JTF (just the facts): A total of 15 black and white photographs and 11 drawings, framed in light wood and matted, and hung against blue and gray walls in the two room divided gallery space. All of Lee Friedlander’s photographs are gelatin silver prints, made between 1997 and 2004. Each is sized roughly 19×19 (on 24×20 paper) and is uneditioned. All of Pierre Bonnard’s drawings are pencil on paper (some mounted to board), made between 1907 and 1938 (many are undated). Physical sizes range from roughly 4×6 to 5×7 (or reverse), and all of the drawings are unique. A small catalog of the exhibition has been published by Steidl (here). (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: When we use the word “painterly” to describe a photograph, often what we are really alluding to is certain looseness of style, where expressive gestures dissolve into indistinct evocative blurs. Lee Friedlander’s landscapes are many things, but painterly is not one of them. They are intensely sharp and crisp, the kind of images that might cut your finger or scratch your face, his all-over thickets and brambles pushing out from the picture plane with intrusive aggression. Which begs the question – why a back-and-forth visual dialogue with the drawings of the Post-Impressionist painter Pierre Bonnard? There doesn’t seem to be any implied causality or influence between the two artists, nor do the pairings here offer the kind of perfect matchy-matchy echoes of form we often see in such duo exhibits.
The answer lies more in a commonality of mindset than in specific execution, although when we unpack the underlying thinking of the two, some surprising compositional similarities do crop up. In Bonnard’s case, his landscape sketches feel intensely action oriented, full of busting energy and vitality in the form of emphatic lines and quick squiggles – they bring both speed and pared down abstraction to the spatial relationships of the land. In these drawings, a forest of pines becomes a stand of emphatic striped verticals, while waves of underbrush are transformed into jagged seismographic undulations. In both scribbled backgrounds and looping tree forms, his recreations retain a sense of the original geometric structure, but reconsider the mode of representation. The translation process from memory to paper introduces simplifications and distortions, but the essence of the natural complexity is retained.
If we think of Friedlander’s use of a camera as a similar kind of intentional visual conversion, then the connections to Bonnard’s drawings start to make more sense. In these particular landscapes, Friedlander’s compositions are acutely linear, with branches, brambles, and whitened trunks becoming intersections, cross hatching, and wild abstract patterning. Explosions of lines create a disorienting sense of space, where the entire frame is dominated by surface and craggy bark and dry scrub slash across the picture plane with textural abandon. While the light and dark of direct sun and muted shadow play an important role in Friedlander’s compositions, in the end, these pictures are dominated by angles and bold marks derived from the streaks and striations of the desert vegetation.
So when seen in alternating rhythm, the two sets of works start to harmonize along the same pathways. To my eye, the key difference lies in spirit – Bonnard’s studies feel tossed off and casual, memories being reworked into brisk formal exercises, while Friedlander’s photographs exude a kind of pin prick precision, where mundane sections of land are being surgically cut into fragments of unexpected potency. If this is a mano-a-mano clash of the titans, Friedlander is clearly the victor, as his images extend the ideas Bonnard was playing with into far more systematically radical and innovative artistic terrain.
Perhaps the more important point here is to once again remind us of the genius to be found in Friedlander’s often overlooked and underappreciated landscapes – in such a long and prolific career, they tend to get mentioned in passing rather than celebrated as a key body of work. While this pairing is a bit of an intellectual stretch, it does successfully focus our attention on Friedlander’s compositional mastery. From some of the scruffiest terrain in the American West, he has carved photographs of sublime control and elegance, pictures brimming with a structural extravagance that would have made Bonnard smile.
Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. Lee Friedlander’s photographs are $15000 each, while Pierre Bonnard’s drawings range in price from $9000 to $13500. Friedlander’s work is routinely available in the secondary markets, with recent prices at auction ranging from roughly $2000 on the low end to as much as $80000 for his most iconic vintage prints. Earlier this year, a selection of Friedlander’s little screens (38 prints in all) sold for $850000.