New York / New Work
Never afraid to confront iconic subject matter, Michael Kenna turns his lens on New York City in his new body of work. Infinitely rendered by masters and tourists alike, the city is transformed through Kenna's eyes. Recalling Kertész perched on his window over Washington Square Park, or Stieglitz peering up at those shiny new skyscrapers, Kenna romanticizes even the most frenetic landscape by seeking out those quiet moments at dusk and dawn. With exquisite toned silver prints, he imposes order and tranquility on the otherwise chaotic city streets. Engaging the strong, modernist lines of the urban grid, Kenna's formal precision is more clarified than ever.
The exhibition also coincides with the publication of Michael Kenna's newest monograph, Mont St. Michel (Nazraeli, 2007). Photographs from the book will be featured in the exhibition. Whether capturing a misty French castle or the elongated span of the Brooklyn Bridge, Kenna's photographs "are beautiful and achingly solitary." (ARTnews, Hilarie M. Sheets)
Michael Kenna was born in Widnes, England in 1953 and graduated from The London College of Printing in 1976. His work is part of such public collections as The National Gallery, Washington, D.C.; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Bibliothèque Nationale de Paris; The Museum of Decorative Arts, Prague; and The Victoria and Albert Museum, London. His recent publications include Hokkaido (Nazraeli, 2006), Retrospective Two (Nazraeli, 2004), Ratcliffe Power Station (Nazraeli, 2004), and Japan (Nazraeli, 2003). He lives and works in Seattle, Washington.
The New York Sun
December 13, 2007
Michael Kenna takes beautiful photographs; this is not meant pejoratively. When Adam Kirsch reviewed the book "On Ugliness," edited by Umberto Eco, in last Wednesday's New York Sun, he concluded that "The frightening thing about modernity … is the way it makes … ugliness … no longer beauty's necessary negative, but the only true mirror of our age." Mr. Kenna's work as a landscape photographer over the last three decades has sought to reintroduce beauty as an acceptable aesthetic criterion. A selection of 39 of his black-and-white pictures is on exhibition at the Robert Mann Gallery in "New York/New Work."
Mr. Kenna is hugely popular. The list of his honors, exhibitions, and books, etc., fills more than 13 pages, and the list of Public Collections alone runs onto two single-spaced pages. Clearly large numbers of people respond positively to his work. Some of his best-known projects include "Le Notre's Garden," a study of French formal gardens; "Night Walk," which features the nighttime pictures that are a specialty of his, and "Hokkaido," one of several ventures to Japan. These are subjects that plausibly lend themselves to being represented beautifully, but Mr. Kenna also produced "L'Impossible Oubli" ("Impossible to Forget") a book of dark, atmospheric photographs of Nazi concentration and death camps. Is beauty appropriate in pictures of the camps? There is a growing literature that discusses this vexed philosophical issue. But New York, as those of us fortunate enough to live here know, is beautiful. Or, at any rate, if you keep your eyes open and are patient, you periodically encounter vistas that take your breath away. The 20 pictures of the city at Robert Mann recapitulate many of the classic views of the city, taken with Mr. Kenna's sensitivity to light and detail. "Homage to Kertész, Gramercy Park, New York" (2003) looks down on a tree in that privileged enclave at about the same angle André Kertész looked down from his apartment at 1 Fifth Ave., on the trees of Washington Square Park. Like Kertész's, Mr. Kenna's picture was taken in the winter, so the bare trees stand out starkly against the snow. The twisted trunk and irregular branches contrast with the straight line of the path that cuts across the image, and point up the difference between the designs of man and nature.
