Friday, February 17, 2012

Eugène Atget: Documents Pour Artistes @MoMA

JTF (just the facts): A total of 107 photographs and 1 negative (in a lightbox), framed in brown wood and matted, and hung against light blue walls in a two room divided gallery on the 3rd floor. All of the works are gelatin silver printing out paper, matte albumen silver, or albumen silver prints, taken between 1898 and 1925. The works come from the Abbott-Levy Collection at MoMA. The exhibit was curated by Sarah Meister. (Installation shots at right.)

The show is divided into 6 sections, with the number of photographs on view in each in parentheses:

People of Paris (24)
Courtyards (14)
Jardin de Luxembourg (13)
Parc de Sceaux (24)
Surrogates and the Surreal (13)
Fifth Arrondissement (19)

Comments/Context: The encyclopedic 4 volume set, the single volume monograph with matching Szarkowski texts, countless exhibits over the years, it's hard to imagine a stronger champion for the work of Eugène Atget (beyond Berenice Abbott of course) than the photography department at MoMA. It might also be hard to fathom exactly what more there might be to say about Atget that hasn't already been said more eloquently elsewhere, and yet this new show does an admirable job of cutting a new cross section through the museum's Atget holdings and showing us a crisp mix of the known and unknown in equally thoughtful measure.
The title of the exhibition Documents Pour Artistes references Atget's own sign outside his humble place of business, and in a retro-chic kind of way announces him as being in on the appropriation joke far before almost everyone else. Indeed, his whole approach was predicated on the idea that artists would want to borrow from his photographs and use them as guides. For those visitors with a more contemporary postmodern bent, this positioning is a subtle reminder that Atget is still very relevant to the artistic issues of the day.
Several sections of the show will seem happily familiar: courtyards, doors, and entryways, surrounded by layers of interior and exterior space, the Luxembourg gardens, with statues, urns, roses, and reflecting pools, and the facades of buildings, complete with sculptural stonework and elaborate iron. These cobblestone Paris streets, angled buildings, and formal gardens are the Atget we know and love, and the power of these photographs has not dimmed with age or repeated viewing.
The other three sections take a slightly less traveled path through the Atget archive. One gathers together Atget's images of people, relative rarities in his prolific career. His portraits center on vendors (lampshades, wire baskets, figurines, bread), rag pickers, and prostitutes, subjects who could be easily found on the streets and in the alleys. The are mostly full length shots, often capturing idiosyncratic Parisian nuances and personalities. A second grouping follows the theme of Atget's unintentional popularity among the Surrealists. These photographs are quirky and odd, many of storefronts and dusty window displays: headless mannequins, a seance clock, taxidermy, a skeleton, hairdressers' wigs, corsets, and spooky merry go rounds. A third group collects many of his late images of the Parc de Sceaux. In comparison with the formality of the Luxembourg garden images, these pictures are moody and wild, with overgrown ivy, bare trees, broken statues, and crumbling stairways. His lakeside reflections and shadowy and atmospheric, darker and more romantic. The whole series is full of lovely decaying grandeur.

Even for those who think they already know Atget, this show will be both satisfying and perspective broadening. It's also a refreshing reminder that small, well curated shows of vintage photography can still be new and exciting.
Collector's POV: Given this is a museum show, there are of course no prices. Atget's works are consistently available in the secondary markets, with unknown images and later prints by Berenice Abbott selling at auction for as little as $2000, and iconic works finding buyers well into six figures; rare Atgets have recently pushed up towards $700000. In general, high quality vintage images of Paris street scenes are often priced in the low to mid five figure range.

Rating: ** (two stars) VERY GOOD (rating system described here)
Transit Hub:
  • Features/Reviews: Time LightBox (here), TimeOut New York (here), Capital New York (here)
Eugène Atget: Documents Pour Artistes
Through April 9th

11 West 53rd Street
New York, NY 10019

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