Wholly Different Category

Robert Ryman Untitled [no. 25] 1960

The last (but not least) of the modernist strategies of motivation is non-composition. It is consciously used in opposition to the three other ones. I would divide it into six subcategories (though there might be more, unbeknownst to me). What they all have in common is a programmatic insistence on the non-agency of the artist: the work must be produced by means that do not rely on the artist’s subjectivity, and (this is what differentiates these strategies from Mondrian’s compositional strategy) this independence must be plainly visible to all—it must be part and parcel of the artwork itself. The least frequently summoned strategy is chance, perhaps because it bears some dangers. To be sure, chance undermines subjectivity, but it might also end up throwing out the baby—that is, the very possibility of painting—with the bathwater. The others are all indexical operations in which the painting (or sculpture) falls back onto itself: the grid, the collapse of image and field, the deductive structure, the monochrome, the process. In each of these indexical operations, there is a reduplication of one property of the painting or sculpture onto itself, and, to speak like Rodchenko and his friends, there is no “excess”: a modular grid retraces the proportions of the support it maps. The stripes of a Black Painting by Frank Stella, the “transfer” of a window frame by Ellsworth Kelly, the processual marks of a work by Robert Ryman fill up the canvas, as does the single color of a monochrome by Yves Klein. Some artists used several of these strategies simultaneously or successively (and these categories are themselves porous: a grid or a monochrome also represents a collapse of field and image; a monochrome is also a grid with only one square, etc.).” [Yve-Alain Bois on Modernist Composition]

Piet Mondrian Composition in Red Blue and Yellow 1937-42

the more closely the norms of a discipline become defined, the less freedom they are apt to permit in many directions. The essential norms or conventions of painting are at the same time the limiting conditions with which a picture must comply in order to be experienced as a picture. Modernism has found that these limits can be pushed back indefinitely — before a picture stops being a picture and turns into an arbitrary object; but it has also found that the further back these limits are pushed the more explicitly they have to be observed and indicated. The crisscrossing black lines and colored rectangles of a Mondrian painting seem hardly enough to make a picture out of, yet they impose the picture’s framing shape as a regulating norm with a new force and completeness by echoing that shape so closely. Far from incurring the danger of arbitrariness, Mondrian’s art proves, as time passes, almost too disciplined, almost too tradition- and convention-bound in certain respects; once we have gotten used to its utter abstractness, we realize that it is more conservative in its color, for instance, as well as in its subservience to the frame, than the last paintings of Monet. [Clement Greenberg on Modernist Painting]

Jackson Pollock Free Form 1946

In the United States, the phenomenon originated within the ranks of the Abstract Expressionists, usually praised (by Schapiro among others) for the high subjectivism of their art. Both Pollock’s allover drips and Newman’s use of bilateral symmetry and oversized canvases can be seen as assaults against composition (and would be interpreted as such by future generations of artists). Pollock’s and Newman’s rejection of the tasteful art of balance common to European post-Cubist art emerged in part from a highly competitive (and slightly nationalistic) atmosphere and a desire to “start everything anew.” It casts their art, in any case, in a wholly different category from that of other Abstract Expressionist artists (Ad Reinhardt excepted, if he is to be included in this movement, which I doubt very much). Pollock eliminated (at least partially) the bodily link that made of the brush the continuation of the hand and of the gesture the “handwriting” of the artist. He allowed gravity (that is, a process that was independent of his agency) to play a major role in the configuration of his skeins. As for Newman, he reinvented symmetry as a deductive structure (even though he would have rejected this con- cept), this time, however, not as a cipher of a “zero degree” of art but as the score of a beginning that must be endlessly enacted. Newman, in fact, reintroduced “man” into the equation—not the personality of the artist (he called that “folklore”), but the human being as the subject of perception who is given a “sense of place” in front of the canvas he or she beholds. [Yve-Alain Bois on Modernist Composition]

