Brancusi: The Photographer @Kasmin

JTF (just the facts): A total of 20 black and white photographs, variously framed and matted, and hung against white walls in the two room gallery space. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, made between c1909 and 1943. Physical sizes range from roughly 4×3 to 15×19 inches, and no edition information was provided. (Installation shots below.)

A concurrent exhibition of Brancusi’s floral photographs is on view at Bruce Silverstein Gallery (here).

Comments/Context: While it is dangerous to make broad generalizations, it seems clear from a review of recent auction records that over the past decade, the interest in the photographs of Constantin Brancusi has continued to steadily rise, as have the prices for those photographs. Of the possible reasons for this distinct upward trajectory, two seem most plausible, and are likely interrelated. First, Brancusi’s better known sculptures have become so scarce and so expensive that many collectors and museums have decided that a photograph of a Brancusi sculpture isn’t a terrible substitute for (or supporting relative of) the real thing. And second, as the years pass, Brancusi’s photographs of his studio and his sculptures have proven to be more nuanced and interpretive than we might have expected, in many cases, moving quite an aesthetic distance beyond straight documentation, so their place as artworks in their own right has solidified. Over time, the two forces are working together to push up demand.

This show is a well built survey of Brancusi’s photographic efforts, not unlike a similar show on view at Bruce Silverstein Gallery in 2012 (reviewed here). Given the relative rarity and undersupply of these Brancusi photographs, any gathering of so many examples is certainly to be admired. But in a sense, not much has changed since we last checked in on Brancusi’s efforts with a camera, except of course, the changing evolving dynamics surrounding the pictures, and this exhibit doesn’t meaningfully attempt to alter what we already know.

Brancusi’s earliest photographs are essentially straightforward documents, almost like inventory images of the completed sculptures. Single works are isolated against uniform black backdrops, and the images are tightly cropped, creating nearly full frame views of his forms.

But by the early 1920s, Brancusi had started to get a bit more creative with his photographs. A friendship with Man Ray helped him gain confidence with the technical aspects of the medium, but it’s evident from the images that he started to see photography as a separate way to interpret (or reinterpret) the sculptures. He starts to use cast light to add vitality to his stone works (and their rough pedestals), the highlights and shadows changing the smooth supple surfaces and the visual proportions. He applied the same ideas to his shiny brass pieces, the light generating bright flares, pinpricks, sparkles, and even distorted reflections (one image of The Fish is effectively an elongated self-portrait of the artist and camera reflected in the metal). He explored double exposures, adding jittery, almost walking movement to static wood sculptures. And when he went to see his Endless Column installed outside, he looked up at it from a steep underneath Rodchenko-like angle, shortening the stretched tower into a tighter collapsed ziggurat set against the cloudy sky above. In each case, it’s as if he’s looking at his own creations with new eyes, re-envisioning the optics of their three dimensionality.

Brancusi’s images of his studio go through a similar progression of awakening. The early images use the studio as a backdrop for single work compositions, almost as an afterthought – it was likely just too much trouble to move the interrupting stuff out of the way. But he quickly seems to have grasped that there were layers of volumetric juxtapositions all over his jumbled workspace, with densities of in front and behind enlivened by the light coming from the skylights and semi-transparent windows. The best of his studio views interpret the entire space as if it was one unified composition, the alignment and proportions of the forms placed in balance and opposition, a single work no longer seen alone but in a much larger and more uneven context of textures, surfaces, light conditions, and other bold forms.

Suddenly the weighty permanence of his sculptures was given a sense of fleeting ephemerality – a movement here or there, a rotation, or a change in lighting conditions, and the relationships of the positive and negative space would change. And so his studio became a playground of endless formal realignment. Not every one of Brancusi’s studio photographs finds an electric point of synergy or harmony (some are indeed bland or forgettable), but many exhibit a bit of charge, confirming that his eye was busy attempting to work through the exercise of artistic problem solving constantly posed by his surroundings.

While Alexander Calder used motion as an activator of his mobiles, Brancusi used light, and the related optics of camera-based seeing, to activate his works. Both give sculpture a feeling of temporary change, the lasting givens of form and volume made engagingly transient.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced between $125000 and $400000. Over the past decade, Brancusi’s photographic work has been increasingly available in the secondary markets. Recent prices at auction have ranged between roughly $15000 and $200000.

Constantin Brancusi, Paul Kasmin Gallery

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