“William Eggleston- The Democratic Forest” @ David Zwirner. It’s impossible for us to “see” Eggleston’s work now the way the way it was seen in 1976 when it was presented in the first major Museum one-man show of color photography ever at MoMA in the 69 images shown in “Photographs by William Eggleston” (which you can relive, here, in glorious black & white). In that “black & white world,’ it was received as “shocking,” and widely panned (famously by The Times). If anything, today, there are “too many cameras and not enough food,” as Sting sang, and too many pictures in the world, so, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised to read a number of comments on Eggleston’s books, shows and works where commenters say they don’t see what’s special about it, or, that, as has often been said about Jackson Pollock, they could do it. Hmmm…Many, many have tried, and are still trying. What’s lost in translation in seeing Eggleston in 2016 is how many photographers have “gone to school” on his work, over the past 40 years, learned from it, and yes, copied it 1, so that much of what he is famous for is now omnipresent. Yet, it’s barely 40 years since his breakthrough at MoMA.
Countless professionals and amateurs shoot “the everyday,” the seemingly mundane now. Who’s to say what’s good, what’s bad, and what’s “Art?”
As always? Time will. In the meantime, what about the work of Wililam Eggleston in 2016?
Now 77, “the father of color photography,” as he is called2, has been making photographs since his college days, closing in on 60 years ago. That’s enough passage of time for some things to be known. For one thing, his work still seems to be gaining in popularity. For another, it still garners a lot of respect from both his fellow Photographers, and Museums, judging how widely they hold and show his work. “William Eggleston Portraits” at the National Portrait Gallery, London this fall, drew raves. Millions of dollars are being spent on his work at auction. He, and his Eggleston Artistic Trust3, left the Gagosian Gallery this past June and signed with the equally prestigeious David Zwirner Gallery for representation, (this being their first show), and this century has already seen a steady stream of stunning books and huge box sets by Steidl, which have the look and feel of monuments, that sell out and some then command a thousand dollars a copy, and more, on the aftermarket.
In October, The New York Times featured him as one of their six “Greats,” along with superstar (my term) Artist, Kerry James Marshall, and Michelle Obama. William Eggleston is big time. Ok. So, back at David Zwirner on West 20th Street, how’s the show?
30-odd years after these works were created they retain a surprising freshness and resonance that’s not easy to explain. I’m not sure it’s entirely the famous(ly) bright colors that are solely responsible for this, either. They’re undoubtedly a hook, but there’s far more going on, and there are works that don’t feature “knock your eyeballs out” colors that are equally compelling. Following in the tradition of Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank, he has taken their ideas someplace else. Someplace subtle, or very subtle, mundane, often easily overlooked. A place decidedly “American” (in these works), that American viewers instinctively recognize, and one that must look like Mars to the foreign eye. Heck, in a few more years, it’s going to look like Mars to ANY eyes. Yes, so many others have tread this ground since Eggleston’s work became widely seen. They shoot similar subjects, using the same camera. But, in the hands of a visionary master of the medium, the results are truly unique. Seeing 40 works together reinforces all of this, and reveals intimacies about his approach and style. Seen in isolation this sense is harder to glean. His work has a feeling of spontaneity that is, also, often copied, perhaps, increasingly. Watching him at work in documentaries, we see this spontaneity is not contrived. Frankly? I marvel at it. What is going on in his mind as he approaches his spot? As he composes and frames? Untold millions walk around with cameras, raise them and take a photo. None are these. How is this possible? Also an Artist (his book “Paris” featured his Art alongside his photos), as well as a musician, it should be no surprise that he has one hell of an eye for composition (which can be seen in even his earliest black and white work), and which I feel is under-appreciated given how rarely I hear anyone mention it. It may be as big a part of his impact as color. His is, also, a painter’s eye, which also sets him apart as a photographer. Perhaps it is this that gives him his eye for the “secret life” of what most overlook in the world. All of these things work together to make a composition of random “things” a personal statement, even without people present in most of his photographs, and they seemingly come together in the instant the exposure takes. With a master technician of photography who’s also an Artist behind the shutter, I think his results are going to intrigue viewers for a very long time no matter how many try to copy and imitate him.
Eggleston said he has over a million and a half images in his archives. They ALL can’t be classics, can they? According to the Press Release, the show includes 40 works, “the majority of which have not been exhibited previously.” The “Democratic” in the show’s title speaks to the camera’s ability to “render equally what is in front of the lens.” What is rendered in these 40 works includes very few people (Only one, seen in the first photo, top, is centered around a person besides the photographer, who appears in two others by my count). Each work here bears the same title and dating- “Untitled,” 1983-86. Very democratic, indeed. Not mentioned is that these works are recent prints in a larger size, somewhat controversially, (about 65 x 45 inches, though a few are 20 x 28) Digital Pigment Prints, instead of the Dye Transfer Prints that Eggleston is renowned for, which his works in the collections of MoMA, The Met, and many other places are. For me, the larger size (the original sizes were of the order of 16 x 20 inches), seem to reach for a “painterly” impression. This struck me as soon as I walked in, not surprising, perhaps, since I have looked at mostly painting in my life. Some succeeded larger, some didn’t. Interestingly, I found images I’ve long struggled with to be among those I am still struggling with larger.