"Mary Poppins Over Midtown, New York" (2006) looks down at night on the lit skyscrapers of the city, and they seem no less magical than in Berenice Abbott's classic "New York at Night" (1934). Mr. Kenna uses a medium-format camera and his exquisite prints are all of modest size, so there is startling clarity of detail; each of the hundreds — maybe thousands — of windows is sharp. There are three pictures of the Brooklyn Bridge, studies 1, 2, and 4, (all 2006), and each recalls one of the pictures Walker Evans took in 1929 to illustrate Hart Crane's poem "The Bridge." Mr. Kenna is himself an often imitated photographer whose work has influenced a generation of students and admirers, so it is important to note that when he looks to Kertész, or Abbott, or Evans as models, he is not merely copying their work, but learning from it and building on it.
"Study 2," for instance, was taken from directly under the bridge whose roadway divides the picture. But unlike the similar Evans picture, it was taken at night, the Manhattan buildings are lit, the moon shines in the upper left-hand corner, and the moving waters of the East River take up the bottom half of the image. In "Study 1," taken just north of the bridge, a parallax tilts the buildings of Lower Manhattan to the right, making the skyline seem slightly plastic and, consequently, droll. "Study 4" puts Evans's study of the walkway on a tilt, as if the Gothic arches John Roebling designed for the piers were not only transcendental, as he intended, but in motion. In each instance, Mr. Kenna has looked again, and found something more.
There are three pictures of the Chrysler Building taken on three visits to New York. (Mr. Kenna was born in England in 1953, but now lives in Seattle, Wash.) The earliest, dated 1998, shows just the upper 10 floors of the building and its Art Deco metal crown projected above the horizon against a dramatic, variegated sky that takes up more than half of the frame. The second, from 2000, shows it hemmed in by boxy, graceless, generic structures from mid-century, but still as the diva building Walter P. Chrysler determined it would be: Mr. Kenna waited until all the foreground buildings were in shadow and only his subject was in glorious late-afternoon sunlight. The most recent shot, 2006, was taken at night to show off the newly illuminated spikes on its crown.
As with the Brooklyn Bridge pictures, those of the Chrysler Building make manifest Mr. Kenna's dogged pursuit of beauty. They show off his ingenuity, chaste sense of design, and technical virtuosity. The 12 pictures in "New York/New Work" from Mont St. Michel, France, do likewise, especially the six along the south wall of the gallery, a bravura display of variations on a theme.
Mr. Kirsch wrote in his review of "On Ugliness" that, "In today's nihilistic art world, it is almost senseless to distinguish between beauty and ugliness: All that matters is novelty." The packed crowd that came to the opening reception of Mr. Kenna's exhibition at Robert Mann, and waited patiently for him to autograph copies of his books, opted for beauty. For those who are steeped in postmodern irony and cynicism, the pleasure of his work may indeed no longer be available.
In this recent body of work, photographer Michael Kenna takes on New York City at its most remote and dazzling. These black-and-white toned silver prints present an almost otherworldly metropolis, emptied of humans and therefore of some its more unsavory aspects.
Many of the well-known landmarks were here — the Chrysler Building, the Brooklyn Bridge, Central Park, and the skyline, seen as a spiky strip framed by luminous sweeps of sky and water. Kenna is not afraid to go for high drama: the top of the Chrysler Building thrusts into a turbulent sky; an aerial view of Fifth Avenue at night is a dizzying amalgam of brilliant illumination and severe geometries. Nor does Kenna have any reservations about jousting with imagery made famous by his illustrious forebears. Homage to Kertész, Gramercy Park, New York (2003) recalls the snowy vistas captured by André Kertész in the 1950s. Shots of the Flatiron Building inevitably summon up Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz. But Kenna makes the city his own by sticking to a fiercely unsentimental vision of its familiar monuments and formal majesty. Grand Central Station never looked lonelier or more elegantly austere than in the two images here of the ticket counters and a stairwell after hours.
Also in the show were images of Japan, Oregon and Mont-Saint-Michel in France. Again Kenna goes for the spectacular and the solitary. His scenes of Mont-Saint-Michel in varying weather and at different times of day are ghostly evocations of medieval grandeur; trees in a Japanese landscape are a spare haiku of black branches against a snowy ground. Though small in their dimensions, Kenna's prints packed a big and memorable wallop.