Joel Meyerowitz, 50 Years of Photographs, Part II: 1976-2012 @Howard Greenberg

JTF (just the facts): A total of 43 color photographs, framed in white and variously matted/unmatted, and hung against light brown walls in the main gallery space, the book alcove, the back transition gallery, and the smaller side viewing room. All of the works are either chromogenic or archival pigment prints made between 1976 and 2011 (most are from the 70s and 1980s); the show includes a mix of vintage and modern prints. Physical sizes range from 8×10 to 51×40 (or reverse). No edition information was available for the vintage prints; edition sizes for the modern prints are variously 5, 10, 15, or 20. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: This second part of the Joel Meyerowitz gallery retrospective begins with the late 1970s period when color itself became the primary subject of the artist’s work. Looking back, we now think of this time as the innovative heyday of American color photography, and this selection of images makes a compelling case that Meyerowitz was right in the thick of things. As he slowly traded the streets of New York for the beach communities of Truro and Provincetown out on Cape Cod, his pictures settle down a bit, no longer chasing the chaos of a cinematic city scene; they move more deliberately, waiting for the right light conditions that would produce the color effects he was now interested in.

The last few New York images on display here all primarily play with color as a compositional tool. A glowing red neon sign is balanced by the green tinge of a New Jersey neighborhood street light. The sliver of the Empire State Building is offset by the rich afternoon light on an orange storefront, punctuated by a dancer in a bright green dress. A spinning lobby Christmas tree is transformed into a conical electric rainbow. And the soft pink of a bathtub becomes a study in color gradations and shadows.

Meyerowitz’ photographs from the Cape seem even slower, where the buzz of yellow neon reflects across a wood sided station wagon and car doors are aimlessly left open revealing saturated red warmth against the dark purple twilight. Dusk seems to have been his most productive time of day, when the changing tones of cotton candy pink, burnt orange, and periwinkle blue could be captured through the railing of a porch, over a swimming pool, near the light of a telephone booth, or simply at the beach looking out to sea. His daytime pictures of cottages are more formal, using the scallop of a roofline to decorate the disorienting view to the ocean through a rectangular hallway or interleaving the lattice pattern of a rose trellis with its own shadows in the punishing midday sun. A side room of beachgoers stand at attention near the water, prefiguring Rineke Dijkstra’s famous images but with a more casual, easygoing, summertime mood.

Aside from the shattered blue of an extra large Hockney-esque swimming pool pattern, most of Meyerowitz’ recent works are executed in a more subtle and subdued palette. The skulls and tin cups of Cezanne’s studio in Aix-en-Provence sink into tactile grey, a warehouse butchery in Tuscany wallows in muted reds and browns, and the twinkling light streaming through early morning cypresses washes everything to silhouetted black and white. The color is now soft, worn, and understated.

In general, as with the first part of the survey, I think this second part has been well chosen, mixing instantly recognizable photographs with lesser known rarities. While there are gaps in the story and the recent work is less memorable, the selections from the 1970s and 1980s certainly show Meyerowitz’ artistic progression and clarify his evolving approach to the medium. Across these two exhibits, we’ve been given a smart and thorough retrospective of Meyerowitz’ long career, with plenty of highlights to burnish his reputation.

Collector’s POV: The works in the show are priced between $10000 and $26000. Meyerowitz’ work is routinely available in the secondary markets, particularly prints of his 1970s images made in large editions (75 or even 100). Prices have typically ranged from $1000 to $14000, mostly on the lower end of that range.

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