The Very Idea of Composition

Joan Mitchell Installation David Zwirner 2019

The very idea of composition is as beleaguered as the brushstroke. In a recent statement summarizing his career-long theorization of this subject, Yve-Alain Bois contrasted the fundamentally arbitrary gesture of the traditional composing author— “the expressionist route taken by Kandinsky”— with Mondrian’s rigorous approach to composition, where “a painting is understood as a highly balanced assembly of diverse elements unified through the action of an extremely complex system of thought.” It is, however, noncomposition, as Bois has shown, that is the defining rubric of modernism. Noncompositional responses to expressionist composition have played out in each generation over the twentieth century, generating modernism’s signal strategies: the grid, the monochrome, the allover, the indexical transfer, the deductive structure, and various chance procedures such as the abdication to nature or gravity in process art. [Mark Godfrey on composition in the work of Sillman, Von Heyl, Owens & Humphries]

Joan Mitchell Sunflowers 1990-91

“One could explain the current interest in Mitchell’s paintings by pointing to patterns of reception and certain theoretical conjunctures that her work suddenly fits into. Her early work, in particular, caters to the resurgent desire for painterly gestures and composition. Literature on her work has repeatedly pointed out that her early pictures aren’t Abstract Expressionist allover paintings but in fact retain the idea of compositions and figure-ground relations.
The clumps of paint placed centrally in her paintings of the 1960s might in fact be perceived as something rather figurative – because all the forces with the paintings drive toward these central clumps in a manner that could be described as centrifugal. Her paintings seem to become further animated by the density of the painting the variety of brushstrokes, the apparently calligraphic lines around them forming a kind of background. As described in a recent essay by Mark Godfrey in Artforum, this holding on to compositional devices sits well with the rehabilitation of composition in recent painting theory. Godfrey praises painters like Amy Sillman and Charline Von Heyl for painting in new and unforeseen ways, arguing that non-compositional procedures, such as aleatory procedures, have long been exhausted and overcome.” [Isabelle Graw on Painting in a Different Light]

Joan Mitchell Minnesota 1980

“…one could say that it is abstraction that, both retrospectively and programmatically, established modernism as a whole as an enterprise of motivation… liberated from the burden of representation, but also pondering their responsibility in front of the void that such a liberation had engendered, artists had to justify (for themselves and for their audience) what they were doing. They came up with four different models or strategies of motivation.
One possibility was to revert to the Romantic idea of the total freedom of the artist, the “arbitrariness of the poet that does not suffer any law” of the Athenaeum, which I just mentioned. This is the expressionist route taken by Kandinsky, among others: what I paint are the deepest folds of my very own soul, accessible to myself alone, if at all, of which I nevertheless claim to offer you a truthful portrait. Take it or leave it. This notion of the work of art as a seismograph of the artist’s psyche lies beyond all expressionist conceptions of art (it resurfaces from time to time and could be heard, barely altered, during Abstract Expressionism’s heyday). It is against this highly subjective solution that all other strategies of motivation began to develop almost simultaneously.” [Yves Alain Bois on Modernist composition]

Second Martini Euphoria

“Color-field reacted against the juicy, muscular styles of Willem de Kooning and his many followers, which Greenberg deemed spurious and passé. It won that scrap, in the court of uptown galleries, but soon succumbed to the juggernauts of Pop art and minimalism, which had behind them forces of more than rarefied aesthetic theory: by 1962, Andy Warhol’s silk-screened works equalled the formal strength of color-field and surpassed its éclat, with the added bonus of Marilyn Monroe. Greenberg’s dialectic made color-field sound formidable, but the art proved lightweight in practice, a genteel sort of taste—the visual equivalent of second-Martini euphoria. Still, some gifted artists espoused it, none better than Frankenthaler, its effective inventor, and Louis, its sternest reductionist.
…the “Veils,” which he painted between about 1954 and 1960: mostly large canvases that he tilted to soak with layered, broad runs of translucent acrylic, their downward course narrowing slightly from top to bottom. Like the man himself, by all accounts, the motif is clenched and taciturn, even glum, though given over to delectations of the eye in nearly infinitely variegated chords of color.
Despite the liberty implied in letting gravity make a picture, the “Veils” evince something like the steely control of scientific experimentation. The cumulative, blushing colors are kept within tight ranges of hue and saturation, and of warm and cool. There is a remarkable effect of liquid depths snugged up to dust-dry surfaces, as optical pushes and pulls attain an exquisite equilibrium.” [Peter Schjeldahl on Morris Louis]

