Arnold Newman: One Hundred @Howard Greenberg

JTF (just the facts): A total of 38 black and white photographic works, framed in black and matted, and hung against grey walls in the main gallery space, the entry area, and the book alcove. (Installation shots below.)

The show includes:

  • 36 gelatin silver prints, made between 1939 and 1991 (a few printed later), sized roughly 3×10, 5×6, 6×7, 8×9, 10×7 (or reverse), 10×8 (or reverse), or 14×11 (or reverse) inches
  • 1 set of 2 collaged gelatin silver prints, 1966/assembled c1972, 11×14 inches
  • 1 set of 4 gelatin silver contact prints, c1946, 4×5 inches each

A monograph of this body of work is forthcoming from Radius Books (here).

Comments/Context: Arnold Newman’s 1946 portrait of the composer Igor Stravinsky has become an icon of 20th century photographic portraiture. In the highly unbalanced composition, Stravinsky famously sits at the piano, his face in the bottom left corner of the frame, with the massive curved black form of the top of the instrument set against the flattened planes of grey and white background wall, dominating the space. What was radical about this picture (at the time) was the idea that a photographic portrait of a celebrity (or artist, or writer, or musician etc.) need not be a headshot or a three quarter pose against a nondescript background; in fact, Stravinsky is so overwhelmed by the presence of the piano he is almost an afterthought in this picture. And yet the bold forms of the piano seemed to echo the vibrancy that listeners heard in Stravinsky’s music, and so this portrait did something that standard portraits had rarely been able to do previously – it used the surrounding context not just to decorate the available white spaces but to actually inform and enrich the portrait.

Newman’s new approach was later called “environmental portraiture”, and on the centenary of the photographer’s birth, this survey-style show reprises some of the photographer’s best work. Starting with a series of variant contact sheet images from the Stravinsky session, it gathers together vintage prints of some of his most notable artist portraits, and then uses selections of earlier imagery to provide background context for the controlled sense of proportion and composition so consistently found in his aesthetic viewpoint.

Beginning in the early 1940s and continuing for the better part of the next five decades, Newman made pictures of many of the key artistic voices of the mid 20th century, and the majority of the pictures took place in the artists’ own studios and homes, where their personalities (and artistic quirks) were often reflected in their chosen surroundings. Marcel Duchamp is seen through a nest of strings, like the crackled glass of The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. Max Ernst hides behind a swirling puff of smoke. Willem de Kooning peeks out from a slice in a paint splattered plastic curtain. And Isamu Noguchi, Milton Avery, and Henry Moore alternately wrestle with the curves in their own works, their poses and positions settling into harmony with the nearby forms.

When Newman turned his camera on his fellow photographers, his compositional choices became more literal, as if matching up the artists with their signature styles. Aaron Siskind stands in front of a wall of peeling paint. Manuel Álvarez Bravo is enveloped in spooky tree shadows like extending claws. And Eikoh Hosoe is seen close up, the contortions of his face and gripping fingers filled with both psychological anguish and formal clarity.

A handful of Newman’s earlier works are sprinkled in among this parade of portraits, and their obvious interest in graphic shapes and found arrangements of line and pattern connect the dots between an initial exploration of the structure of composition and the ideas he would ultimately bring to his portraits. The bold cross of a round railroad sign is balanced by a circular shadow, a pair of studio light fixtures and the associated tripods and cables are transformed into a high contrast arrangement of circles, lines, and a dark rectangle, and two men painting a wall are flattened into squared off rectangles, with their ladders adding angled connections. And Newman’s understated playfulness comes through in a wire hanger and an ironing board turned into a surreal female silhouette, and a reflected self portrait seen atop a jumble of letters that spell ART. As evidence of Newman’s thinking process, it is clear that his later forays into portraiture were grounded in this exacting sense of photographic order.

Given the broad touring exhibitions and retrospectives that have traveled to museums across America (and elsewhere) celebrating Newman’s 50 (in the late 1980s), and then 60 (in the late 1990s), years in photography, this small but well-edited sampler will likely not be remembered as particularly important in the scholarship that surrounds his career. But as a succinct introduction to one of the critical photographic portraitists of the 20th century, it delivers plenty of pictures worth rediscovering.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced between $6000 and $38000. Newman’s portraits are consistently available in the secondary markets, with recent prices ranging between $2000 and $20000, with the vast majority (many of which have been later prints) finding buyers under $10000.

Read more about: Arnold Newman, Howard Greenberg Gallery, Radius Books

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