Saturday, June 30, 2018

Wayne Thiebaud, Draftsman at the Morgan Library and Museum

Wayne Thiebaud, Draftsman

Morgan Library and Museum
May 18, 2018 - September 23, 2018
Reviewed by Ed Voves                                                                                                    Photos by Anne Lloyd

As I reflected on the Wayne Thiebaud exhibit at the Morgan Library and Museum, a jingle from my movie-addicted youth popped into my head.

"Let's all go the lobby and get a tasty treat!"

The dancing ice cream bar, the cheerful looking soda cup and, most of all, the popcorn container (sometimes depicted with a big smear of lipstick and "come hither" eyes) appeared on the silver screen in 1957. Its aim was to entice film fans to buy over-priced edibles. The movie ad is an unforgettable example of the power of suggestion.

So too are many of Wayne Thiebaud's drawings on view at the Morgan. Thiebaud, already an established artist, gained acclaim - and sales - in a 1962 New York City gallery show filled with images of America's favorite desserts and snacks. These instantly recognizable pictures of slices of pie and cake, hot dogs, candy apples and ice cream cones testify to the powerful appeal to indulge our taste buds. 

There is, however, a lot more to Thiebaud's work. Initially, he was styled as a Pop artist due to superficial similarities to Andy Warhol's soup can paintings and prints. Thiebaud never rejected being affiliated with Pop Art but emphasized his links to Realism.

"I see myself as a traditional painter," Thiebaud declared in a 1974 interview. "I’m very much interested in the concept of realism and the notion of inquiry into what the tradition of realism is all about.”

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Detail of Wayne Thiebaud's Mallary Ann (1966)

Ultimately it is the power of art that we recognize in Thiebaud's provocative, often powerful, images.  And it needs to be emphasized - as the Morgan exhibit does - that Thiebaud is a superb landscape artist and an accomplished portraitist, especially his portrait drawings. 

Yet, it is worth noting that Thiebaud signature arrays of pie slices, ice cream cones and other treats have a special "something" about them, a quality that reaches beyond Realism as well as Pop. Like the taste of the petites madeleines in Proust's Memories of Things Past, the images of pie slices or a gumball machine trigger recollections we have seemingly forgotten or hardly perceived to begin with.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Wayne Thiebaud's Candy Ball Machine (1977)

Let your eyes savor a Thiebaud picture of lemon meringue pie slices and you start thinking about childhood trips to a diner. Look closely at the exquisite depiction of a vintage candy machine and you'll start reaching into your pockets for change to plunk into the coin slot and get a handful bubble gum balls. In both cases, you are not looking at a still life. You are in the realm of memory.

Wayne Thiebaud's vast and varied achievements are brilliantly displayed in the Morgan exhibit. Subtitled "Draftsman," this workman-like term is both accurate for the art works covered in the Morgan exhibit and for Thiebaud as an artist. Largely self-taught, Thiebaud learned art and matured as an artist by drawing. And drawing. And drawing.

For Thibaud, learning is doing and vice versa. In the process, Thiebaud mastered the craft of drawing to a degree that would have gained him positive reviews from some of the old masters he esteems,  Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin (1699-1779) and Thomas Eakins (1844-1917).

Indicative of Thiebaud's work are three works grouped together in the Morgan display. These are variations on a theme, each dating to 1964. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Three Works by Wayne Thiebaud

  Three Jelly Apples, created with graphite, Nine Jelly Apples, watercolor and graphite, and Candied Apples, done with brush and ink, are inspired works in their own right. Viewed together, these multiple images are a consummate demonstration of Thiebaud's mastery of the draftsman's tool kit.
Thiebaud was born in Mesa, Arizona, in 1920. Growing-up in California, Thiebaud worked briefly for Disney Studios during a summer break in high school. Thiebaud drew “in-between” scenes for Disney cartoons and had visions of becoming a cartoonist or comic book illustrator. During World War II, he produced cartoons for U.S. armed services magazines, followed by commercial work for Universal Studios and the Rexall Drug Company. 

Thiebaud's early shows the huge influence of graphic art during the 1930's and 40's. This was the great age of comic books, "pulp" magazine illustration and advertisement art. Thiebaud tried his his hand in these genres and his early, examples of which  are on view in the Morgan exhibit, show that he could have achieved success in commercial art. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Wayne Thiebaud's Railway Cars (1949)

Thiebaud used the GI Bill to earn a master’s degree in art from California State College, Sacramento. This achievement was to set him on the true course of his life's adventure in art.

Significantly, Thiebaud's degree was in in studio art and art education. He began teaching art, first at Sacramento City College, then at University of California, Davis, 1960 to 1991. In keeping with the spirit of American art duing the 1950's, Thiebaud experimented with the techniques of Abstract-Expressionism. He took a sabatical in 1956 and journeyed east to New York City.