Another thing that most impresses me…no…blows my mind, is that Eggleston does it taking only a single shot. While he would, no doubt, prefer his work remind me more often of Degas (who, among many other things, was a photographer, as well as a master print maker and immortal Painter), I found myself thinking of him as being somewhere between Edward Hopper/Charles Sheeler and Ed Ruscha/Richard Estes. To study the individual photos in this show closer, check out the exhibition’s catalog. I’ve mostly opted to show the very interesting combinations in which they were hung, which I assume Mr. Eggleston, himself (who was in NYC for the opening, also making rare appearances at The Strand and at Aperture), was involved with, since those won’t be widely documented.
“Well I hope you’re happy with what you’ve made
In the land of the free and the home of the brave
William Eggleston’s worldwide reputation as an important American Artist of our times increases seemingly daily. While his Artistic Trust, which his sons are involved in, seems to have it’s own ideas about the future of his work, it seems assured that his work is going to be seen far and wide for a very long time. With that 1.5 million photos he guesstimated are in his archives, he must have taken some in NYC, as he memorably did of Paris, right? Maybe those will be in a future show called “The Democratic City.”
“Francis Picabia” @ MoMA- (Note- March 3, 2017. I went back to see this show, again, before it ends March 19, and so I update my Post on it, in hopes of doing it more justice.) Picabia first got me into Abstract Art as a teenager with this work-
I bought the postcard of it, which I still have. It sucked me into it- almost literally, it’s grip on my mind, and my eyes, was so intense. It’s a work that looks like you could walk inside and climb around in and explore it’s unprecedented landscape. But, it was it’s title that hooked me…”I See Again in Memory My Dear Udnie.” When I finally climbed back out of it and got around to pondering the name of the work…Well? I’m still pondering it. Most of the other Abstractionists (Pollock, Rothko, Duchamp, even Kandinsky) didn’t usually title their works. This proved a vital “way in” for me. From this, and Picabia’s other works of this period, I discovered Pollock, Kandinsky, Miro, then the Surrealists, Dada, and the Abstract Expressionists. Seeing it, again, in this very well done retrospective brought all of that back to me. I was, initially, startled because I’d forgotten how large it is- over 8 feet high by 6 and a half feet wide. Talk about making a statement. It’s presence, and impact, is still every bit as strong. For me, at least, it’s a central work in his oeuvre. His early abstractions are, still, breathtaking, unique and just gorgeous.
While Cubism was all the rage at the time (c.1914), I think it’s a shame that other Artists didn’t follow Picablia down this road. Then again? Where else was there left to take it? Perhaps this is why, Picabia, himself, turned his back on this style and adapted others. The man is one of the ultimate chameleons of his time.
This is a long overdue show, and a big one. It surprised me with Picabia’s endless evolution throughout his career, much of which, post-1925 seems to be a bit in the shadows compared to his early, seemingly endless inventions.
It points out that there remains much to see and study in the long career of this defiantly original, prolific and continually surprising individualist. I found myself a bit lost by what came after 1925, but he called me back with his somewhat surprising evolutions during WW2.
In the end, Picabia is, like “I See Again in Memory…” one of those Artists who’s work demands, and rewards, repeated viewing. His formidable technique, and endlessly creative & inventive mind gave us an Artist who wasn’t content to stay with one style for very long. When you have that kind of talent? Why would you want to? He was, as he famously said, “a monster.” A monster talent.
“Paths To The Absolute: Kandinsky, Malevich, Mondrian, Newman, Pollock, Rothko and Still” @ Di Donna Galleries- A small wonder. All of those big names in one gallery show. Beautifully hung, in fascinating combinations that created wonderful inner dialogues, and one that offered a nice different perspective on Rothko from that going on in the “big” show, concurrently, at Pace, Chelsea. A show I almost missed and long will be grateful I did not.
As good as that show was, one Artist was not included…
“Richard Pousette-Dart: The Centennial” @Pace Gallery, East 57th Street, and “Altered States: The Etchings of Richard Pousette-Dart” @Del Deo & Barzune. This past June 8th would have been the 100th Birthday of Richard Pousette-Dart (RP-D for short), who died in 1992 at 76. An Artist who, I feel, has not yet been fully appreciated. June 8, 2016 would slip quietly by, but it turned out his 100th had not been forgotten. Pace Gallery 57th Street, opened a Centennial Show on September 6, (with RP-D’s wife and well known son, the musician, Jon Pousette-Dart in attendance). A symposium was held at the Whitney a few weeks later, a restored public work was unveiled downtown, and a revelatory show of his etchings at Del Deo & Barzune in the Flatiron District opened on October 6.
Phew…My fears he’d be forgotten were assuaged. RP-D has become something of a “cause” for me. The more I see of his work, the more I’m baffled that he’s not (often) spoken of with his long time compatriots Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, et al. I just don’t get it. For my money (and I have none personally invested), he’s every bit as good, and important, as any of them.
