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Saturday, May 28, 2016

Borrowed Light at the Tang Museum

Installation view of Borrowed Light: Selections from the Jack Shear Collection
photograph by Arthur Evans
The future looks pretty frightening at the moment, and personal legacies may seem like a shallow concern - but Jack Shear's personal collection of photographs, a huge selection of which is on view at the Tang Teaching Museum at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs through Aug. 14, is an absolutely dazzling legacy.

Edward Weston - Point Lobos, Calif. 1939
Shear, who is the executive director of the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation, is also a photographer in his own right and has experience as a curator (this selection was co-curated by Shear and Tang Director Ian Berry). But this more-than-500-piece collection, donated in its entirety to the Tang last year, is what he will be remembered for, and with good reason.

Beginning in the 1840s with a vitrine full of Daguerreotypes, and continuing through the early 2000s, this compendium of the history of Western photography is a treasure trove that belongs at a teaching museum, where Berry and Shear contrived to place it at the fingertips of students, curators and scholars for the years to come. For now, we get to be those scholars, exploring about half the collection where it is gorgeously arrayed through the Tang's entire second floor galleries, in pristine rows and heady constellations of cleanly framed prints.

Andre Kertesz - Satiric Dancer 1926
An 18-page printed guide provides essential information, including a concise introduction, a glossary of technical terms (around a dozen different photographic processes are represented), and diagrams to help the visitor sort out what they are looking at. The gallery-hung pictures are numbered to correspond with lists in the guide, while those presented salon-style must be identified via the guide's charts; the decision to forgo wall labels was the right one, as they would have been too distracting among the more than 200 objects on display.

Aaron Siskind - Chicago 42 1952
This absence of text provided me with the opportunity to have a little adventure on my first walk through the show, as I tried to name as many of the photographers as I could from memory or guesswork, and I recommend that approach to anyone familiar enough with the medium to give it a go. My score wasn't spectacular - I got a few wrong and missed a few easy ones, not to mention simply not knowing a whole bunch - but it was a lot of fun. Shear has assembled a somewhat thematic tour of the greats, including many singular images we all know (e.g. Andre Kertesz's Satiric Dancer and Roger Fenton's Valley of the Shadow of Death), but the lesser known artists and images are almost equally fascinating and they add a welcome freshness to the selection.

Lewis Hine -  A Young German
Just Arrived at Ellis Island
 1910
The show introduces itself, appropriately enough, with a large portrait of Shear by Robert Mapplethorpe, who is also represented here by a very early Polaroid self-portrait that could serve as a chapter header for the large portion of the exhibition dealing with sensuality and the human body. Other artists who have worked this turf and are presented here include George Platt Lynes, Nan Goldin, Sally Mann, Jock Sturges, Frank Eugene, Duane Michals, Peter Hujar and many more.

While the sexy stuff is the heart of the show, its soul is deeper - war, child labor, and other social issues are present, as are conceptual art and abstraction. Portraiture is also a theme here (not a huge interest for me personally, but of great significance in the medium of photography) and the landscape, both urban and natural, is another theme (and of greater personal import to me).

Emmett Gowin - Edith, Newtown, Pennsylvania 1974
Within each subgroup, there are stellar examples to enjoy, by everyone from Abbott, Arbus and Avedon to Warhol, Weems and Weston (both Edward and Brett). Overall, there is a dominance of black-and-white above color and an emphasis on certain periods (the '20s and '30s, the '60s and '70s - both very rich times for innovative photography), but that makes total sense for a personal collection. What is truly remarkable is that Shear was able to maintain strong, consistent interest in so many aspects of 165 years of the medium that, even staying within his personal range of tastes, this is still a very wide view of its history.

Nan Goldin - Pawel's Back, East Hampton 1996
One must take the show as a whole, both because of its survey approach and because of its five big floor-to-ceiling groupings (one of which contains 37 individual works); but it is easy to home in on individual favorites in the gallery-hung areas, and these contain a fabulous selection to choose from. For me, who grew up as a photographer in the '70s, it was candy-shop time - all my idols are on view, and I could never choose among them. All the more impressive, when I think that Shear not only had to choose, he had to pay for each choice with actual dollars, and decide each time just how to distribute those (presumably) limited funds.

Nice job, Jack. And, one more thing: Thanks for sharing.

Installation view of Borrowed Light  Note: the middle section has now been rehung with a different selection by Skidmore art history students researching the collection.
Photograph by Arthur Evans

1 comment:

Robert Blake said...

Great review...well done.