Aaron Siskind: Six Decades

at Ehlers Caudill Gallery, through January 4

Deadpan, or the Holy Toast:

Digital Images by Paul Hertz

at Artemisia, through December 28

By Fred Camper

Most museums have an Aaron Siskind photograph in their galleries–and almost inevitably it’s one of his “signature” works, a close-up of some surface covered with cracks or specks or graffiti. But a wonderful exhibit of 31 Siskind photographs from the 30s to the 80s at Ehlers Caudill shows how inadequate most permanent collections are. What may seem to the casual visitor nice formalist studies of walls–lesser photographic versions of paintings by the abstract expressionists who were Siskind’s friends–are here revealed to be not quite as free of content or as socially disengaged as they first appear.

Born in New York City in 1903, Siskind taught English in the New York public schools from 1926 to 1947. He began photographing, he said in an interview, “as an accident. Someone gave me a little camera.” A socialist interested in social documentation, he soon connected with the leftist Film and Photo League, a loosely knit group concerned with documenting the Depression; eventually Siskind “organized a thing called the Feature Group,” himself and several other photographers who worked together. Six untitled photos from their largest project, “The Harlem Document,” begin this show.

These are characterized by an interest in ennobling African-Americans, a common goal among 30s photographers who depicted the disempowered. It’s a project that may seem a bit dated, perhaps a bit condescending, today. But one element of those works has persisted in Siskind’s later photographs: he organizes the composition around a single figure, intensifying one’s perception. An image from 1937 shows a man in an open window at the center; a sign under the window reads Home Cooked Meals. Though the rectangles of window and sign echo the photo’s shape, what really commands attention is the man’s pose: caught with one hand on the sill, the other holding a pie in the air, he cuts a dynamic, dramatic figure. In a 1940 image of a well-dressed woman in an armchair, the conical shape of an elaborate lamp leads the eye down toward her; again her pose captures one’s attention with its surprising mix, her face blending pride and exhaustion in a way unlike anything I’ve seen before.

Siskind was photographing architecture as early as the mid-30s, but he dates the “great change” in his work to images he made on Martha’s Vineyard in 1943. Here he began making the close views of objects and surfaces (“I didn’t know why I was doing them,” he said) that he would continue for most of his life. He later reflected that, though he was searching for meaning in his earlier photographs, “I was beginning to feel that I wasn’t getting it,” in part because the photos themselves were “very formal.” In 1945, in an essay called “The Drama of Objects,” he wrote that “subject matter, as such, had ceased to be of primary importance.”

The photos in Siskind’s signature style do look like formalist art, concerned with lines, surfaces, and relations. Chicago (1952) shows three broad, white brush strokes on a dark surface; curving slightly, they diverge at the top and collide at the bottom. The contrast between them and the textured surface intensifies the effect of the lines’ convergence; the small bare areas the brush missed suggest rapid movement. There’s a dynamic intensity, even drama, as the lines seem to fuse to make a new form.

In this and other photos Siskind places self-contained shapes near the center, but in another group the shapes extend beyond the picture’s borders. The mottled surface of Kentucky 15 (1951) reveals specks and thin black lines; of several thicker lines snaking their way across it, one occupies most of the center and loops back on itself. Each time one of these curves bumps up against another or leaves the picture frame, it somehow seems an event challenging the flow, making one appreciate the uninterrupted curves even more. My response was powerful enough that I started thinking of the line as a metaphor for life’s limitations: every experience can be likened to a dance that, however perfect and continuous it might seem, is ultimately circumscribed by space and time. One’s knowledge of those limitations, of the inevitable interruption, heightens appreciation of the dance while it lasts.

Siskind wrote that these works “are informed with animism….

They suggest the energy we usually associate with [the animal world].” And the complex and vivid patterns he discovers and frames, with their congealing shapes and colliding lines, certainly have a vitality that makes that connection seem plausible. I also saw human figures, natural forms, ideograms.

But though Siskind implies that subject matter was no longer important to him, all these pictures have a recognizable ambience. These are not the whitewashed walls of a mansion, nor are these sidewalks the perfectly manicured walkways in the gardens of the rich–or even the well-swept walks outside an office building. Siskind has turned his eye to areas seemingly abandoned, to walls covered with graffiti that no one has bothered to paint over.

In a sense this “content” is consistent with his earlier choice of Harlem as a subject: he’s directing attention to things we often neglect. And in finding energy and meaning and life in these humble settings, he’s implicitly conveying the message that beauty is where we find it, and finding it depends more on learning to look than on being surrounded by, say, Versailles. The tension between the designs he captures and the frames he draws around them becomes a metaphor for the viewer’s selectivity, for the way one can learn to see, and resee, the most ordinary objects. As World War II yielded to the materialism of the 50s and 60s, Siskind’s photographs sent a different message: it’s not what you own or where you live that matters but how you reinvent the world.

