With art, as with many things, it's important to comprehend how an innovation or seeming left turn could affect the world in drastic new ways — even if we're inured to the same elements now. Abstraction in art once was a shocking thing. From Picasso's cubism to Jackson Pollock's drip paintings, there was a revolution going on, spurred in many ways by the insane warfare and economic and social conflicts of the day.
Falsely or not, photography has always been identified as a tool of realism, a true document of a moment or place. But with midcentury abstract expressionism in painting, with its degradation of familiarity into something jarring, emotional and new, came a photographer willing to take similar risks. Aaron Siskind was circulating with abstract painters before they were known as painters at all. His art philosophy and instinct grew among the same questions as those asked by Barnett Newman and Adolph Gottlieb, making him what Elaine de Kooning called a painter's photographer.
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has just opened an exhibition of Siskind's abstract photographs, along with three other photographers exploring abstraction in the 1950s and '60s — Harry Callahan, Minor White and Gita Lenz.
Siskind's "New York, 1951" and "Chicago 104" are rock solid, making a clear line between abstraction in photography and abstraction in painting. These were found images, gleaned from the world around him. But his attuned eye composed them into line, space and form outside of daily context.
Siskind and Harry Callahan were photography educators in Chicago, and later Rhode Island, before photography was taught regularly in universities. Together they set the course for photography education in this country. With the four Callahan photos on view at the museum, his legacy is palpable. The ultra-close shots of foliage, such as "Lincoln Woods, R.I.," and the abstracted, almost weary cityscapes, are found everywhere today among contemporary photographers and students; perhaps to the point of banality. Not so in 1957.
Siskind and Callahan published a well-known essay on photography in an early issue of the photography journal Aperture. Minor White was the founder of that magazine. White's photos in this exhibition suggest a more emotive use of abstraction, more romantic even. "Sandstone and Tar, Point Lobos" was just acquired by the museum this year, and is rich of tone and texture, while being technically beautiful.
Also new to the museum's collection this year — which gives an indication of its active acquisition stance toward photography — are prints by a recently rediscovered photographer Gita Lenz. Her work was included in two important exhibitions of the time at the Museum of Modern Art: "Photography and Abstraction" in 1951 and "The Family of Man" in 1955, but fell into obscurity until a few years ago when Lenz was moved into a home for the elderly and boxes of her prints came to light.
Lenz and Siskind also knew each other. Lenz's "Broken Window" gelatin silver print stands tall next to Siskind's work, and echoes the aims of abstract expressionist painters such as Judith Godwin, whose early paintings also can be seen now at the museum to prove the point. S
"Aaron Siskind and Abstract Photography of the 1950s and '60s" is on view in the photography gallery of the VMFA through June. vmfa.va.us.