that border on the surreal. Chicken beaks and gizzards, a bloody amputated foot with exposed tendons, melted rock formations, cut paper illustrations, random doll parts, and swirling wood panels come together in unexpected, often indecipherable installations. Sommer's meticulous control of the juxtaposition of forms and textures generates sublime pairings of tactile surfaces and crisp detail, and his masterful control over the gelatin silver printing process heightens the contrasts between the adjacent materials.
I continue to find Sommer's photographic assemblages astounding, even after seeing many over the years; the quality of the craftsmanship is so shockingly high that there is always something new to discover. This exhibit is really about Sommer's cut paper collages, but don't fail to swing into the side room and fall under the spell of these few splendid photographs.

Collector's POV: The photographs in this show are generally priced between $40000 and $50000, with one image at $90000; the nude is $28000. Sommer's photographs are intermittently available in the secondary markets, with prices ranging between $5000 and $85000 in recent years.

My favorite image in the show was Flower & Frog, 1947-48; it's second from the right in the top installation shot. It's a classic Sommer arrangement of seemingly unrelated textural items: a frog, a dress cutout, a small origami flower (is that what it is?), and some other unidentifiable objects, all set against a grainy, cracked wood background.

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

Transit Hub:

  • Foundation site (here)
Frederick Sommer: Choice and chance, structure art and nature
Through April 9th

Bruce Silverstein/20
529 West 20th Street
New York, NY 10011

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