The humanist respect for the individual in Siskind’s Harlem photographs became respect for the viewer’s individuality. And when Siskind photographed the figure in the years following his “great change,” it was with an even more profound respect. On view at Ehlers Candill are five pieces from his “Pleasures and Terrors of Levitation” series, photographs of divers–mostly Chicago street kids diving into Lake Michigan. (Siskind moved to Chicago in 1951 and was a vastly influential teacher at the Illinois Institute of Technology for two decades; he died in 1991.) All five figures are silhouetted against a white sky, each caught mid-dive, arms and feet pointed purposefully, body arched in a way that suggests a process of transformation. At the same time each figure is quite different, revealing some of the glyphlike quality of Siskind’s abstractions. But most striking is the way that, though each body is composed of different textures–legs, the soles of the feet, hair, swim trunks–Siskind never lets the human outlines bleed into the sky’s white. The result is that these figures are less abstract than they first seem: a true abstractionist wouldn’t hesitate to integrate body and sky, perhaps in the name of some mystical unity, but Siskind makes a point of differentiating them. He never lets us forget that we’re seeing individual human beings in a particular, chosen activity.

The same is true of Siskind’s series on feet, four prints from which are on view. Apparently taken at Chicago beaches, these show one or two feet in extreme close-up in varying positions: one atop another, or pointed upward. While any close-up of the human figure suggests genitalia–Siskind found some of his own such photos “almost obscene”–the complex textures of Siskind’s work and his use of light and shadow generally prevent the feet from becoming objectlike. Instead each pose seems expressive; the angle at which the toes point seems as much a marker of individuality as a toe print.

If an abstractionist converts outer reality into an inner vision, then Siskind isn’t one. Though he does seek out similar animated forms–a man holding a pie, some colliding bands of tar on cement, a single foot angled a bit–he also preserves the identities of his subjects. Yet he doesn’t conceal the artifice of his compositions: we see how he uses light and texture and get a hint of what he excludes. These images balance the photographer’s vision with his respect for the autonomy of his subjects, becoming less injunctions to the viewer to see as Siskind does and more invocations of the multiple possibilities for vision in each object.

I ran across the 17 digitally generated photographs of Paul Hertz’s series “Deadpan, or the Holy Toast” on the same day I saw the Siskind show for a second time and was struck by a superficial resemblance: Hertz’s pictures are dark, intense, and a bit cluttered, and they seem to have relatively minimal subject matter. But in actuality his work is the polar opposite of Siskind’s–as different as, say, postmodernism is from modernism.

Each revolves around a piece of toast, whose surface is the only thing “photographed”–Hertz scans the toast textures into a computer from a photo and creates the rest of the piece digitally, finally making photographic prints with a Fujix printer. Each piece of toast has one or more bites out of it, and at first the series seems like a formal study in bite shapes. But within each piece of toast there’s also a lighter area in the shape of an island–Iceland, Cuba, Long Island–and within that are almost illegible text fragments printed over one another.

Hertz identifies the sources of these texts in his statement, but one doesn’t have to know where they’re from to guess that these digital photos are loaded with content. The similarity between the island shapes and the toast bites suggests a connection between land and food, making it seem as if the islands too could be consumed. I wasn’t surprised to learn that Hertz identifies colonialism as one of his themes.

Hertz, 47, a Chicagoan who lived in Spain during the transition from dictatorship to democracy and who’s studied painting and music, has been working with digital imagery for more than a decade. He feels that with this series his technique is maturing, and the work does have a formal consistency and strong geographical-political focus. It also eschews the kind of unity once common in Western art. The harder one looks, the more open these pictures become–the more the islands seem like rips in the surface, like windows onto the world of references the texts invoke and which “formalist” photography is assumed to exclude. In his statement Hertz explains the “deadpan” of his title as “a Spanish/English pun for ‘dead bread.’ Being dead, it’s toast. Being bitten, it’s holey. You may expand the halo of associations at leisure.”

Such references suggest an antiformalist position. The world’s objects, Hertz seems to say, do not come to us magically; they’re created by history, or human labor, and their consumption is part of that history. Eating toast is not innocent–consuming anything invokes the whole history of human conquest. The fissures his islands introduce are the rips in the aesthetic fabric of the best postmodern art, suggesting that there’s more to the world than can be told through the language of form. Hertz’s odd series invokes these ideas rather powerfully. But when I went back to look at the pictures a second and third time I found that, while Siskind’s photographs seemed to grow in depth and resonance, Hertz’s became flatter: their interest comes from the ideas behind them.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Pleasures and Terrors of Levitation 14” by Aaron Siskind.