“Might I suggest to Schjeldahl that in the future he should do his best to avoid the epithet “lightweight”? It so perfectly expresses the level of his thinking and perception. Note, for a start, the appeal to the concept of “formal strength” on the part of a critic who would never for a moment subscribe to any version of “formalism.” But what, then, does “formal strength” mean? Would Schjeldahl seriously suggest that a Warhol, any Warhol at all, could stand up to the test of being hung next to a first-rate Frankenthaler, Louis, Noland, Olitski, or Poons? And note, too, the continued hostility to Clement Greenberg, who died twenty years ago yet continues to haunt the diatribes of critics like Schjeldahl, who sense rightly that they would have been powerless to match their convictions about art with his during his lifetime—hence the posthumous revenge they never tire of taking against a caricature of his thought and writing.
…As it happens, Louis was one of the first new abstract painters who attracted my attention, to put it mildly, when I returned to New York after three years in England in the fall of 1962. In fact, Louis died of cancer roughly a week after my return; I had seen just a few paintings by him up to that point, and in the year that followed I saw more, but the great revelation as to the magnitude of his achievement came in September 1963, when an exhibition of seventeen paintings from various phases of his mature career, organized by Lawrence Alloway, opened at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. The exhibition was stunning; what I remember most vividly is the experience of discovering, in the lower room off the spiral (the Guggenheim’s holy of holies), a ravishing Unfurled, the first I had ever seen—a moment comparable to my first encounter with Anthony Caro’s Midday in his courtyard in the fall of 1961.” [Michael Fried on Peter Schjeldahl & Morris Louis]

This new language concerning the opticality of abstract painting related to several elements visible in the works, such as the use of colour, engagement with the scale of the work (as related to the optical ‘field’ of viewers’ own perceptions) and technique. Each of these material elements underwent investigation by Greenberg’s writing, and by the 1950s resulted in a particular set of criteria used to assess the quality of abstract painting. At this point, opticality came to be opposed to various ‘traditional’ notions of space, which Greenberg termed ‘sculptural’ or ‘tactile’. With this theory of opticality beginning to take shape, Greenberg was forced to reassess some of the ideas that he had previously upheld. Specifically, the issue of ‘gesture’ within the context of opticality needed to be reconsidered.
… Greenberg therefore began to widen his perception of ‘avant–garde’ art beyond the context of New York. As we have seen throughout this thesis, Greenberg’s turn against New York painting was spurred primarily by decline in the regard for opticality in the work of several major New York–based artists in the early 1950s. At this time, opticality became more crucially linked with the issue of ‘quality’ than ever before. As a result, Greenberg’s writing delved more deeply into confirming that the pursuit of ‘quality’ works of art were inextricably linked with artists’ pursuits of opticality. This meant that a definite disengagement with notions of expression and gesture, which had previously been highly regarded for opening the space of painting from traditional forms of representation, was required in order to assert the purity of abstraction. Greenberg’s refinement of opticality came through in his re–writing of essays during the period, most prominently, “‘American–Type” Painting’ (1955), which had indicated the historical context, and therefore importance, of the work of many of the abstract artists in New York. When he re– wrote “‘American–Type” Painting’ in 1958, Greenberg was evidently inspired to reconfirm some of the elements of optical painting, and in doing so opened the way for his discussion of alternative artists outside of the New York context, particularly artists such as Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland.” [Donna McColm on Morris Louis]