While in NYC, Thiebaud got to know the Cedar Cafe crowd and talked painting technique with Willem de Kooning, among others. But he started drawing objects in the crowded windows of New York stores rather than "urban abstract landscapes." Before long Thiebaud's memory served up bounteous images of pies, cakes, donuts and sandwiches, which had been served in the diners where he had worked when young. Thiebaud's signature style had emerged.

Thiebaud's "eats" are what we call today "comfort food." There is a reassuring aspect to pie wedges and hot dogs. Familiarity does not breed contempt.

These images can be a bit alarming, however, especially when you see a lot of them in an exhibition like the Morgan's.  It is easy to see how critics and art patrons confused Thiebaud's pies with Andy Warhol's oeuvre. The mechanization of food stuffs, whether pastries in a diner display case or tomato soup cans on a supermarket shelf, can lead to a "glut" - of food and of images of food.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Wayne Thiebaud's Shelf of Pies (1960)

When the East Coast intelligentsia first studied Thiebaud's art, they projected social criticism into his drawings and paintings. By doing so, they created an agenda for his art which Thiebaud did not espouse. Thiebaud depicted America as it is, without apologies or complaint. In a 2017 interview the British art writer, Martin Gayford, Thiebaud noted:

 After all, I am an American. I’ve driven across the country, and you see the same thing in every restaurant from Sacramento to New York. The same meringue pies. So it began to make a lot of sense to paint them – and it was very intriguing.

Thiebaud happens to enjoy eating lemon meringue pie, as well as drawing the tart, gooey dessert. Indeed, enjoyment is an integral component of his work. Thiebaud does not "celebrate" American abundance or life-style in the way that Soviet "social realism" lamely - and unsuccessfully - tried to do under Stalin. But he does present the good things of everyday life  in the U.S.A., just as painters in ancient Egypt filled the frescoes of tombs with images of foodstuffs for the afterlife as they conceived it.

Thiebaud's flirtation with "Ab-Ex" before settling on his signature Realism mirrors the struggle of American artists down through history. From John Singleton Copley onward, American artists confronted the choice of European and European-inspired art or subjects and motifs from the good-old U.S.A. The villas of Tuscany or the Hudson Valley. Cubism or the Ash Can School.

Wayne Thiebaud chose America. But he did not focus his vision away from the future or from Modernism.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Detail of Wayne Thiebaud's Pastel Scatter (1972)

Thiebaud's Pastel Scatter is a still life very much in the tradition of John Frederick Peto. The pastel pieces tromp l'oeil just as Peto's candle sticks, flintlock pistols and crinkled letters did. You know these are just pictures but you want to pick theme up just the same. Moreover, Thiebaud treats these simple shapes with such astonishing facility of light and color that they have an effect on the mind not unlike a Rothko mural.

The same is true of Thiebaud's landscapes. He has acknowledged the influence of early American folk paintings and the work of Richard Diebenkorn. Yet, the 1972 pastel Rock Ridge or the drawing in charcoal from around 1980, River Sides are pure Wayne Thiebaud.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Wayne Thiebaud's Rock Ridge (1972)

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Wayne Thiebaud's River Sides (1980)

Both Rock Ridge and River Sides are realist works, yet are not the result of on-the-spot observation. They were (in Thiebaud's own words), "mostly just invented with perspective structures played around with to try and bring it into some sort of cohesive character."

In short, what you see on the gallery walls at the Morgan is Thiebaud's vision of America. Drawn from the mind's eye of this great American artist, from his life experience and his devotion to art, these are images of America's enduring appeal, of wide-open spaces and the "more abundant life."  

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 
Images courtesy of Anne Lloyd and the Morgan Library and Museum, New York City 

