Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Alma Lavenson @Gitterman

JTF (just the facts): A total of 24 black and white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against white walls in the jagged single room gallery space. All of the works are vintage gelatin silver prints, made between 1928 and 1943. No size or edition information was provided on the checklist; most appeared to be roughly 8x10 or reverse. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: Except to aficionados of Bay Area Modernism or rabid f/64 fans, the photographs of Alma Lavenson are likely a complete unknown. Although she exhibited with Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham and the rest of the f/64 group in the late 1920s and early 1930s, her work has generally been left in the long shadows of her better known colleagues, a singular image popping up now and again to remind us that other forgotten artists were struggling the same aesthetic problems that mark the careers of the recognized masters. Seen together in remarkable depth in this show, Lavenson's work is an almost a perfect case study in the transition from Pictorialism to Modernism, with strong, well-crafted examples to be seen in each phase of her artistic development.
The earliest images on display in this exhibit find Lavenson at the beginning of the end of Pictorialism, making photographs of the squiggly reflections in the water at Monterey Pier or an angled lineup of rowboats with soft focus lushness, albeit tightened up just a bit from the ethereal dreaminess that characterized much of the work from the period. What changes first is Lavenson's subject matter - romantic painterly scenes give way to industrial studies: ships, dams, cement factories and mechanical still lifes, seen with an eye for geometry but still executed in textured soft focus. Fast forward a year or two more and the patina of Pictorialism has begun to fade from her palette, being replaced by a keener eye for detail and sharpness. Floral studies, sail rigging, even snow blown against the trunk of an evergreen are now crisp and clear, shadows being used for stark angling rather than misty mood. By the end of the 1930s, Lavenson's work has moved even closer to that of Walker Evans and Wright Morris, with deserted shacks, door frames, and cannery buildings pared down to sparse formal patterns in unadorned tonal grey.
While Lavenson may have been overlooked by the larger sweep of photographic history, there are flashes of brilliance here that stand up well with comparable work by her peers and contemporaries. A collection of between the wars Modernism would do well to have a surprising Lavenson mixed in among the more famous names.
Collector's POV: The prints in this show are priced between $10000 and $45000, with most of the works under $25000 and one (the self portrait with camera) marked POR. Lavenson's work has only been intermittently available in the secondary markets over the past decade; prices have ranged from roughly $2000 to $60000.
Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)
Transit Hub:
  • Review: New Yorker (here), Le Journal de la Photographie (here), New York Photo Review (here)
Through June 1st
41 East 57th Street
Suite 1103
New York, NY 10022

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