|Robert Mann Gallery presents a selection of photographs by Aaron Siskind that draw upon the four seminal exhibitions the artist had at the Egan Gallery between April 1947 and June 1954. Included are a selection of prints believed to have been presented in the original exhibitions.|
At the recommendation of his friend Barnett Newman, photographer Aaron Siskind paid a visit to art dealer Charles Egan, one of the few gallerists in New York devoted to contemporary art at the time. The result was four exhibitions at the Egan Gallery. Siskind's photography had begun moving away from social documentary, flattening the picture plane as everyday objects moved into abstraction. Placing Siskind in an exhibition program that included Robert Rauschenberg and provided the first American venue for Willem de Kooning, Egan recognized the importance of the photographer's work in the contemporary discourse of visual arts. From a 1948 press release: "Mr. Siskind's discernment of the poetic in the casual and passed-by aspects of every day reality are rich in their eloquence of line and shape and take their place with serious expression of the modern American artists." While the first show at Egan endeared Siskind to many of his colleagues in the painting community, it drew the ire of critic Clement Greenberg. Leaving the exhibition together in an elevator, Greenberg insisted to Siskind that he couldn't do that with photography, photography had to be anecdotal, to tell a story. In spite of Greenberg's judgment, Siskind's work became an integral part of the American art historical and photographic canon.
These four exhibitions were crucial to solidifying Siskind's place as the photographer in the American abstract expressionist movement. While it would be easy to assume that Siskind observed what was happening in painting and simply translated it to photography, the record shows that aesthetic exchange went both ways. In an essay that accompanied the 1951 exhibition, Elaine de Kooning called Siskind "a painter's photographer". Such mutual affinities are evidenced by Franz Kline's painting Siskind, 1958 and the incorporation of motifs from the photographer's work into Willem de Kooning's Woman series. The richness of visual material developed by Siskind during this period astounds: fragments of wrought iron coils, found décollage street posters, suggestions of figuration in grease-stained paper bags — all toward the development of a unique style and sensibility.
Aaron Siskind (1903-1991) is included in numerous major museum collections. The Aaron Siskind Centennial Celebration took place during 2003-2004 with exhibitions at more than a dozen institutions across the country, each devoted to a different period or theme of the his life and work. Among these was Robert Mann Gallery's exhibition, Aaron Siskind 100.
Siskind's photographs of corroded metal, torn posters, drizzled tar, and peeling paint don't imitate Abstract Expressionism—they share its restless sensibility. The thirty-five prime examples gathered here were first shown at New York's Egan Gallery between 1947 and 1954, and they capture the spirit of the era without looking old-fashioned in the least. Images of bold strokes may disguise an underlying anxiety, but there's also a genuine excitement and a sense of discovery. With this work, Siskind was speaking more and more confidently in a new language, one that put photography and painting on fertile common ground.
Aaron Siskind's Romantic Notions Of Decay
In his essay "Aesthetics and Judaism, Art and Revelation," Zachary Braiterman notes that, "From Plato's cave to Freud's interpretation of dreams, the verbal conventions provided by narrative and theory are required to create, identify, and make sense of visual images." In other words, when we see a picture we first try to figure out what's going on, and then try to decipher what it means. The Abstract Expressionist painters of mid-century caused such a hubbub because their works defied this way of seeing. The same was true of photographer Aaron Siskind (1903-91), a contemporary and friend of many of the Abstract Expressionists. "Aaron Siskind: The Egan Gallery Years 1947-1954," currently at the Robert Mann Gallery, presents 35 of the black-and-white images that once seemed impermissibly radical, and are now canonic.
"Jerome, Arizona 21" (1949) is a well-known example of Siskind's abstract photography. From a distance the 16-by-20-inch print seems merely an assortment of random shapes; up closer it turns out to be a picture of peeling paint. If there is a narrative here, it is totally conjectural, and although a theory might be teased out of Romantic notions of decay, it would not explain Siskind's impulse in taking this picture. "Move on objects with your eye straight on," Siskind wrote in his 1945 essay "The Drama of Objects," "to the left, around to the right. Watch them grow large as you approach, group and regroup themselves as you shift your position. Relationships gradually emerge and sometimes assume themselves with finality. And that's your picture."
The sense of depth in "Jerome, Arizona 21," as in nearly all the pictures at Robert Mann, is very limited; the wall is two-dimensional and although the paint curls, it is only a fraction of an inch. In lieu of perspective, the main elements of the picture are the textures of the exposed wall and of the paint, and of their reciprocal shapes. The exposed wall is a light gray, and may be either concrete or an earlier layer of paint on some other surface; the veins running through it could be tiny cracks in either possibility. The peeling paint is darker and curls as it comes away from the wall; Siskind's view camera records the delicate shifts in light that model its irregular surface. Both the wall and the paint are very real; we sense we know what they would feel like if we could touch them. And the portion of the larger wall that the photographer elected to have in his frame contains a pleasing, even elegant, shape. So although there is no story, and no more theory than what we care to construct, we have an offering of the real world to contemplate and delight in.
Siskind's photography did not start here. He grew up in New York, was educated at DeWitt Clinton High School and City College, and taught English in the public school system. A friend gave him his first camera as a honeymoon present. He was a member of the Young People's Socialist League, and so fit comfortably in the milieu of the Photo League where he established the Feature Group, a documentary production unit. His "Harlem Photographs: 1932-1940" is a classic of the genre, and was republished by the Smithsonian Institute Press in 1992. But both his politics and his artistic interests changed, and there was considerable acrimony when he eventually broke with the Photo League. It was Barnett Newman, one of a group of artist friends that included Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko, who recommended him to Charles Egan, an art dealer whose gallery was devoted to contemporary art. Egan's four exhibitions of Siskind's work established the importance of his abstract photography.
Fragments of walls, windows, broken windows, architectural details, stains, lost objects, and disintegrating signs and posters: These are the materials with which Siskind worked. "Chicago" (1952) is again a picture of paint peeling from a wall, but very different in its feel from "Jerome, Arizona 21." Another picture, also titled "Chicago" (1952), has two white glyphs on a background that may be a piece of wood painted black: One figure is something like an "i" or a "j" and the other is something like an outline of a drop of liquid with a "v" shape inside of it. "Chicago 206" (1953) is more complex: The physical materials are hard to identify, but against a black background there are Rothko-like masses on the right, various drippings to the left and center, some splattered white spots, and an "x" shape and a "3" shape, drawn possibly with chalk, on the left.
"Chicago 30" (1949) has a black shape, like a silhouette of an element in a sculpture by Alexander Calder, painted on a white background. Maybe the black shape is the letter "R" lying on its spine. The material may be a metal sign with some screws through it, some peeling, and some sloppy painting. "Gloucester" (1944) is the muntins of a window with two broken panes. A child's hand is seen reflected in the lower left frame, and the introduction of a human element into an otherwise abstract image seems like a ghostly intrusion.
In the article quoted earlier, Mr. Braiterman also wrote, "Revelation does not exist apart from order, dis-order, and reorder of creation, from the form of part, whole, mass, color, tone, touch, and taste, from individual points, lines, spots and dabs." Without meaning to impute a religious intention to him that he probably did not feel, it sounds a lot like a description of a photograph by Aaron Siskind.