Introductory Image:                                                                                                          Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) of Wayne Thiebaud's Shelf of Pies (Detail), 1960. Brush and ink, watercolor, and charcoal. 19 x 25 inches (48.3 x 63.5 cm) Private collection. © Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) of Wayne Thiebaud's Mallary Ann (Detail), 1966. Graphite. 17 x 14 inches (43.2 x 35.6 cm) Allen Stone Collection © Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) of Wayne Thiebaud's Candy Ball Machine, 1977. Gouache and pastel. 23 3/4 x 17 3/4 inches (60.3 x 45.1 cm.) Collection of Gretchen and John Berggruen, San Francisco. © Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) of Wayne Thiebaud's Three Jelly Apples, 1964. Graphite. 12 x 13 1/2 inches (30.5 x 34.3 cm.) Private Collection © Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) of Wayne Thiebaud's Nine Jelly Apples, 1964. Watercolor and graphite. 12 x 12 inches (30.5 x 30.5 cm.) Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of George Hopper Fitch, B.A. 1932. © Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) of Wayne Thiebaud's Candied Apples,1964. Brush and ink, 7 x 11 7/16 inches (17.8 x 29.1 cm) Allan Stone Collection. © Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) of Wayne Thiebaud's Railway Cars,1949. Watercolor, wash and ink on paper. Private collection. © Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) of Wayne Thiebaud's Shelf of Pies,1960. Brush and ink, watercolor, and charcoal. 19 x 25 inches (48.3 x 63.5 cm) Private collection. © Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) of Wayne Thiebaud's Pastel Scatter,1972. Pastel on paper. 16 x 20 1/8 inches (40.6 x 51.1 cm) Thiebaud Family Collection © Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) of Wayne Thiebaud's Rock Ridge,1972. Pastel on illustration board.  Private Collection. 33 x 20 inches (83.8 x 50.8 cm) © Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) of Wayne Thiebaud's River Sides,1980. Charcoal. 22 3/4 x 29 inches (57.8.3 x 73.7 cm) © Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Giacometti at the Guggenheim


Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City

June 8, 2018 - September 12, 2018

Reviewed by Ed Voves
Photos by Anne Lloyd 

One of the first sculptures on display at the Guggenheim Museum's new exhibit of the lifework of Alberto Giacometti (1901–1966) is entitled Walking Man I. It is one of Giacometti's signature pieces, a notable example of the gaunt, featureless beings that have come to symbolize the post-Auschwitz, nuclear-weaponized world which emerged from the carnage of World War II.

The Giacometti exhibit at the Guggenheim is little short of sensational, with nearly two hundred works of art on view, sculptures, drawings, paintings. The works of art are mostly from the collection of the Fondation Giacometti in Paris. Among these generous loans, Walking Man I is a "standout" in many respects.

The significance of Walking Man I extends beyond the apocalyptic years of the Second World War back to the sculptor's youth. It is worth pausing a brief moment from reviewing the marvelous exhibit at the Guggenheim to look at an incident vividly described in the great biography of Giacometti by James Lord. 

Giacometti was a precocious fifteen year-old student at a elite Swiss boarding school when the event occurred. On the way home for the Christmas 1915 holiday, Giacometti stopped in a bookstore. He chanced upon an illustrated volume about the artwork of Auguste Rodin. The sight of the pictures of Rodin's sculptures filled the young Giacometti with awe. He bought the expensive book, even though this left him short of money to get home.

Clutching his book on Rodin, Giacometti trudged the final ten miles home over a mountain pass on a freezing, snowy night to his hometown of Stampa in rural Switzerland. That perilous journey set the tone for the rest of his life.

Striding forward, trudging onward, advancing against the winter winds, Giacometti became the Walking Man he would later sculpt. Rodin, himself, early in his career, had sculpted a figure with the same title. It is quite likely that there was a picture of this Rodin statue in Giacometti's book. Giacometti eventually became the new Rodin, an art traditionalist with a revolutionary vision. 

Giacometti painting in his Paris studio, 1958. Photograph by Ernst Scheidegger 

As if that legacy were not enough, Giacometti took on the role of the Walking Man for all of Western art.  Making our way up the ramps of the Guggenheim Museum, we are given the privileged opportunity to explore the course of Giacometti's engagement with ideals of art going back to the ancient Egyptians and the Cycladic art of the very earliest Greek cultures. We are enabled also to join in Giacometti's dialogue with other great artists and thinkers of the twentieth century.

A friend of Jean-Paul Sartre, Samuel Beckett and Jean Genet, Giacometti was in many ways an existentialist figure. However, Giacometti denied aiming to create definitive Existentialist art works. The same role had earlier applied to his short-lived Surrealist career during the early 1930's. Giacometti was and wasn't a new Rodin, was and wasn't a Surrealist or an Existentialist artist. 

Why the seeming contradictions?  Giacometti held to a singular, individualistic course of art that precluded him from ever joining, much less leading, a school of art, a new "ism."

"I am very interested in art but I am instinctively more interested in truth," Giacometti declared. "The more I work, the more I see differently.”

Giacometti was haunted by anxieties and nightmares that surfaced in his art. These were both personal and prophetic. Death, the negation of life and art, was a hovering specter. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018), Gallery view of the Giacometti exhibit
Giacometti's The Forest (1950) appears in front

Giacometti feared that his oeuvre represented the final chapter of the great age of Western art. This disturbing reflection, brilliantly explored in James Lord's biography, was not founded upon an arrogant self-regard. Instead, by the 1950's, Giacometti believed that the dominant creed of modern art, Abstract Expression, was headed in the direction of a cul-de-sac.

James Lord quotes Giacometti around the time of his MOMA exhibit in 1965, a year before he died.

