JTF (just the facts): A total of 73 black and white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against white walls in the divided North and South gallery spaces. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, made between 1920 and 1985. Most of the prints are vintage, and range in size from roughly 7×9 to 11×14 (or reverse). No edition information was available on the checklist. (Installation shots at right.)
Comments/Context: According to the press release, it’s been more than a decade since the last time Brett Weston had a show in New York. The various galleries that have represented the estate have been skimming the cream off the archives for years now, so perhaps it was once again time for a set of fresh eyes to scour the flat files and storage boxes in search of some overlooked or under appreciated treasures. The exhibit that has emerged from this process has the thematic scope of a retrospective but with the feel of something slightly more jumbled and eccentric, with both known and unknown examples from sixty years of picture making densely mixed together on the walls.
Given his famous father, and even though Brett was appropriately labeled a child prodigy (and if you don’t believe the label, search out the gnarled cypress trees made when he was 9 or the lily stalk from when he was 14, both on view here), I feel like Brett often gets taken for granted. Fairly or unfairly, his father’s shadow is extremely long, and especially when they shot the same subject matter, it’s nearly impossible to see Brett’s work without making mind’s eye comparisons to his father’s. Brett was more routinely fond of high contrast, deeper blacks, and all-over abstraction (using natural forms), but crisp formalism and superlative, sometimes astonishing craftsmanship are never far from view, regardless of the subject matter and even when he drifts a little too far toward derivative cliche. This show includes a little of everything: dunes, cacti, and California desert landscapes, New York bridges, buildings, storefronts and city streets from the 1940s, vegetal forms and specimen trees from various locales, and visual abstractions made from ice, mud, rock formations, water drops, and smeared paint. In Brett’s hands, climbing vines, air vents, hub caps, scrubby yucca, vertical poplars, and a black window, they all become bold sculptural motifs, and he had strong eye for compositions that were simultaneously pared down and complex.
Regular readers here will know I’m a lover of strict chronology, since I think it helps clarify how an artist has changed over time, so few will be surprised that I found the subject matter groupings here less effective in terms of showing Brett’s overall aesthetic evolution. Many of his images also have the emotional volume turned up a notch or two via extended contrast, so they feel a bit cramped and manic when hung so close together as they are here. I’m guessing that this a result of wanting to unearth as many gems as possible, at the expense of giving the photographs more competition from their neighbors and a little less room to breathe.
In general, while this show doesn’t teach us anything particularly new about the career of Brett Weston, I certainly enjoyed seeing such a robust sampler of his vintage work. Fans of 20th century Modernism and black and white excellence will find much to admire.
Collector’s POV: The prints in the show are priced between $4000 and $20000, with most under $10000. Brett Weston’s prints are routinely available in the secondary markets. Recent prices have ranged between $1000 and $66000, with the vast majority finding buyers under $10000.