Of the Refrain

July 2 — August 22, 2008

Robert Mann Gallery's summer exhibition, Of the Refrain, explores the formal repetitions and shared motifs of photographers working with commonplace genres such as portraiture and commercial still life during the first half of the 20th century. Berenice Abbott, Ellen Auerbach, Ilse Bing, Carlotta Corpron, Hazel Larsen Archer, Dora Maar, Barbara Morgan, ringl+pit, and Margaret Watkins are among the artists included in the exhibition.

The advertising studio of ringl+pit is emblematic of the exhibition for its creative ingenuity and entrepreneurial acumen. Derived from their childhood nicknames, Grete Stern (ringl) and Ellen Auerbach (pit) chose the studio title to deliberately obscure what their own names revealed: their gender and Jewish background—qualities they assumed would inhibit the success of their business. This same playfulness and subtle subversion extended to their work in the studio, where they undermined the conventions of commercial photography and portraiture. Characteristic of ringl+pit's style, the photographs in Of the Refrain share tight framing and precise compositions. The emphasis on formal innovation within the studio reverberates in the leitmotif of dancing. In the work of Barbara Morgan and Hazel Larsen Archer, bodies in motion are barely contained by the images' frames. While seeming to defy the photographic borders that contain them, the leaping, fragmented bodies accentuate the lines and movement typical of choreographic developments by their subjects, Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham, respectively.

For a photographer to work in the studio is to delimit the horizon of possibilities, one more frame enveloping the frame of the camera. Within this creative space the artist may arrange the elements at hand. In foregrounding the studio as a site of production, Of the Refrain highlights the realities for photographers prior to the emergence of a market for fine art photography, but also as stage for particularly poignant innovation. The artists in this exhibition had to confront the expectations inherent to working with generic formats, but the prescriptive nature of genre also allows for its subversion. Not surprisingly, parallels developed between artists' work across time. They perhaps share a desire to break forth from the territorial boundaries of the studio and camera, and open onto larger forces. As Geoff Dyer has written, it is as though artists "met, repeatedly, in their work." Such meetings might also be called "refrains."

The title of the exhibition refers to a chapter from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus, and speaks directly to the notion of repetition. Deleuze and Guattari describe the refrain as an element which marks out a territory amidst chaos. But as well as defining a boundary (potentially an act of closure), a refrain can also open new possibilities. "The refrain ... has a catalytic function not only to increase the speed of the exchanges and reactions in that which surround it, but also to assure indirect interactions between elements devoid of so-called natural affinity, and thereby to form organized masses." Installed to highlight specific formal relationships, the exhibition is a web of connections that are social as well as thematic, a sonorous landscape conjuring the settings of the 20th century historical avant-gardes.

The New Yorker
August 4, 2008

The curator Phil Taylor (who also mans the gallery's desk) installed this exhibition of primarily modernist photographs as if the works were notes on a musical score. The results are unexpected, inspired, and full of telling juxtapositions between figuration and abstraction. Dance is a recurring motif, and bodies in motion (by Barbara Morgan, Lotte Jacobi, Ellen Auerbach, and the little-known Black Mountain artist Hazel Larsen Archer) spark some of the show's most sustained passages. With terrific pictures by Berenice Abbott, Man Ray, Ilse Bing, and the team of ringl+pit, the visual music here is decidedly avant-garde—jagged, edgy, and unexpected.

The Village Voice
August 13, 2008
Best In Show — Recommendations by R.C. Baker

The first image in this vibrant group photography show initially feels out of place: de Kooning sitting stiffly in a chair in his studio. But one of his lively biomorphic paintings is propped up near him, and that lithe blob from 1947 keynotes this show's parade of graceful dancers, captivating portraits, and compelling abstractions. Polio victim Hazel Larsen Archer was confined to a wheelchair, but her 1948 shot of a leaping and gyrating Merce Cunningham, his head cropped from the top of the frame, is testament to a universal desire to defy gravity. Barbara Morgan's 1940 picture of Martha Graham, tight costume straining at far-flung limbs, segues beautifully, if unexpectedly, into Berenice Abbott's 1958 study of light bouncing through a prism. Concepts and affinities carom through these 53 black-and-white images, and current Photoshop wizards could do worse than swipe ideas from the weird head-shots staged by the Depression-era duo of ringl+pit.

The New York Times
August 15, 2008
Ken Johnson

A beautiful conspiracy of rhyme and reason, "Of the Refrain" presents 53 black-and-white photographs by 16 Modernist masters in a way that seems as musical and poetic as it is visual. Organized by Phil Taylor, a young employee at the gallery, the exhibition focuses on standard genres of studio and commercial photography, viewing them as occasions for formal and technical innovation and experimentation. There is a particular emphasis on the extraordinarily lucid and stylish work of ringl+pit, two women who worked together in Berlin in the late 1920s and early '30s.

Portraits, still lifes and fashion and dance photographs are distributed around the gallery at different levels like notes on a musical score. Certain motifs regularly repeat. Barbara Morgan's pictures of Martha Graham in extravagantly expressive poses and Hazel Larsen Archer's images of Merce Cunningham leaping with athletic abandon create a theme of exuberant buoyancy, while images of glassware by Berenice Abbott, Margaret Watkins, Carlotta Corpron and ringl+pit—some bordering on pure abstraction—repeat moments of crystalline luminosity.

Many amusing juxtapositions occur. Man Ray, in a self-portrait, and James Joyce, in a portrait by Abbott, appear sitting on couches and resting their heads on their hands. ringl+pit's image of a woman in a sexy, lacy corset is followed by Ilse Bing's picture of a white lacy baby's dress. A ringl+pit portrait of Ringl wearing glasses with round black frames mirrors Andre Kertesz's picture of a man's hands holding similar glasses. Caught in a crossfire of echoes, reflections and affinities, these and other old photographs, including works by Josef Sudek, Dora Maar and Horst P. Horst, are vividly rejuvenated.