There is the Best Taste

Jackson Pollock Enchanted Forest 1947

Now, taste in the Western world has usually functioned in a pretty normal way, I would say. The resistance to modernist art that started with modernism, itself, was new — the conflict between the going, “cultivated” taste and this new art which happened to be the best art of its time — but taste itself operated in a normal, and I would say in an honest way. You could say that the people who resisted modernism didn’t try hard enough, as I think they didn’t. But in the end, after a generation or so, each phase of modernism in painting and sculpture and the other arts overcame, and somehow the resistance faded. But there was already present one fallacious habit — I can’t call it a fallacy — the business of rejecting a body of art in toto, instead of looking at the works one by one. There were classifications — this happened with the Impressionists and they were dismissed wholesale, at first, and then they became accepted, maybe wholesale. That “fallacy,” the business of approaching art generically or categorically, or classifitorily — that’s a bad word, but classification pertains today more than it ever did before. There’s a reason for it and there’s a history behind it and hardly anybody here is old enough to have witnessed that history in person. I don’t think enough people know that modernism as an idea, the whole notion of it, the notion of the avant-garde, of advanced art, really triumphed in a general way. in a wide way, only towards the end of the 1950’s and the beginning of the 60’s. And that had to do, in the first place, with Pollock’s consecration. Pollock really began to go over around 1960; his pictures really began to sell then. He was dead — had been dead for a half-decade by then — and that was a kind of turning point. Together with that came Barnett Newman’s almost apotheosis which took place ’59, ’60-’61. [Clement Greenberg on Taste]

Kenneth Noland Gift 1961-62

“What might the history of Gift tell us about Greenberg’s taste, and its impact on painting in the 1960s? What can the presence of works by Noland in the Vogue photo-spread on Greenberg’s apartment suggest about the relations between abstract painting and tasteful decoration in the 1960s? Although it is not clear when the work was received by Greenberg, its original title of Clement’s Gift conforms with those that Noland chose for several other works given to friends, including Tony’s Gift 1966, given to sculptor Anthony Caro, and Alkis’ Gift 1967, given to Alkis Klonaridis, the director of the Toronto-based David Mirvish Gallery that represented Noland. Noland’s titling convention not only indicates the status of these objects as an offering, but also subtly serves to flatter his ‘gifted’ recipients. Whether possessed by Clem, Tony or Alkis, it was the vision that these supporters demonstrated to Noland that his titles served to avow, a kind of testament to their superior taste. Noland understood such good taste to be central to understanding works of art. He later explained, ‘I think judgment’s crucial … and that has something to do with taste’, adding that, ‘Taste: we use it in the negative sense, but there is the best taste, you know. There’s the right taste. There’s the real taste.’ Noland’s awareness of the contested status of taste reflects the central position of the term in the reception of his art.” [Alex Taylor on Greenberg’s Taste]

Barnett Newman Stations of the Cross First Station 1958

Now Pollock was first greeted when he went “all-over” — when he began to drip and pour — by his fellow artists as well by the art public as breaking with art as it had been hitherto. His paintings were thought to be uncontrolled effusions which had nothing to do with painting as such, painting as a discipline; it wasn’t a question of liking or not liking them and, finally, his name hung on. He became notorious before he ever became famous, and in the end, there he was: Pollock was this big name, with this big — not myth, not legend, this big reputation. When Newman had his first two shows in ’50 and ’51 in New York I remember some of his fellow painters saying to me, didn’t I think that Newman was out to kill painting, that this was the death of painting, this was worse than Pollock? How could painting go on if Newman’s kind of painting stuck; if this was considered painting? Well, Newman didn’t show again for another eight years. He showed again in ’59 and for some reason, his success had already been prepared. His show made him a great name and he was taken for granted as a great painter. In fact, the school of Minimalism took off from his example, as some of the Minimalists, themselves, say. And what coincided with this was the collapse , the spring of ’62, of second generation Abstract Expressionism. It was as though overnight, between February and May ’62, it was wiped out; it was truly dramatic, and I don’t use the word dramatic lightly, and that, too, shook cultivated art opinion and for some reason the European, especially the French, equivalent of Abstract Expressionism, “l’art autre” or tachism collapsed at the same time — all in the early ’60’s. Now it’s true the first generation Abstract Expressionists, their reputations floated to the top in a short while, but in ’62 Pop Art became the reigning movement in this country, and the second American art tendency to make an impression in Europe. [Clement Greenberg on Taste]

Trampoline Into Spirituality

Brice Marden, Grove IV, 1976. Oil and wax on canvas, two panels, 72 x 108 inches (182.9 x 274.3 cm) overall
Brice Marden Grove IV 1976