The show at Pace Uptown was nicely concise, giving a taste of the range of his stylistic development, which, for me, were a feast for the eyes. There is something wonderful about his work that allows it to work just as well in a small space (as the etchings prove), or in a large gallery at The Met’s newly rehung M&C Galleries. It’s so easy to get endlessly lost in either close study of his work, or at a distance. His compositions are among the most complex of the AbEx Artists, and his attention to detail borders on the staggering. You wonder how he ever finished one work, let alone as many as he did.
Astoundingly, RP-D was, also, one of Ai Weiwei’s teachers at The Art Student’s League (on West 57th Street, down the street from where Pace is now) from 1983-86. I have yet to hear, or read, him (AWW) speak about the experience.
Visiting the wonderful satellite show, with the prefect name, “Altered States: The Etchings of Richard Pousette-Dart” at Del De & Barzune in the Flatiron, the impression (sorry) is amended (as it always seems to be when one sees a work by RP-D he previously hadn’t seen), enhanced and refined. Here, his attention to detail is in just as full effect, and the results are even more (and even more sadly) unknown. The work on view is uniformly marvelous. They give the same effect as his larger painted masterpieces- ponder them from afar, or get lost in them up close. These are works you will look at for an entire lifetime and still see something new in them. Long live Richard Pousette-Dart.
And, finally…a show I planned to write more about but haven’t, and just can’t let get away- “Rembrandt’s First Masterpiece” @ The Morgan Library. Worth the price of admission to see the figure of Judas in the 1629 painting, “Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver,” The Master did at age 23(!), the work that sealed his status as a “Master,” and which I haven’t as yet found an antecedent for in the prior history of Painting4
While you were waiting for a slight opening in the throng surrounding it, you were blessed with the rest of this one, large, room being chocked full of some of the greatest impressions of Rembrandt’s prints to be seen in this hemisphere.!
I could think of worse ways of spending my time “waiting.” Like doing anything else, short of making love. So overwhelming were they that you were 3/4 of the way home before you realized you saw “only” one painting.
And then? The seas parted and lo and behold? THERE IS WAS! QUICK! SHOOT!!!
Where was I? Oh yeah…”only” one painting here…That was immediately followed by the realization that with Rembrandt? The medium is not the message- The message is the message. it matters not which medium he chooses to work in. He created timeless Art in many mediums, Painting, drawing and prints, here. From what is called his “First Masterpiece,” (I didn’t say that)5, he lets it be known that he is someone that is, and will be, unprecedented in Art History, and earned the admiration of the diplomat, poet and great Art connoisseur Constantijn Huygens, who’s original diary, containing Huygens’ now immortal words about Rembrandt and “Judas,” which put the young Artist on the map, is here as well. Remarkable! Of “Judas,” Huygens writes in THIS very book(!)-
his Autobiography, written between 1629-31-
“Compare this with all Italy, indeed, with everything beautiful and admirable that has been preserved from the earliest antiquity. The singular gesture of the despairing Judas-leaving aside the many fascinating figures in this one painting-that one furious Judas, howling, praying for mercy, but devoid of hope, all traces of hope erased from his countenance, his appearance frightening, his hair torn, his garment rent, his limbs twisted, his hands clenched bloodlessly tight, fallen prostrate on his knees on a blind impulse, his whole body contorted in wretched hideousness. Such I place against all the elegance that has been produced throughout the ages.”
This “such” retains every bit of it’s power to awe onlookers nearly 400 years later as it did Mr. Huygens shortly after he created it, to the extent that it’s possible to see so much of what’s come after in this one figure, right up to Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon.
I give this show my award for the exhibition that went the furthest beyond above and beyond delivering on the advertised expectations. Any show that elicits an “Oh My God,” from it’s doorway as I first entered and it dawned on me what awaited and how undersold this show was has to be, at least, NoteWorthy, and at most, unforgettable.
As the new year begins? To any show with designs on winning that award this year, I say “Bring It On!”
*- Soundtrack for this Post is “Puzzling Evidence” by David Byrne and recorded by Talking Heads on “True Stories,” which was accompanied by a movie and a book of the same name. The book contained photographs by William Eggleston, among others.
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- Continuing the continuum. Eggleston learned from Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank, among others. ↩
- because of the MoMA show, but let’s not forget the many other great photographers who also shot at least some color before it was accepted, like Robert Capa, Saul Leiter, Fred Herzog, et al. ↩
- holders of all of his copyrights, including the works shown here ↩
- “Agony” seems to be something avoided in Painting. To this time, Christ on the Cross was depicted “transcending” the physical agony, and Paintings of the so-called “Agony In The Garden,” invariably show Christ lost in meditation, prayer and deep, though possibly, pained, thought. If you know of an ancestor or influencer, please let me know. ↩
- His early work is pretty darn stellar in my book. I’ve long had a love of this one in Boston, from 1628, one year before “Judas”, that is only 9 inches by 12 inches. Don’t be fooled by it’s apparently “simplicity.” Much is going on. ↩