How can one talk here about copies of works of art, frail and ephemeral works of art that exist here and there on continents, works of art that decay, disintegrate, that wither away day after day, and many of which - among them those that I prefer - have already once been buried, hidden beneath sand, earth, and stones? And they all follow the same path.

Frail and ephemeral are appropriate words to use in describing many of the works of art created by Giacometti. His favorite medium for creating statues was initially clay, but switched to using plaster in his later years. When he was satisfied with an image (Giacometti was very exacting), his brother Diego would then cast the statues in bronze which we encounter in museums all over the world. Six versions of Walking Man I were cast in 1960; the one on view in the Guggenheim exhibit was done later in 1982.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018), Gallery view of the Giacometti exhibit
In the foreground, is Giacometti's Woman Leoni, 1947-58

The Guggenheim exhibit features a massive array of Giacometti's works in all media. The plaster originals are much in evidence and it is a special treat to be able to study so many of them in one showing. In the case of several of these delicate plasters. These include Woman Leoni which curators restored, using laser technology to remove the layer of shellac which was applied during the casting process. 

Now we can see these "frail and ephemeral" and spiritually forceful works of art exactly as Giacometti saw them before instructing Diego to begin casting them in bronze. In their finished state, Giacometti's sculptures seem to exist in several time periods at once. 

Giacometti's The Chariot (1950) is a key example of the "time-bending" nature of Giacometti's art. After a visit to an archaeological museum in Italy, Giacometti became intrigued with ancient Egypt. The thin wheels on The Chariot replicate those of Egyptian war chariots from the New Kingdom. Yet, nothing in Giacometti's art can be reduced to a single element or influence.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018), Alberto Giacometti's The Chariot (1950)

Giacometti stated that a memory of pharmacy cart which he saw during a stay in the hospital played a role in the creation of The Chariot. He also declared that he aimed to create a work of art with a figure posed in empty space "in order to see it better and to situate it at a precise distance from the floor."

The answer to the source of The Chariot would therefore seem to be "all of the above." Yet, I cannot help but think that there is a spiritual level still waiting to be exposed after we peel away all the other layers of explanation. 

The Chariot was created in 1945 after Giacometti had spent the war years creating sculptures of tiny figures, mostly women, positioned on massive bases. These small figures are imprisoned by their bases while the female driver of The Chariot seems poised to launch into space. There is a real sense of awakening to freedom here which is rendered even more brilliant by the effect of the shadows cast by the chariot wheels and by the queen or goddess driver. She stands ready to command the vehicle forward in a bid for liberation.

I spent a lot of time looking at The Chariot. This incredible work of art was first displayed in the U.S. in 1950 at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York. It's only a "slight" exaggeration to say that I would not have been surprised to look back and see its gallery space at The Guggenheim vacant and Giacometti's magical cart on its way down the Guggenheim's ramp toward the door to Fifth Ave.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018), Gallery view of the Giacometti exhibit
at the Solomon Guggenheim Museum, New York City

Truthfully, the "magic" of this sensational exhibit has much to do with the Guggenheim's design and the history which the museum and New York City shares with Giacometti. This is the third major exhibit of his work at the Guggenheim. The first took place in 1955 before the present Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building was constructed. The second was a major retrospective held in 1974. Along with the trailblazing Matisse Gallery show in 1950 and the 1965 MOMA exhibit, New York City's role in the Giacometti story is second only to that of Paris.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018), Gallery view of the Giacometti exhibit
Three of Giacometti's Women of Venice sculptures are shown here.

The special "magic" of this Giacometti exhibit is due to the fact that the spiraling ramp of the Guggenheim rotunda is the perfect display space for a retrospective emphasizing sculpture. The numinous shadow effect, mentioned in relation to The Chariot, appears and reappears. And often, due to the superb lighting, spacious display area and reflective surfaces of the display cases, we glimpse an interaction between museum goers and works of art. Anne caught such a unique moment with this picture of City Square (1948).

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018), Alberto Giacometti's City Square sculpture (1948)

When I mentioned how impressed I was with the Giacometti exhibit to the Guggenheim curator, Megan Fontanella, she paused for a moment and replied, "Sculpture sings at the Guggenheim."

When you look closely at key Giacometti in the exhibit, you cannot help but agree. Viewing Spoon Woman, influenced by the Cycladic art of early Greece, creates an atmosphere where the resonance of ancient ritual and music is almost palpable.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018), Alberto Giacometti's City Spoon Woman (1927)

If Spoon Woman "sings" then a full chorus is needed for Suspended Ball. In its shimmering case, Suspended Ball is one of the most animated and articulated of Giacometti's works on display. The only thing "suspended" about it is the string that holds it up in its supporting frame. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018), Gallery view of the Giacometti exhibit 
Work at center is Giacometti's Suspended Ball (1930-31).