“Although Marden’s paintings are non-objective, he often draws upon specific people, places, or other works of art as sources. Inspired by the austere palette of the Spanish masters Goya and Zurbarán, his early paintings achieve a brooding gravity through subtle, low-key color combinations. D’après la Marquise de la Solana is a response to Goya’s portrait of the Marquise, which Marden saw in the Louvre. His translation of the 18th-century figure into the language of reductivist abstraction is a potent distillation of the color, light, and mood in Goya’s original. Delicately worked panels of olive-taupe, gray, and peach succinctly paraphrase the Marquise’s elusive expression and dainty poise amid a grand romantic landscape.
An unparalleled sensitivity to color as an expressive means is a defining characteristic of Marden’s art. The five paintings in the Grove Group series, begun in 1973, were inspired by an olive grove on the Greek Island of Hydra, where the artist has spent time. Marden, who sees art as a “trampoline into spirituality,” refers to these as “high-intensity paintings,” intending his use of light and color to elicit an emotional response from the viewer. Color associations are usually detectable only through Marden’s evocative titles; the two-toned composition of Grove IV is a response to the shimmering shift in color from the dark tops to lighter bottoms of the windblown leaves of olive trees.” [Brice Marden @ the Guggy]

Brice Marden Grove Group II 1972-73

“Yet, as the “Grove Group” paintings attest, Mr. Marden kept painting alive by pitting “what you see” — the indisputable facts of the medium — against a host of poetic intangibles. His seemingly flat monochrome fields were constantly flipping open, yielding suggestions of light and space and moody atmosphere. His narrow panels could be read as distillations of the human figure, or even Greek columns, when vertical, and as distant horizons of land or sea when horizontal. Visually, his resolute surfaces could have the softness and delicacy of skin, and references to other art, to people and to places continually drifted through his titles. As Robert Pincus-Witten points out in the Gagosian catalogue, the artist was at once an incurable romantic and a dedicated classicist.” [Roberta Smith on Brice Marden’s Grove Group Paintings]

Brice Marden Grove Group I 1972-73

“Marden’s involvement in a separation of surface and support—in the course of clarifying the terms in which they’re interdependent—seems at first incompatible with Johns’ articulation of the painting as thing. Barnett Newman once wrote that: “[It] is only the pure idea that has meaning. Everything else has everything else.” If Johns has engineered a demystification of conventionality in which Newman’s ”pure idea“ is replaced with the notion of the ”specific object,” Marden’s subsequent development of that object is in a sense highly ambivalent about what Johns has done. His work engages one in a complication of the object’s—and therefore, the institution’s—morphology that reopens it to the possibility of self- or internal-contradiction, which is communicated through a surface that both informs and erodes one’s sense of its support.” [Jeremy Gilbert Rolfe on Brice Marden]

Brice Marden - Grove Group III, 1973 american search
Brice Marden Grove Group III 1973

“As would be expected from the current perception of Minimalism, the privileging of formalist values over those of interpretation is capital, taken for granted. Diane Waldman, for example, noted in the catalogue of her early survey for the Guggenheim Museum (1975), that Marden’s work “is often stimulated by a postcard, a person, even a situation, but the finished product bears only a remote associative relation to its inspiration.” My emphasis means only to underscore the reductivist bias of the day, one that willfully marginalized the role of associative value or imaginative power as spurs to abstraction. The Grove GroupNotebook now provides a text of spirited resistance to this valorizing of form over what condescendingly used to be referred to as “literary content.” Clearly, reductive biases favoring pure form marginalize the primacy of associative values.” [Robert Pincus Whitten on Brice Marden’s Grove Group]

