Hidden Likeness: Photographer Emmet Gowin @Morgan Library & Museum

JTF (just the facts): A total of 58 black and white and color photographs, variously framed and matted, and hung against tan walls in a large gallery space with multiple dividers and vitrines. Gowin’s works were made between 1965 and 2012, and employ a variety of photographic printing processes: gelatin silver (sometimes gold toned), salt (sometimes gold toned), gum bichromate, and archival digital inkjet. A specimen case of moths, a selection of postage stamps, and a book bound in frog skins (all owned by Gowin) are also on display.

The show additionally includes 49 other artworks, photographs, books, manuscripts, musical scores, and other items, by various makers and from various time periods, all drawn from the Morgan’s permanent collection and selected by Gowin. The photographers included are Frank Rinehart, Peter Hujar, Charles Jones, and Anonymous (a selection of snapshots). Images from cylinders and clay tablets from Syria, Mesopotamia, and Persia, drawings from the French (16th century) and German (15th century) schools, a Coptic papyrus, and pages from the Herpin Manuscript and the Bible of Jean de Sy are also on view. The diverse group of named artists includes:

  • Johann Sebastian Bach
  • After Fanlo Beatus
  • Ludwig van Beethoven
  • Simon Bening
  • William Blake
  • James Bolton
  • Sandro Botticelli
  • Robert Boyvin
  • Domenico Campagnola
  • Charles Darwin
  • Edgar Degas
  • Gustave Doré
  • Lyonel Feininger
  • Paul Gauguin
  • Don Silvestro dei Gherarducci
  • Hendrik Goltzuis
  • Hendrick Goudt
  • Johann Hartlieb
  • Attributed to Johanna Helena Heroldt
  • Mir Kalan Khan
  • Claude Lorrian
  • After Andrea Mantegna
  • Luc Olivier Merson
  • Piet Mondrian
  • Lelio Orsi
  • Samuel Palmer
  • Follower of Pietro Perugino
  • Giovanni Battista Piazzetta
  • Gaetano Piccini
  • Giovanni Battista Piranesi
  • Francesco Raibolini (Francia)
  • Marcantonio Raimondi
  • Odilon Redon
  • John Ruskin
  • Luigi Schiavonetti
  • Hercules Seghers (etchings)
  • Bernhard Strigel
  • Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn
  • Antoine Watteau
  • Circle of Taddeo Zuccaro

A small catalog of the show is available from the museum for $14.95. (Installation shots below, courtesy The Morgan Library & Museum. Photography by Graham S. Haber, 2015.)

Comments/Context: Emmet Gowin’s new exhibition at the Morgan Library is a broad career retrospective, but in hiding. Using five decades of the photographer’s work as a kind of visual scaffolding, it leverages connections, pairings, and echoes with works from the museum’s permanent collection to investigate the diverse pathways of his artistic thinking. Muses and long time influences mix with found resemblances and after-the-fact relationships, extending the possible interpretations of what Gowin was thinking or doing when he was behind the camera. Getting inside Gowin’s head and following his lead pushes the analysis of his art out from the strict confines of the photography bubble, and forces us to see the wider patterns and precedents in his subject matter choices, compositional styles, and thematic investigations.

While the exhibit doesn’t follow an obvious chronological progression, it’s certainly possible to identify the major bodies of work from Gowin’s long career and to trace the interactions and inspirations with which he has surrounded them here. His late 1960s and 1970s images of his extended family in Danville, Virginia, provide plenty of storytelling connections, where gestures, bodies, and symbols tie local everyday life to similar (some might say universal) moments across the ages. A shadowy image of his wife Edith holding Elijah upside down is matched with a Rembrandt ink study of a woman carrying a child, while the splayed limbs of Nancy and Dwayne wrestling in the freshly mown grass are reminiscent of Andrea Mantegna’s falling St. Christopher. A backyard family tableaux with a split watermelon is tied to Merson’s chalk rendering of the biblical flight into Egypt. Even the naked kids in plastic pool can take on a deeper resonance, especially when paired with Gustave Doré’s watercolor of Moses in his floating basket.

Edith has long been Gowin’s main artistic muse, and a selection of pensive portraits made in four different decades provides a spectrum of tender examples of their collaboration. Flanked by the delicacy of Watteau, the muscular strength of Gauguin, the sculptural sturdiness of Goltzius, and the grace of Degas, we see new facets of Edith emerge from his photographs, as though these characteristics of her personality were waiting to be quietly unlocked. An ancient Syrian fertility scene with a woman drawing aside her dress informs his famous image of Edith squatting with a different femininity than I had seen before. And a double exposure nude of Edith with gourds and a compost pile seems a perfect match for Taddeo Zuccaro’s allegorical figure of Abundance, as if Gowin’s photograph had been orchestrated to evoke the same elemental quality of lush natural richness.

Gowin’s aerial landscapes and images of ancient ruins from the 1980s feel freighted with similar figurative lessons when seen with his choices from the Morgan collection. The duality of ugliness and necessity of his swirling copper mine tailings is a direct echo of William Blake’s wrestling good and evil illustrations from the Book of Job, while his density of ruined buildings from Matera in Italy harkens back to Domenico Campagnola’s fallen rubble ink illustration from the 1500s. Irrigation pivots, aeration ponds, clear cut forests, cratered nuclear test sites, endless tire tracks, they all seem to turn back to the apocalyptic view of Golgotha before the Crucifixion from the Herpin Manuscript c1490. They seem to say that when nature is pushed out of balance, the very root of a moral existence is being challenged as well.

Gowin’s more recent works tend toward the scientific and the typological, gathering Amazonian moth specimens into colorful grids and getting in closer toward massive leaves and illuminated insect movements. While a circular halo of moth trails resembles an 18th century metalwork design by Gaetano Piccini, Gowin seems to be more consistently interested in connections to the squared off geometries of ancient manuscripts, using the flourishing beauty of musical scores by Bach and Beethoven and the handcolored diagrams of palmistry as foils for his own naturalist arrangements of postage stamps and insect stains. He seems intent on finding the hidden order in nature, or at least discovering the formal beauty of organizational structures beyond our comprehension.

What emerges from these many thoughtful pairings is a view of Gowin as more mystical and spiritual than perhaps his photographs had implied on their own, his pictures becoming an insightful visual conversation between that artistic worldview and the reality of what was around him. While it is unfair to attribute too much previous photographic intent to Gowin’s recent selections from the collection, especially when the perfect matches are so singular in some cases, there is still a sense that these artistic reference points fill in some of the gaps in our understanding of Gowin’s own story. By seeing some of the works he seems to have had an innate affinity for, his related photographs are somehow unlocked, as if with the benefit of this new revelatory context, they have been opened up anew. So while a normal retrospective often edits an artist’s career down to his or her best, most influential, or most innovative works, this exhibit takes an alternate route. It takes that career as a set of signposts describing the essence of Gowin’s artistic urges, and then uses the complementary works to flesh out the nuances of those larger ideas. Instead of being critically reductive, the show is instead expansive and explanatory, an eclectic portrait of an active and curious artistic mind rather than a mere catalog of his notable output.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are of course no posted prices. Emmet Gowin is represented by Pace/MacGill Gallery in New York (here). Gowin’s work is only intermittently available in the secondary markets, with just a handful of prints coming up for sale in any given year. Recent prices for single images have ranged from roughly $1000 to $10000, with portfolios and multi-print sets reaching $40000.

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