"Suspense" rather than "suspended" is a more meaningful adjective to apply to Suspended Ball. The work exist in the millisecond before action takes place, while we wait anxiously and at the ready. The next moment, the ball in its crescent-shaped support will start "rocking" like a baby in its cradle. 

That is an irrational concept. Indeed it is a surreal thought. André Breton, the "Pope of Surrealism" sought a meeting with Giacometti after seeing Suspended Ball. Giacometti, open to new experience, joined the Surrealist movement, but it was to prove a brief association. Giacometti, like almost all of the first-rank artists involved in Surrealism, could only tolerate Breton's doctrinaire ideology and insufferable manipulation for so long. This is one of the themes of the recent book, The Lives of the Surrealists by Desmond Morris.

Giacometti is in many ways the ultimate "Surrealist" because his works transcends tangible reality. Deeply moved by dreams - and nightmares - Giacometti often drew-upon the unconscious to inform and inspire his work. 

Giacometti's Surrealist period produced one of his key, transitional works, Hands Holding the Void (Invisible Object)

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018),Details of Hands Holding the Void (Invisible Object)

In 1934, he created the plaster original (now in the collection of the Yale University art museum) of the first length human statue. Giacometti was partly influenced by the art of the Pacific Islands, but the face was modeled on a World War I gas mask and the eyes from Byzantine mosaics.

While pointing toward his later statues, Hands Holding the Void remains a Surrealist work. There is a nightmarish quality to this remarkable sculpture. The figure seems trapped by the setting which appears to be some sort of chair with a prie-dieux or "kneeler" as you find in chapels. Is this a protest against the confining structure of organized religions or perhaps, slyly, the "religion" of Surrealism?

Giacometti did not, would not, cut his ties with the immediate world around him. As the world in 1945 revealed images of concentration camp survivors - emaciated, gaunt, blank-eyed - Giacometti responded with works that utilized the people and objects in his immediate orbit to create universal statements on life. 

Giacometti's portraits were the primary means by which he depicted ultimate realities of the world after World War II. He posed his brother Diego, his wife Annette, luminaries like Simone de Beavoir and now-forgotten acquaintances to create existential icons - and for once the term "icon" is not misused.

Giacometti's portraits are so fascinating - and involved - that I am going to treat them in detail in a later, focused review. The Giacometti exhibit at the Guggenheim, truly one of the best I have ever seen, defies a single review. There are too many worlds of experience here, calling for our attention.

For now, I will conclude with a reflection on Man Pointing from 1947. If there is one, essential, Giacometti work of art, i believe that this is it. I feel that a lot of art lovers would agree, though perhaps for different reasons.

Man Pointing was created during the grim aftermath of World War II and the equally grim opening round of the Cold War. Giacometti's "thin man" gestures toward the sky and points earthward. This sculpture is an embodiment of the basic contradictions of life. It reminds me of the title of the medieval philosophy treatise, Sic et Non, by Peter Abelard. Yes or no. 

Abelard, during the twelfth century, sought to reconcile conflicting points of religious doctrine. Giacometti, with his persevering search for truth, endeavored to do the same for the arts and society during the twentieth century. However, there is only so much reconciling, so much negotiating that people can do in life before we become the slaves of expediency. Ultimately, a choice must be made.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018), Gallery view of the Giacometti exhibit
Art work is Giacometti's Man Pointing (1947).

That is what Man Pointing "said" to me as I confronted him at the Guggenheim gallery. Reaching toward heaven, Man Pointing pointed at me. 

"Make your choice", Man Pointing declared. "The choice is yours."


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images courtesy of Anne Lloyd and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City 

Introductory Image:    
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Photo of Alberto Giacometti's Walking Man I, 1960 (cast 1982) Bronze: 71 1/16  x 10 5/8  x 38 3/16 inches  (180.5 x 27 x 97 cm). Collection Fondation Giacometti, Paris. # 2016.177

Ernst Scheidegger (Swiss, 1923-2016) Giacometti painting in his Paris studio, 1958. © 2017 Stiftung Ernst Scheidegger-Archiv, Zurich Courtesy of Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Gallery view of the Giacometti Exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, New York. Giacometti's The Forest (1950) appears in the foreground.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018)  Photo of Giacometti exhibition at at the Guggenheim Musseum. Statue is foreground is Woman Leoni, 1947-58.  Plaster:  66 15/16 x 7 1/2  x 16 9/16 inches  (170 x 19 x 42 cm). Collection Fondation Giacometti, Paris. # 2016.10513

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Photo of Alberto Giacometti's The Chariot, 1950. Bronze on wood base: 65 3/4 x 27 3/16 x 27 3/16 inches (167x 69 x 69 cm) Denise & Andrew Saul # 2016.144