Straightforward and Without Affectation

“Without denying the incisiveness of her portraits and the clarity of her scientific images, Miss Abbott’s major testament and achievement is her documentation of New York City, which for a time was funded by the Federal Art Project of the W.P.A. and which was published in book form in 1939 as ”Changing New York.” These pictures take inspiration from Atget’s comprehensive vision of Paris, but are compositionally of several sorts. Some are contorted, neck-bending views looking up at skyscrapers as if from the bottom of a canyon; others look down on city rooftops from privileged perches. Some are clearly Cubist-inspired, blending signs, streets and facades into a patchwork, flattened whole. The best, however, forsake Cubist foreshortening and bird’s-eye and worm’s-eye views; they are, like the photographer’s best portraits, head on, straightforward and without affectation.” [Andy Grundberg on Berenice Abbott]

Bernice Abbott Penn Station New York City 1937

“Abbott’s ideas about New York were highly influenced by Lewis Mumford’s historical writings from the early 1930s, which divided American history into a series of technological eras. Abbott, like Mumford, was particularly critical of America’s “paleotechnic era”, which, as he described it, emerged at end of the American Civil War, a development called by other historians the Second Industrial Revolution. Like Mumford, Abbott was hopeful that, through urban planning efforts (aided by her photographs), Americans would be able to wrest control of their cities from paleotechnic forces, and bring about what Mumford described as a more humane and human-scaled, “neotechnic era”. Abbott’s agreement with Mumford can be seen especially in the ways that she photographed buildings that had been constructed in the paleotechnic era—before the advent of urban planning. Most often, buildings from this era appear in Abbott’s photographs in compositions that made them look downright menacing.” [Berenice Abbott Wikipedia]

Berenice Abbott New York At Night 1932

Shortly before she took Nightview, Berenice vowed to “rip to pieces” any picture she caught herself making “arty.” She held that “subject matter creates form” but scorned random, meaningless photographs—of “some spit on the sidewalk”—just to “make a big design.” Her Nightview is utterly realistic in the documentary sense: its streets are mappable, its buildings anchored in time. Yet it remains her most sublimely expressive arty image, its luminous beauty offering a fairylike ethereality. She bristled at the notion of emotional photographs, but Nightview makes us feel what she saw.
Teaching this artistic paradox, the style now called documentary Modernism, Berenice required her technically capable students to summon “a creative emotion. Unless you see the subject first, you won’t be able to force the camera … to see the picture for you,” she wrote in 1941. “But if you have seen the picture with your flexible human vision, then you will be on the road to creating with the camera a vision equivalent to your own.” [Julia Van Haaften on Berenice Abbott]

Semaphoring Memory and Desire

Imogen Cunningham The Unmade Bed 1958

I started out as a magazine photographer. That is, my first break with the Vanity Fair in the 1930’s was taking any order I could get. And now, when People magazine called me, I did the job on Ansel. You knew that. I said to the editor, when he asked me if I would go down there (he didn’t expect me to, I think), “Why sure I will. And if I photograph Ansel, he’ll have to photograph me.” He said, “Could you arrange that?” And I said, “Well, I’m older than Ansel and he has to mind me.” He made it the most easy occasion I’ve ever had. If you ever knew what it’s like to have two boys waiting on you, and not interfering and not being in the way, and the gal that wrote it up never appearing when we were photographing. Always at the right time and not taking any notes, and never misquoting you. It was an extraordinary occasion. But let me tell you, they have not returned the negatives. Ansel wrote me about that. And I telephoned her. She was in New York. The gal that took my message telephoned her in New York and I haven’t heard yet. They have to dig them up. They have no right. They used to have that custom of hoarding them so that nobody else could then take advantage of them. You couldn’t take advantage of the use of them until they’d done their trip. That’s logical.” [Imogen Cunningham in conversation with Louise Katzman and Paul Karlstrom]

Imogen Cunningham False Hellebore 1927

“Her most famous images, close-up studies of plants and flowers taken in the 1920’s, combine modernism’s emphasis on detail and abstraction with essentially romantic subject matter. In a photograph of an agave plant from this period, for example, a delicately sinuous shoot emerges from the hoodlike frond that protects it. Photographed against a black background, the image is a striking study in abstract form, but at the same time pulses with vitality.
Many of Cunningham’s other plant studies are similarly allusive. In another photograph from the 1920’s, for example, the broad leaf of a water hyacinth extends toward the camera like a shiny tongue, and in a depiction of an aloe in a pot, the plant is seen in near-silhouette, with one spiky frond etched in light like a bejeweled point on a crown.” [Charles Hagen on Imogen Cunningham]

