JTF (just the facts): A total of 41 color photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space, the smaller back room, the entry/reception area, and the front window. With the exception of 1 gelatin silver print, all of the works are chromogenic prints, made in 2016. The prints are generally available in three sizes (or reverse): 9×12 (in editions of 15), 24×30 (in editions of 10), and 50×60 (in editions of 5). The exceptions to these general rules are the gelatin silver print, which is sized 11×14 (in an edition of 3), and the large print in the front window, which is sized 60×120 (in an edition of 3). A monograph of this body of work was recently published by Steidl (here). (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: When a famous person uses an everyday object, it seems to acquire a special glow that attracts us normal folk. It’s as if the very process of touching, or wearing, or treasuring a certain thing infuses it with the personal essence of its owner, so much so that we can later look at that very same object (however humble) and feel a sense of resonant personal connection. Even across broad spans of distance, time, and the more final boundary of death, these objects become richly symbolic of our most revered celebrities, as if these everyday things continue to be inhabited by the spirits of those long departed.
Photographic history is littered with still life images of these kinds of special objects. Perhaps the most famous picture in this genre is André Kertész’ image of Piet Mondrian’s eyeglasses and pipe, but the isolation of personal effects of artists, musicians, writers, and other celebrities remains a popular approach even today – both Patti Smith and Sally Mann have spent time considering the objects of their artistic heroes in the last year or two, finding solace and inspiration in things once owned by Frida Kahlo, Virginia Woolf, Albert Einstein, and Cy Twombly (among others). For the most part, photographers have attempted to both capture the fleeting spiritual essence of the previous owner and to use the objects as a jumping off point for further investigation of why the objects have particular significance for them. In many cases, what we see is one artist’s impression of another, the aesthetic filtering just as important as the original item itself.
Henry Leutwyler’s approach to these kinds of iconic talismans is a bit more arm’s length, more deadpan and encyclopedic than intensely intimate. This show fills the galleries with objects set against blank white or black backgrounds, the shadows cast by the lights the only variation from commercial-style product perfection. Each image encountered along the walls seems to ask the same question – inhabited or inert? Do we feel something in John Lennon’s round glasses, James Dean’s hotel room key, or Michelangelo Antonioni’s tattered director’s chair, or do they evoke no particular emotion? Are they amazingly special or shoulder-shruggingly ordinary? And of course, with a long parade of objects like this one, the answers will be different for each viewer.
In Leutwyler’s pictures, the grubby patina of age and wear seems to be the most reliable indicator to whether or not that I might respond to the object in question – a comfortable worn-in feeling equating with a kind of increased authenticity, at least in my own head, with objects closer to mint condition somehow less filled with special magic. So it was Gene Kelly’s worn Converse sneakers, Michael Jackson’s sequined shoe (with his name written on the bottom), Marilyn Monroe’s grimy traveling trunks, and Gandhi’s sweaty sandals that felt most infused with tactile personality to me, while Elvis Presley’s plastic comb, Donald Judd’s credit cards, Prince’s “symbol” guitar, and Audrey Hepburn’s typewriter seemed more anonymous.
When seen together, Leutwyler’s images start to form a taxonomy of sorts, a catalogue of signature fragments that are each used to represent the whole. Chaplin’s cane, Warhol’s paintbrush, Ali’s boxing shoe, and Hendrix’ Fender Mustang guitar are all stand-ins, tools that were used to take risks and now evoke hints of that durable greatness.
In the end, Leutwyler’s visual successes are inextricably tied to our own memories. If seeing Michael Jackson moonwalk to “Billie Jean” in 1983 is permanently seared into your brain, then Leutwyler’s “portrait” of the singer’s iconic sequined glove will likely represent a welcome chance to celebrate both the King of Pop and a touchpoint in your own history. Each object depicted here kicks off a wave of thoughts and reminisces, mixing an easy going form of indirect hero worship with warm nostalgia.
Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The 9×12 prints are $1800 each, the 24×30 prints are $3200 each, and the 50×60 prints are $6200 each. The gelatin silver print is priced at $15000 each (the proceeds of which are being donated to charity), and the larger 60×120 print is priced at $12000 each. Leutwyler’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.