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018), Gallery view of the Giacometti exhibit at the Solomon R, Guggenheim Museum, New York City

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018), Gallery view of the Giacometti exhibit, showing three of the Women of Venice statues, dating to the 1950's. On view at the Solomon Guggenheim Museum, New York City

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Photo of Alberto Giacometti's City Square,1948. Bronze: 8 1/2 x 25 3/8 x 17 1/4" (21.6 x 64.5 x 43.8 cm) Private collection. x 2016.10647

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Photo of Guggenheim Exhibit showing Alberto Giacometti's  Suspended Ball,1930-1931 (version of 1965). Plaster, painted metal and string: 23.7/8 x 14 x 14.3/16 in. (60.6 x 35.6 x 36.1 cm) Collection Fondation Giacometti, Paris. # 2016.92

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Photo of Alberto Giacometti's Hands Holding the Void (Invisible Object)(Detail), 1934 (cast ca. 1954-55).  Bronze:  59 7/8 x 12 7/8 x 10 in. (152.1 x 32.7 x 25.4cm) Museum of Modern Art Louise Reinhardt Smith Bequest # 775.1995 © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) of Alberto Giacometti's Man pointing, 1947 (cast by 1949).  Bronze, 70 1/16 x 37 3/8 x 20 1/8" (178 x 95 x 52 cm) Tate Museum, London. # 2016.136

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Art Eyewitness Book Review: Berenice Abbott by Julia Van Haaften

Berenice Abbott: a Life in Photography

by Julia Van Haaften

W.W. Norton, 656 pages, $45

Reviewed by Ed Voves

No good deed goes unpunished. If you find that "truism" hard to accept, read the new biography of Berenice Abbott by Julia Van Haaften. Abbott (1898-1991) was no stranger to misfortune.

Consider Berenice Abbott's 1928 photo of James Joyce. It is one of the greatest portrait photographs every taken. Yet Abbot was referred to as a "girl" photographer when she was in her forties over a decade later. Had she been a man, Abbott would have been compared to Gainsborough or Ingres.

The year before taking Joyce's photo, Abbott captured the image of the reclusive French photographer, Eugène Atget. 

Eugène Atget, 1927
Photo by Berenice Abbott
Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Soon after, Atget died and his vast photo archive was in danger of being discarded. Though short of funds, Abbott saved the treasure of Atget's genius, bulky glass photographic plates and all, for posterity. In recognition of this incalculable act of preservation, Abbott was condescendingly categorized as a student or acolyte of Atget - for the rest of her life.

Recognition of her incredible skill and artistic vision did not improve when Abbott returned to the U.S. from France in 1929. She pioneered the type of documentary photos that were to become a government-subsidized art form during the New Deal years. Yet, Abbott was dumped from the W.P.A. payroll (along with most of the other photographers on staff) when Congress cut funding in 1939 for this remarkable cultural initiative.

Not content to rest on the laurels of her wonderful Changing New York book (1939) which showcased her Depression-era photos, Abbott launched a new career photographing scientific subjects during the 1940's. 

After pioneering new technical methods and creating a distinguished body of scientific photos, Abbott was hired by the Physical Sciences Study Committee (PSSC) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1958. America was reeling from the shock of the Soviet Sputnik satellite launch. The PSSC planned a series of textbooks to interest America's young people in the sciences. After supplying brilliant images for the project, Abbott was not even credited in one of the textbooks. The quality of photo reproduction was execrable and her contract was not renewed. Abbott was "too artsey" according to one of the PSSC bureaucrats.

Even the Museum of Modern Art managed to botch the retrospective it mounted of Abbott's photos in 1970.

Despite this catalog of woe, the tone of this account of Abbott's life is anything but bitter. Solidly-researched, filled with perceptive insights into Abbott's character and career, this biography is truly definitive. Abbott may have been unlucky and unappreciated in life. But she could not have asked for a better biographer than Julia Van Haaften.

This superb, much-needed book is founded upon a crucial decision by Van Haaften. Her theme was Abbott's life and she refrained from a "life and times" treatment. The temptation to take this approach must have been very difficult for Van Haaften to resist.

How easy it would have been to use Abbott's life as a framework for yet another retelling of the saga of Modernism. The Ohio-born Abbott was a "poster girl" for the mid-Western students who flocked to the "Village" during World War I. She lived the ex-pat life in 1920's Paris and was a charter member of the New York scene during the 1930's and 1940's. Abbott knew everybody.

Berenice Abbott, New York, November 1937
Photograph by Carl Van Vechten

Thankfully, Van Haaften's narrative focuses tightly on Abbott. That is not to say that the book lacks character details about other artists or relevant social commentary. At issue here is the centrality of Berenice Abbott to American art. Abbott, except very briefly as a photo assistant to Man Ray during the early 1920's, was a major, independent artist. She was nobody's "girl."  

