JTF (just the facts): A total of 57 black and white photographic works, variously framed and matted, and hung against light gray walls in the main gallery space and the book alcove. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, or collages/composites of gelatin silver prints, made between 1958 and 2007, with most of the prints vintage/early. Physical sizes range from roughly 4×4 to 13×18 inches (or reverse), and no edition information was provided. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: When the estate of an established artist moves its representation from one gallery to another, it is often the case that a set of fresh eyes and a renewed sense of energy get applied to the work. Usually, this takes the form of a deep dive into the artist’s storage boxes and archives, in search of both overlooked gems and rarities and new (and perhaps unexpected) perspectives. This exhaustive coming-up-to-speed process takes time, and then typically manifests itself as a show that introduces the artist to the gallery’s existing clients and places the work in the context of the gallery’s larger interests.
Howard Greenberg Gallery took over representation of the estate of Ray K. Metzker last year, and this sampler-style survey offers a first look at how they are positioning what they found. While the show jumps from decade to decade, spanning some fifty years of photographs, it is effectively divided into two broad themes – Metzker the street photographer and Metzker the innovative experimenter.
As seen here, Metzker’s street work can be organized by time and geography – Chicago in the late 1950s, Philadelphia in the 1960s, and various points elsewhere (including in Europe) mixing in and extending the ideas in alternate directions. Two adjacent walls in the show are filled with a lively syncopated arrangement of pictures, the small groupings and pairings jumping from one aesthetic idea to another. Blurred pedestrian silhouettes are followed by investigations of deep shadows, layered crowds, stark contrasts of black and white, found geometries of circles, parallel lines, and horizontals, dappling of light, insistent urban verticals, and lonely isolated pedestrians, each mini-motif explored in a few pictures. What this installation shows is that Metzker was really never a street photographer who was looking for the unexpected synchronicities and quirks to be found in a big city; instead, he was a diligent and meticulous craftsman, seeking arrangements and patterns in the play of light and surfaces, turning the city into a playground of formal abstraction.
Metzker’s boldly experimental side often took the subject matter of the street and extended it much further. His composites and double frame works explore repetition, iteration, and inversion, multiplying patterns out and juxtaposing imagery in ways that connect the inherent geometries. The few examples here turn a pile of contrasty paper prints into a dense jumble of overlapped angles and create a doubled reversal from street lamps and steep angled buildings. In works from the 1970s and 1980s, Metzker brought in a more expressionistic playfulness, building abstract grids from blurred contrasts and interrupting his own images, allowing the in front textures of fencing, strips of paper, and even leaves to smartly interact with the shapes behind. The most recent works in the show find Metzker turning to collage, where fragments of ripped prints are layered into elegantly jagged accumulations.
Since only a handful of the works included in this show rise to Metzker’s highest artistic standard, I think we can draw two interrelated conclusions. The best of the best, including his most mesmerizing and complex composites, may have long ago left the estate. But that absence creates an opportunity – it forces us to look more closely at some of Metzker’s secondary and lesser known works, and what this show finds is that Metzker’s talent was remarkably deep. Even images we don’t know or have never seen have the potential to surprise us with their aesthetic intelligence, and his pursuit of inventive, exploratory approaches seems to have been consistent and relentless. As the digging and synthesizing continues, I expect our understanding of that impressive depth will only get stronger.
Collector’s POV: The works in this show range in price from $7500 to $55000. Metzker’s work has only been intermittently available in the secondary markets in recent years, with recent prices ranging between roughly $3000 and $69000.