Imogen Cunningham Magnolia Blossom 1925

“Like many photographers at the turn of the 20th century, Cunningham was drawn to the blurry, romantic aesthetic called Pictorialism. A pioneer of photographic modernism in the 1920’s, she took the kind of spare, sharp-focus pictures favored by artists like Edward Weston. In the 1930’s she photographed Hollywood personalities for Vanity Fair and also became a documentary street photographer.
Among her masterworks are ”Magnolia Blossom” (1925), which closes in on the crystalline eroticism in a flower; ”Triangles” (1928), a minimalist nude study; and ”The Unmade Bed” (1957), its rumpled sheets and a few hairpins semaphoring memory and desire.” [Margarett Loke on Imogen Cunningham]

Quintessence of the Thing Itself

Edward Weston Shells 1927

“I worked all Sunday with shells,—literally all day. Only three negatives made and two of them were done as records of movements, to repeat again when I can find suitable backgrounds. I wore myself out trying every conceivable texture and tone for grounds: glass, tin, cardboard, —wool, velvet, even my rubber rain coat! I did not need to make these records for memory’s sake,—no, they are safely recorded there. I did wish to study the tin which was perfect with the lens open: but stopped down I could not see sufficiently to tell, but was positive the surface would come into focus and show a network of scratches: it did. My first photograph of the Chambered Nautilus done at Henry’s [Henrietta Shore, painter] was perfect all but the too black ground: yesterday the only available texture was white. Again I recorded to study at leisure the contrast. The feeling of course has been quite changed, — the luminosity of the shell seen against the black, gone: but the new negative has a delicate beauty of its own. I had heart failure several times yesterday when the shells, balanced together, slipped. I must buy a Nautilus for to break Henry’s would be tragic.” [Edward Weston Daybooks]

Edward Weston Knees 1927

“For what end is the camera best used? . . . The answer comes always more clearly after seeing a great work of the sculptor or painter . . . that the camera should be used for a recording of life, for rendering the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself, whether polished steel or palpitating flesh.
I see in my recent negatives . . . pleasant and beautiful abstractions, intellectual juggleries which presented no profound problem. But in the several new heads of Lupe, Galvan, and Tina I have caught fractions of seconds of emotional intensity which a worker in no other medium could have done as well … I shall let no chance pass to record interesting abstractions but I feel definite in my belief that the approach to photography —and its most difficult approach — is through realism.” [Edward Weston Daybooks March 10, 1924]

Edward Weston Pepper No. 30 1930

The glorious new pepper Sonya brought has kept me keyed up all week and caused me to expose eight negatives — I’m not satisfied yet! These eight were all from the same viewpoint; rare for me to go through this. I started out with an under exposure—by the time I had developed the light had failed, and though I tripled my time again I undertimed! Again I tried, desperately determined to get it because I could ill afford the time. Giving an exposure of 50 minutes at 5:00 o’clock I timed correctly but during exposure the fire siren shrieked and promptly the fire truck roared by followed by every car in town: the old porch wobbled, my wobbly old camera wobbled, the pepper shimmied, and I developed a moved negative….
But the pepper is well worth all the time, money, effort. If peppers would not wither, I certainly would not have attempted this one when so preoccupied. I must get this one today; it is beginning to show signs of strain and tonight should grace a salad. It has been suggested that I am a cannibal to eat my models after a master piece. But I rather like the idea that they become a part of me, enrich my blood as well as my vision. Last night we finished my now famous squash, and had several of my bananas in a salad. [Edward Weston Daybooks August 1, 1930]