"I'm not a nice girl," Abbott told a New York City official who warned her against taking pictures of the "skid row" at the Bowery. "I'm a photographer."

As a photographer, Abbott excelled in capturing the "spirit of the place" in the same way that William Hazlitt's incomparable essays had conveyed the "spirit of the age" one hundred years before. Unblinking realism was matched by her aptitude to catch the ineffable spark of individuality in her portraits of the Paris literati and her neighborhood scenes in New York City.

In the photos that Abbott began to take of New York City during the 1930's, she was concerned to record the great changes in the cityscape since she had left for Paris in 1921. Abbott certainly documented the "change" in New York, but she also captured the unchanging emotional dynamic of New Yorkers as well.

Broad Street looking toward Wall Street, Manhattan, July 16,1936
Photo by Berenice Abbott

Even with only one solitary pedestrian in the classic photo above, we sense and see - in our mind's eye - the generations of New Yorkers who built and maintain this fabulous city. We see this because Abbott saw it with her mind's eye as she composed this magnificent image of the canyons of lower Manhattan.

Van Haaftan writes very movingly about Abbott's ability to present image and spirit together in a single photo. Van Haaftan, in her introductory remarks, highlights Night View, New York (1932) to show how Abbott solved this "artistic paradox." She quotes Abbott's own words on the necessity for photographers to summon "a creative emotion." 

Unless you see the subject first, you won't be able to force the camera see the picture for you. But if you have seen the picture with your flexible human vision, then you will be on the road to creating with the camera, a vision equivalent to your own.

Abbott succeeded so well in matching heightened perception with exacting practice behind the camera that it is easy to overlook the sheer magnitude of her achievement. This happened to me recently with the very photo which Van Haaftan uses as an exemplar of Abbott's skill and spirituality, Night View, New York.

Anne Lloyd, (Photo (2018) Gallery view of the Modern Times, American Art exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, showing Night View, New York by Berenice Abbott

The Philadelphia Museum of Art included their print of Night View, New York in the current exhibit, Modern Times, American Art, 1910-1950. I was impressed at seeing Abbott’s famous photo in the Philadelphia exhibit. I was not over-awed, perhaps because of the visual overload of taking in all of the storied works in Modern Times, American Art. The second time I visited the exhibit, it was a different story.

When I entered the gallery of Modern Times, American Art, I was immediately struck by Night View, New York. The photo beckoned from across the room. Night View, New York stands out on its own. You just have to be able to see “the subject first” as Abbott said and, thanks to Van Haaftan's insights, I am now able to do so.

From atop the Empire State Building, Abbott created this incredible photographic image. The photo shoot took place on the shortest day of the year in December 1932. Abbott had chosen the date and time with strategic skill. The evening darkness having descended while the offices in nearby buildings were still open for business, Abbott was able to capture an entire constellation of electric lights, visible evidence of thousands of people at work. 

Anne Lloyd, (Photo (2018) Berenice Abbott's Night View, New York, 1932 (detail)

Considerable expertise was involved in staging this photographic coup. Abbott carefully made a fifteen minute-long exposure to capture this one single, dazzling moment. She positioned her camera looking north from the Empire State Building. We see the classical columns of the Greenwich Savings Bank (1352 Broadway), which still stands, renamed The Haier Building. The old Sixth Avenue El runs through Abbott's photo and if you look closely you can make out the rails on the elevated platform. The El was demolished a few years after Abbott took this photo, replaced by the subway and midtown automobile congestion.

It's amazing to think that this photo was taken nearly nine decades ago. The fifteen minutes that Abbott devoted to taking this photo produced an immortal masterpiece dealing with a lot more than the laws of optics or New York City architecture.

If you view Night View, New York with "your flexible human vision" it is possible to peer through the glare of each of those glimmering lights into the offices and into the lives of those long-ago New Yorkers. That is only a slight exaggeration because the sharpness of Abbott's exposure does indeed permit a degree of detail that reaches almost to the doors and windows of the offices surrounding the Empire State Building. 

Anne Lloyd, (Photo (2018) Berenice Abbott's Night View, New York, 1932 (detail)

I asked my wife Anne to get as sharp a copy as possible of Night View, New York. With that, we could illustrate the way that a flexible human vision can serve both the photographer and the viewer of the photograph as both focus ever more intently into the human drama before them.

Adjust the setting of your flexible human vision and you will be able to look inside and with insight - inside the lighted offices, insight into the people who make cities live . Time will be no barrier. Bernice Abbott's Night View, New York is a masterwork for the ages.

