Saturday, August 09, 2008

of the refrain: modernism to the metronome

[“bertolt brecht” (1931) by ringl+pit, silver print]

installed by curator phil taylor, this summer offering by robert mann gallery examines formal repetitions (or “refrains”) and parallel motifs of photographers in the portraiture and commercial still life genres during the first half of the 20th century. exhibited as if they were notes on a musical score, the primarily modernist works by berenice abbott, ellen auerbach, ilse bing, carlotta corpron, hazel larsen archer, dora maar, barbara morgan, ringl+pit, and margaret watkins coalesce into an inspiring survey from a hectic and periclean age—and blur the lines between figuration and abstraction.

in its creative ingenuity and entrepreneurial acumen, work produced by the advertising studio of ringl+pit is representative of the exhibition. derived from their childhood nicknames, grete stern (ringl) and ellen auerbach (pit) chose the studio title to deliberately obscure what their own names revealed: their gender and jewish background—qualities they assumed would inhibit the success of their business. such portraits as those of bertolt brecht (1931), ringl with glasses (1929), and mrs. h (1934) exhibit this same playfulness. having met in 1929 while students of walter peterhans—the bauhaus school’s first photography professor—the work of stern and auerbach used humor and irony to subvert traditional images of women in mainstream advertising during a time of social liberation, expanding mass media, economic upheaval, and political change. (with the nazi takeover, ringl+pit closed and the two fled germany—ellen to new york and grete to buenos aires.)

the work of berenice abbott captured the players in this electrifying milieu. her portraits of jean cocteau (1927) and james joyce (1926) are emblematic of the modernist cauldron in which she found herself. sculptor thelma wood, painter marsden hartley, dancer harriet marsden, and an innovative litany including djuna barnes, aleister crowley, william plomer, paul bowles, aaron copland, christopher isherwood, stephen spender, w.h. auden, and beatrix and john lehman inhabited the terrain in which she lived and worked.

“self-portrait with record lying down” (1930) exhibits the amazing tenacity of work by man ray. a contributor (though informally) to both the dada and surrealist movements, we can see in his work exhibited in “of the refrain” a manifestation of his ultimate identity as a painter. advertising and portraiture would never be the same after him. like abbott, the realm of cultural ferment took its place in front of his camera. no less than the personages of james joyce, gertrude stein, jean cocteau, and antonin artaud sat before him.

dance is a recurring motif in “of the refrain” and pieces representing this medium by barbara morgan, lotte jacobi, ellen auerbach capture the revolution in movement. bodies in motion can be barely contained in the images of these “saboteurs.” we can feel the leaping and fragmentation. the little-known black mountain artist hazel larsen archer in her work “merce cunningham” (1948) gives us a portal to this innovation. in a similar vein, the music captured in their work is avant-garde, jagged, and edgy.

considering explosive milieu in which they worked—with booming intellectual productivity in the fields of writing, art, architecture, music, dance, drama, and the new medium of motion pictures—the confidence, tight framing, and precise compositions found in “of the refrain” invoke these currents. this installation at robert mann gallery captures the erasing of boundaries between studio and camera and the resultant opening to modernity’s convergent forces.

of the refrain
through august 22, 2008
robert mann gallery
210 11th avenue, nyc 10001

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