|Robert Mann Gallery is pleased to begin the fall season with Robert Frank, the premiere exhibition in our renovated Chelsea gallery space. Representing an outstanding collection of exquisite rare Frank prints, the exhibition will include iconic images from The Americans, as well as earlier poetic photographs taken in Paris and London. In surveying the early years that solidified Frank's style and reputation, we celebrate one of the most singular, original voices in the history of photography.|
Robert Mann Gallery's presentation of Robert Frank coincides with the 50th anniversary of the publication of his seminal book The Americans, first released in 1958 by Parisian publisher Robert Delpire, and in 1959 by Grove Press, which made the book available to a wider audience. The anniversary is marked by a substantial touring monographic exhibition and scholarly catalogue organized by Sarah Greenough at the National Gallery of Art, stopping this fall in New York at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans was previously exhibited at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Fifty years later, The Americans still simmers with cutting, poetic observations of quotidian life. A towering view of a politician in the throes of ecstasy at a rally conjures a well-known history of Chicago political machines and corruption, all wrapped around a charismatic leader. Teenage spirit, or the 1950s version of adolescent disenchantment, rises to the surface in the picture of a gang of youths gathered around a sad looking jukebox. Perhaps accidentally the shutter has captured many of them with their eyes closed, others staring off into some impossible distance; in the background, the fragment of a sign ciphers "Made Blinds." The Americans is often noted for what a personal vision it is, an idea particularly relevant to an earlier photograph, not included in the book, in which Frank looks down on his wife Mary nursing their infant son Pablo, two kittens playing nearby.
If less well-known, Frank's significant powers of observation were no less spectacular in earlier years shooting on the streets of Paris and London, capturing the queue of limousine drivers in a fog or a flower vendor's wares arrayed on a typical sidewalk, glistening in the morning sun. Frank's camera orders a visual hierarchy as a prototypical equestrian statue rises out of the mist above a traffic-bound automotive driver. Equally evocative are portraits of artistic colleagues Alberto Giacometti and Willem de Kooning, the former hunched in a dingy looking studio, the latter in chiaroscuro smoking a cigarette under a street lamp. Elsewhere a lone figure, possibly illicit, trolls the barren cobblestone streets of our own West Chelsea, framed under the skeleton arm of a car's side view mirror.
The Robert Mann Gallery has 24 pictures up by Robert Frank (b. 1924), a fraction of the number at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition celebrating his book "The Americans." There is an entire, lengthy chapter in "Bystander: A History of Street Photography" in which Colin Westerbeck and Joel Meyerowitz discuss the brilliant editing of "The Americans." They analyze the way recurring visual leitmotifs and social themes provide a context in which the 83 individual pictures acquire additional meaning and impact: The images are displayed at the Met in the same sequence as in the 1959 book. The pictures at Mann are naked by comparison, and it is consequently easier to consider each of them as individual works of art...
The picture one sees first on entering the Mann Gallery is from "The Americans": "Chicago, 1956," a man on the ledge of a building with upraised arms and clenched fists. He is screaming and has a campaign poster with a portrait of Estes Kefauver, who ran as the Democratic vice-presidential candidate with Adlai Stevenson, on his chest. Against the grid of the windowpanes, and above the placid classical head in the carving below the ledge, he seems either dangerous or loony. In the book (and at the Met) this picture follows two others on political themes, which makes what the man is doing seem less spontaneous, more ritualized. It is evoked later on by a picture of a tuba player wearing an Adlai sticker, by Eisenhower posters, and by other representations of political activity. But this is a very dramatic image in itself, something of a classic because of its inclusion in "The Americans," as is true of the seven other pictures from the book in the show.
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In 1955, Robert Frank set out on a 10,000 mile journey from New York across the United States and back. After capturing 28,000 stunningly melancholy scenes, from African American funerals to Hollywood parties, he edited the down to 83 for his book The Americans, a portrait of our country as seen with the freshness and detachment of a visitor from another planet.
The complete series, which was shown first at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., is at the Met, and there is a show at Pace/Macgill Gallery through the fifth of this month. (The show will be reviewed in the January 2010 ARTnews.)
