City of Abstractions: Brett Weston in New York, 1944-45 @1285 Avenue of the Americas Gallery

JTF (just the facts): A total of 87 black and white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against beige sackcloth walls in a series of 10 divided spaces on alternate sides of the main building lobby. All of the works are vintage gelatin silver prints (85 by Brett Weston and 2 by Edward Weston), made between 1932 and 1973, with the vast majority made in 1944 or 1945. Physical sizes range from roughly 8×10 to 16×20 (or reverse); no edition information was available. The prints are on loan from the collection of the ICP, in cooperation with the Brett Weston Archive. (There was no photography allowed in the gallery areas and building representatives were unwilling to provide installation shots for review purposes. The obstructed but representative images below were taken from outside the windows of the building, which the security guards didn’t seem to like but were unable to reasonably prevent.)

Comments/Context: During World War II, Brett Weston was stationed in Astoria, Queens, as part of the Army Pictorial Unit in the Signal Corps, and made over 300 images in and around the city with his cumbersome 8×10 camera. These pictures were edited down to a portfolio of 12 photographs in 1951, and for many like myself, this small sampler (and a softcover portfolio catalog published by Lodima Press much later) was all the artistic evidence ever seen from this short East Coast sojourn of a California modernist. This show, while displayed in the odd confines of a midtown skyscraper lobby, offers a much broader selection of Weston’s works from 1944 and 1945, opening up some surprising ideas about how the streets of New York contributed to the evolution of his eye.

If we look back at Brett Weston’s photographs from his child prodigy days all the way through the end of the 1930s, nearly all of them are formal object studies: there are spare portraits, up close images of floral and plant specimens, a broken window, and a few nudes. Even when they took in the sweep of dunes, the panorama of the San Francisco Bay, or the overlapped planes of Mexican tin roofs, Weston’s early compositions were remarkably pared down. But the chaotic jumble of New York doesn’t lend itself well to this kind of visual isolation and it’s clear that when he came here, Weston was forced to adapt his approach to shapes and forms in situ, to see abstract geometries in relation to one another in a flattened plane rather than set apart.

This exhibit is generally organized in clumps of like subject matter, showing multiple examples of how Weston handled front stoop architecture, iron grates and grillwork, or rectilinear window forms. These city details have been documented by countless photographers, but what makes Weston’s images different is their extreme precision, a crispness of framing and tonality (especially rich blacks) that seems to make the subjects pop with extra clarity and power. While Weston was able to isolate a few zigzagged fire escapes and architectural motifs, for the most part, he was forced to step back and construct images that played with layered context: ivy on a building wall, skylights and vents amid rooftop angles, storefront windows flanked by door frames and trash cans. His bridges are dark silhouettes of pillars and girders, his lonely city trees becoming gestural lines, fighting for the light in urban canyons. It’s as if he saw the city as an abstract palette of textures and patterns, ready to be organized into clean juxtapositions.

Aside from a few studies in the reflective surfaces of glass and steel towers in the 1960s and 1970s, Weston never really returns to urban subject matter in the rest of his career; landscapes, nature studies, and images from his travels dominate his later work. Seeing a larger sample of his New York work left me with a feeling of the city testing him, pushing him to expand his artistic approach to handle its complexities. It’s like watching a well matched bullfight, with the matador trying to control an unruly and uncooperative beast. Weston finds a way to make his own imprint on this great city, but he’s forced to experiment and adapt, and those small shifts in visual thinking inhabit his work going forward.

Collector’s POV: Since the prints on view come from a museum collection, there are of course no posted prices. Brett Weston’s estate is represented in New York by Steven Kasher Gallery (here). His prints are routinely available in the secondary markets, with plenty of works available in every season and geography. Recent prices have ranged between $1000 and $66000, with the most finding buyers under $10000.

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One comment

  1. Pete /

    I’m sure his dad would have enjoyed the description “It’s like watching a well matched bullfight, with the matador trying to control an unruly and uncooperative beast.”

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