JTF (just the facts): A total of 33 black-and-white and color photographs, framed in black and matted and hung against white walls in the small gallery area, the reception area, and in the offices. 21 of the works are gelatin silver prints, made between 1951 and 1978. Physical sizes range from roughly 5×4 to 20×16 inches (or reverse) and no edition information was provided. The other 12 works are Cibachrome prints, made between 1978 and 1984. These prints are each sized 4×4 inches, and again, no edition information was provided. A selection of additional works by the artist is on view on the shelves in the office area. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: In 1952, the Hungarian photographer André Kertész moved to a 12th floor apartment overlooking Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village. Kertész had emigrated from Paris to New York city in the mid 1930s, and had rebuilt his photographic career in America as a freelancer, working mostly for magazines like Harper’s Bazaar and House & Garden. But this new home offered him a variety of visual opportunities outside the realm of his professional work, and he would continue to make innovative personal work from this apartment (and other nearby rooftops) until his death in the mid-1980s.
Likely the most well known photographs Kertész made in Washington Square Park are a pair of snow bound scenes from 1954, one during the day and one at night, from roughly the same raised vantage point. The enveloping whiteness of the snow creates a soft backdrop for the dark branches and trunks of the scattered trees, and the curves of the pathways create a sinuous motion through the landscape. During the day, the scene feels fresh and bright, with a lone figure out for a bracing walk; at night, the streetlamps are like hovering spots of light, each casting an orb of diffused glow onto the surrounding snow. While these pictures have become familiar over time, so much so that we might pass them by without once again looking closely, they still capture moods of the city that feel quintessentially New York.
Kertész’ other views of the park show him constantly experimenting with downward angles and dark/light contrasts, and as the seasons turned, he used the possibilities of each to construct his compositions. In the summer, children playing near the swing sets are enlivened by the elongated shadows cast by the midday sun. In the fall, crunchy leaves are strewn across the grassy areas, creating all over dappling patterns that obscure the people taking a rest. And in the winter, the snow cover provides sharpened extremes of contrast, with melting footprints and tire tracks adding linear interest to views of the arch. Kertész also often used tree branches as frontal screens, the action at a distance, whether a broad vista, a group of people, or the twinkling lights of a nearby building, given calligraphic decoration. And what consistently gives a Kertész park scene its enduring charm is a small moment of urban joy – a walking figure, a child on a swing, a snowball fight, dogs and their owners out for a stroll – that can seemingly be discovered again and again.
Turning away from the park and toward the rooftops of nearby buildings, Kertész found an entirely different set of compositional constraints. He explored the geometries of brickwork, fire escapes (and their shadows), chimneys, and flat expanses of tar, carefully flattening layers down to interlocking planes and angled intersections. Once again, he used his eye for human warmth to include the edge of billboard, a woman looking out onto an air vent, a child’s horse, and a woman walking a dog to add a playful splash of real life to these controlled abstractions.
Near the end of his life, Kertész began to shoot color Polaroids of objects on his windowsill and around the apartment. While these images were reprinted (at the time) as Cibachromes, they retain the immediacy and personal intimacy of the originals. With a view through the window to the city outside as a backdrop, Kertész set up glass ornaments (a heart, a bird, a leaning torso paperweight) on the sill, sometimes using an overturned drinking glass as a makeshift pedestal. Colors and shadows are distorted by the glass, creating warps and tints that evoke a variety of moods, and the warmth of the afternoon sun sets up a color dialogue with the subtleties of cloudy rainy days. The pictures often feel private and introspective, the shadow of the artist himself seen now and again as an improvised self portrait.
Vintage shows like this one are important because they both allow us to rediscover superlative work that we may have forgotten in our mad rush to find the new and encourage us to re-evaluate the masters we now take for granted. Kertész’ varied window views happily stand up to this scrutiny, reminding us of how a photographer can make an enduring personal engagement with an imposing place like New York city, even by making observations from the window of his or her apartment.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced between $7500 and $25000. Kertész’ works are routinely available in the secondary markets, with many prints (and portfolios) coming up for sale in every season. Recent prices have ranged between roughly $2000 and $200000.