A smaller gem of a show at the Robert Mann Gallery includes individual works from The Americans along with some of Frank's previous photos. The images abound with wonderful facial expressions. The gentleman on the right in City Fathers, Hoboken (1955), for example, in a row of middle-aged burghers in overcoats and hats, is executing a marvelous smirk, lips pursed, eyes closed. And Charleston, South Carolina (1955) depicts a tranquil black nurse holding a white baby with a supercilious, serious stare. And more men in hats appear in the distance in Washington Square, NYC (1948), perched on park benches like pigeons on a wire.
Portraits include NYC (1955), of three young male hustlers (one wearing a skirt) showing off their tweezed eyebrows and makeup — a depiction of sexual ambiguity unusual for the time. Artists can also be seen, including Giacometti, de Kooning, Kline, Jack Kerouac, and most compellingly, Frank's wife Mary reclining with their infant son, Pablo. With one breast bare and ready to nurse, she stares at the viewer through piercing pale eyes, providing an intimate glimpse of Frank's own American life.
Even the photographer's most mundane images can communicate a sense of tragic disconnection. In Men's room, railway station — Memphis, Tennessee ((1955), a white man stares into space in an empty restroom lined with urinals as a black worker bends over his foot and shines his shoe. Combining suggestions of Mary Magdalene washing Christ's feet with intimations of racism and bodily functions, this scene of abasement and service unfolds in eerie silence.
Robert Frank's The Americans (1958) is arguably the twentieth century's iconic art book. Its photos, taken by Frank during a circuitous cross-country road trip in 1955 and 1956, are voyeuristic records of Americans who had sloughed off depression, won wars, and forged the world's model consumer society. The Swiss-born artist conveyed an America of bliss and ignorance, hip yet generic, its landscape and psychology both wide open. Last year was the fiftieth anniversary of Frank's book of eighty-three photographs and — incredibly — the first time the entire suite was shown in New York, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the final stop of a tour that originated at the organizing institution, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC).
Contrarians and hard-core Frank fans often argue for the early-1970s documentary Cocksucker Blues as his masterpiece. The unreleased and rarely screened vérite-style film follows the Rolling Stones around the States during their Exile on Main Street tour. A wall of Frank's photographs ended up gracing the cover of that album, which is arguably among the Stones' best, steeped in the Frank-like ethic of charting, conjuring, and sometimes reveling in seamy Americana. Frank's most evocative work is indubitably charged by the psychic energy of his adopted homeland, so an exhibition at Robert Mann Gallery juxtaposing photos from The Americans with lesser known images made both earlier and later — some shot in the US, but others taken in Paris and London — was an experiment in how an artist's less familiar work holds up in the shadow of iconicity.
The earliest photo on view was a New York City shot from 1948, taken shortly after Frank had moved to the US. It pictures a row of bench sitters from behind looking like a phalanx of pigeons in Washington Square Park — voyeurs spied by a fellow voyeur. Even in this pre-Americans image, there's a vaguely illicit quality that hangs about Frank's snapshots of American life that isn't communicated in his photos of Europe. Perhaps his gaze cast a different effect over midcentury Europeans than it did Americans; the Americans of The Americans feel profoundly unselfconscious — politicians preening and screaming, trannies gleefully posing, cowboys staring yonder. The images of street life in Paris and London in the Mann show depict staid cities of mist and romance; they reinforce stereotypes. A few portraits of artists taken in 1962 do the same: De Kooning grimly mugs in half-light, Giacometti broods heavily before a drawing, Kerouac sits in an unmade bed in his shirtsleeves, all manic energy. The photos Alfred Wertheimer shot of Elvis Presley in 1956, where the twenty-one-year-old King is the picture of self-absorption, would make for fascinating antidotes to Frank's wooden portraits; Wertheimer's camera eye is just another eye for Elvis to primp his hair for.
The agency of The Americans photos is in their sense of invasion — certainly into the sacredness of American political ceremony, but more crucially into Americans' private space. America was founded on privacy, and here Frank's photos violate something intrinsic that his images of street life in Europe and his portrait shots simply do not. The Americans pictures American life during the decade when the country's values solidified. If they are quintessentially '50s photos, an unfamiliar photo from the Mann show titled Platte River, Tennessee, 1961, encapsulates the subsequent decade. A broad-shouldered man in a dark, ill-fitting suit dominates the foreground and calmly stares at a lonely field where a cow grazes, oblivious to the revolutions that await.