Life and Reality Head On

Alfred Stieglitz The Steerage 1907

“As Agee writes: “Its [The Steerage] incisive realism and formal rigour defined it as something quite different from the prevailing pictorial photography, veiled in a romantic mist, in a faraway world, well exemplified by Steichen’s image The Flatiron, made just a few years earlier in 1904. This is not to say that one is better than the other; but rather that they are profoundly different.
When shown The Steerage, Picasso commented that the man who did it was working in the same spirit as he was. In this uncompromising group portrait of the poor, Stieglitz literally faced life and reality head on. It is a memorable image, all the more so when we come to understand that it is a photograph not of reaching the promised land, but of rejection and retreat, for these passengers are returning to Europe, having been turned back at Ellis Island, or for other unknown reasons.” [William Agee on Alfred Stieglitz]

Alfred Stieglitz Equivalents 1923

“The ”Equivalents” remain photography’s most radical demonstration of faith in the existence of a reality behind and beyond that offered by the world of appearances. They are intended to function evocatively, like music, and they express a desire to leave behind the physical world, a desire symbolized by the virtual absence of horizon and scale clues within the frame. Emotion resides solely in form, they assert, not in the specifics of time and place. (Unlike Moholy, Stieglitz felt that form was only a means to an end; his Modernism is predicated on a link between form and emotion.) Yet for all that they demonstrate about Stieglitz’s esthetic, the ”Equivalents” distort photography’s role. Like the single-color paintings of Malevich, the Russian Suprematist, they foreclose the future, their extreme abstraction posing a dead end rather than a solution. Instead of contributing to photography’s freedom of expression, they led to the hermetic excesses of mysticism-prone photographers like Minor White.” [Andy Grunberg on Alfred Stieglitz]

Alfred Stieglitz Spiritual America 1923

By 1917, Stieglitz’s thinking about photography had begun to shift. Whereas, at the turn of the century, the best method for proving the legitimacy of photography as a creative medium seemed to suggest appropriating the appearance of drawing, prints, or watercolor in finished photographic prints, such practices began to seem wrongheaded by the end of World War I. Transparency of means and respect for materials were primary tenets of modern art, which derived meaning from the ephemera of contemporary life. Photography was naturally suited to representing the fast-paced cacophony that increasingly defined modern life, and attempting to cloak the medium’s natural strengths by heavily manipulating the final print fell out of favor with Stieglitz and his associates. Stieglitz’s support for the photography of Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler crystallized the new approach to the medium, and the change could also be seen in his own photographs. [Lisa Hostetler on Alfred Stieglitz]

Pre-requisite of a Living Expression

Paul Strand Porch Shadows 1916

“The photographer’s problem is to see clearly the limitations and at the same time the potential qualities of his medium, for it is precisely here that honesty no less than intensity of vision is the pre-requisite of a living expression. The fullest realization of this is accomplished without tricks of process or manipulation, through the use of straight photographic methods.” – Paul Strand

Paul Strand Church Ranchos de Taos New Mexico 1931

“Few photographers have been so influential in the shaping of a country’s cultural identity than Strand. His “Wall Street, New York” (1915) prefigures years of American painting, from Edward Hopper to Rothko’s color field canvases. In a similar way, the typical local architecture in “White Fence, Port Kent, New York” (1916) feels authentically American. With little more than an urban architectural detail, Strand composed an image that influenced generations to come, including David Lynch in his first scene of Blue Velvet.” [Francesco Dama on Paul Strand]

Paul Strand Porch Railings Twin Lakes, Connecticut 1916

“At the behest of [Lewis] Hine he visited, in 1907, the nascent 291 Gallery, where avant-garde work by Matisse and Picasso rubbed shoulders with experimental photography. The gallery’s charismatic founder, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz (who, years later, would marry O’Keeffe), took an interest in the quiet young man and urged him to keep taking pictures. Strand’s photo of a snow-covered Central Park, caught in 1913–14, was an austere exercise in texture and silhouette, a solitary tobogganist disappearing into the distance. A justly famous photograph of Wall Street, from 1915, captured not the raw hustle of the city but the stark embrasures of the Morgan Bank, whose sinister geometry dwarfs the few scattered commuters beneath. Stieglitz’s 1917 description of Strand’s photography—“brutally direct. Devoid of all flim-flam; devoid of trickery and of any ‘ism’ ”—not only articulated what was brilliant about the young man’s work but helped to make his name. [Andrew Dickson on Paul Strand]