Berenice Abbott, Inside the Archive @Commerce Graphics

JTF (just the facts): A total of 97 black and white images, variously framed and matted, and densely hung throughout the main gallery area, the offices, and the entrance hallway, winding around and covering virtually every available wall space. The images themselves were made between 1925 and 1967 (most are from the 1930s), and the prints on display are a mixture of vintage and later prints, including some bigger enlargements. Sizes range from 4×3 to 40×30, with most being 10×8 or reverse. While many of the works are matted, a small group of exhibition prints mounted on masonite (with beveled edges) are also on display. Two glass cases house a variety of letters, technical notes and other ephemera, including rejection letters from the Vanderbilts and Astors for her Changing New York project. Her camera is also on display. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: When an exhibition is titled “Inside the Archive”, I think it sets the expectation that the images on view will be a collection of rarities and variants, lesser known images and forgotten gems that will help fill in the background to the more prominent and likely already agreed upon narrative. This exhibit of materials from the Berenice Abbott archive is a chaotic mix of old and new, and while there are some unexpected items to see, overall, I think the show misses the chance to really dive into the depths of the secondary and tertiary imagery and expand the scholarship on her artistic process and point of view.
The show bounces around all of her most notable projects, from early Paris portraits and iconic New York scenes, to mid 1950s America and her later scientific work. Unfortunately, the exhibit lacks a coherent organizational thread – works from various time periods and projects (as well as printing sizes/styles) are often jumbled together, so that it is difficult to draw conclusions about how these particular prints add to what it is already known about Abbott. Smaller, tighter niche exhibits of archival material from any one of her projects could fill the available space and tell us something new about that particular subject and body of work; perhaps this exhibit is just trying to do too much.
This is not to say that there aren’t amazing works to be seen and savored. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing some of the 1940s and 1950s exhibition prints of her famous New York images, which were displayed on intimate-sized masonite boards; they are significantly warmer than standard prints of these negatives, with a strong sepia tone. I also liked seeing the 1940s industrial prints of smoke stacks and oil refineries, as well as some excellent scientific views that I hadn’t seen before. Abbott’s 1950s work seems to be the most in need of a defining exhibit – a selection of images from her road trips across America are on display, but I lacked the context to try to draw deeper conclusions about their overall importance.
In general, I think this show will appeal most to die hard Abbott fans (like us) who are willing to sift through the dense walls to find some of the spectacular gems tucked in the corners. In some sense, this exhibit is a mini-retrospective (given its broad coverage of her work), but in the end, even though the prints themselves might have surprising stories to tell, the exhibit lacks the structure and editing required to successfully bring forth the new ideas that may be hiding near the surface.
Collector’s POV: As is perhaps obvious, Abbott’s estate is represented by Commerce Graphics. Prices in this show range from $6000 to $38000. Her work is nearly ubiquitous at auction, with dozens of prints (a mix of vintage and later) coming up for sale in any given year. Prices have typically ranged from as low as $1000 to approximately $35000, with the majority still under $5000.
Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)
Transit Hub:
  • DLK COLLECTION review of 2 volume Berenice Abbott Steidl edition (here)
Berenice Abbott, Inside the Archive
Through May 28th
506 East 74th Street
New York, NY 10021

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