Anne Lloyd, (Photo (2018) Berenice Abbott's Night View, New York, 1932 (detail)

For Abbott, the late 1920's through the the early 1940's were peak years of creativity.  These were tough years, too. Except for a couple of years when she was drawing a W.P.A. paycheck, Abbott lived the precarious life of a free lance photographer. She earned a few bucks from selling prints from the Atget archive, but these she had to share with her avaricious business partner, Julian Levy.

Levy, of course, was one of the prime movers of Modernism in the U.S. In most accounts, Levy is a heroic figure. To Abbott, he was an ally who needed watching and she was wise to do so, as he eventually tried to seize control of the Atget archive. Levy was not the only Modernist "hero" with whom Abbott had issues. Paul Strand and Edward Steichen likewise crossed swords with her. 

Abbott was a photographer, as she brusquely told the New York City official. But she remained a woman "poaching" in a mostly male preserve. Abbott was also a left-wing "fellow traveler," if not an avowed Marxist, and a lesbian. Society had a lot of "issues" with her.

Van Haaftan's chapters on Abbott's sexuality and her left-wing politics match the high quality of the earlier episodes from her Paris and New York years. 

Abbott's long partnership with Elizabeth McCausland (1899-1965) is treated with sensitivity and insight. A mid-Westerner like Abbott, McCausland was an academic scholar, professionally and emotionally. Along with personal love, McCausland devoted much needed organizational support to Abbott's photographic career. McCausland's dense academic writing style, however, did little to help Abbott reach out to popular audiences in the exhibits they worked on together.

It was good thing that Abbott was so independent and so at odds with the male movers and shakers of American left-wing "cadres." Van Haaftan documents the FBI's "interest" in Abbott, but they felt that they lacked sufficient grounds to take action against her. Thus, Abbott's "deeds" of political activism went unpunished.

Portrait of Berenice Abbott, Monson, Maine, August 1989
 Photo by Yousuf Karsh 

Van Haaften knew Abbott in her later years and states that she remained supportive of the Soviet Union and its political agenda. It is rather disconcerting to think that a person of Abbott's vision and innate sympathy for the persecuted could have maintained support for a totalitarian regime whose crimes against humanity could not be ignored by the 1980's.

I think the answer to this puzzling failure is that Abbott's emotional world remained that of the 1920's and 1930's. She was the least "artsey," that is doctrinaire, photographer of all the major camera artists of her era. Yet politically, she never quite moved on from the left-wing activism that had rebelled against the Sacco-Vanzetti verdicts, the Scottsboro trials and the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War. 

It is clear from Van Haaftan's wonderful book that Abbott, despite some character quirks, was a warm and generous human being. This is very apparent in the support Abbott devoted to Todd Webb whose post-World War II photos of New York carried on the tradition of street and neighborhood photography which Abbott had pioneered during the 1930's.

Berenice Abbott may have passed the baton to new generations of American photographers but she never ceased to be a remarkable artist in her own right. Moreover, she maintained her open-eyed, pragmatic "hands-on" approach to photography.

"In the search for art the subject gets lost," Abbott declared. "In the search for a subject one finds art."

As long as she lived, Berenice Abbott viewed the world with the flexible human vision that had enabled her to photograph Night View, New York. This was how she looked at the glittering Manhattan skyline on a cold December evening long ago. This is why the photo Abbott created in 1932 still seems as if she took it yesterday.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 
Photos courtesy of W.W. Norton, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Anne Lloyd

Introductory Image: Berenice Abbott: a Life in Photography2018 (book cover ) Courtesy W.W. Norton

Berenice Abbott, (American, 1898-1991) Eugène Atget1927. Gelatin silver print, image and sheet: 9 1/16 × 6 3/4 inches (23 × 17.1 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, # 1968-162-38 Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Carl Zigrosser, 1968

Carl Van Vechten (American, 1880-1964) Berenice Abbott, New York, November 1937.  B&W print, 25.3 x 18.6 cm. Beinecke Library, Yale University. # 20293377.  Yale  University, Van Vechten Trust

Berenice Abbott (American, 1898-1991) Broad Street looking toward Wall Street, Manhattan, July 16,1936. Silver Print, 8x10 in. Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs collection. # 1219154. New York Public Library

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Gallery view of the Modern Times: American Art 1910–1950 exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, showing Berenice Abbott’s photograph, New York at Night, 1932

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Detail views of Berenice Abbott’s photograph, New York at Night, 1932. Gelatin silver print, Image and sheet: 13 3/8 × 10 5/8 inches (34 × 27 cm) Philadelphia Museum of Art, #1984-151-1. Gift of Theodore T. Newbold in memory of Lee Witkin, 1984

Yousuf Karsh (Canadian, 1908-2002) Portrait of Berenice Abbott, Monson, Maine, August 1989. Silver print.  Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs. # 92PH024. New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations, Gift of the photographer © Yousuf Karsh