icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."

 

"MODERN LOOK" AT THE JEWISH MUSEUM:

Installation shot, "Modern Look" at The Jewish Museum

 

As I was raised in an era when the word "modern" was commonly supposed to  mean the latest and most adventurous style around, I was naturally eager to see "Modern Look: Photography and the American Magazine" at The Jewish Museum (through July 11).  However, this elaborately-installed show of 150 works including vintage photographs, art book layouts and magazine cover designs from the 1930s, '40s and '50s offers a very different view of that era from the one I myself experienced as a child, a younger journalist and a more mature scholar.   Though I'm sure this new exhibition was carefully planned, and affords a wealth of technical information that I never knew before, visually I found it far less appealing than I was expecting upon the basis of my own knowledge of the three magazines it centers around.

 

THREE MAGAZINES

 

The three magazines are Vogue, Harper's Bazaar and Life. As a child in the 1940s, I saw the two fashion magazines on my mother's coffee table regularly.  The boarding school I was attending at the same time subscribed to Life and left it out where all of us students could look at and read it – even when its photographs were of dead American soldiers fallen as they charged up the beaches of some remote Pacific island.

 

After I graduated from college I went to work for 13 years in the major media myself – on Time, sister to Life in the publishing empire that once was Time Inc.  During the last 30 months of that period, I wrote the Art section of Time. By the time I left, in 1969, I'd developed a commitment to modernist abstraction. 

 

As I see it, this tradition begins with the abstract expressionism of the 1940s and 1950s, and continues on through what was known in the '60s as color-field painting, up to today's younger practitioners, who as a group don't yet have any distinguishing label or name.

 

In defense of this tradition – and in opposition to postmodernism, its putative successor -- I wrote and published in 2009 a book called "A Memoir of Creativity: abstract painting, politics and the media, 1956 – 2008."

 

Chapter 23 is called "The Reception of Abstract Expressionism in the '50s." It concerns the art coverage of a range of U.S. consumer magazines, from Mademoiselle to Esquire, but most especially Time, Life, Vogue and Harper's Bazaar.

 

In preparation for this 19-page chapter, I paged through bound volumes of Time, Life, Vogue and Harper's Bazaar (among other magazines) to ascertain their art coverage.   While I'm sure I missed some things, I saw enough to get a pretty good idea of each magazine's tastes and priorities.

 

Time, my own alma mater, was (as is generally known) slow to accept abstract expressionism, not running articles favorable to it until the later 1950s. Life (as is equally well-known) ran an article on Pollock in 1949 that (despite its apparent philistinism), lifted Pollock (and with him, abstract expressionism in general) up through the crust of ice that had hitherto kept the whole movement prisoned within a cramped corner of the Manhattan art world.

 

Less well known is how Life throughout the 1950s tried in its art coverage to balance the tastes and preferences of its predominantly unsophisticated readership with the more sophisticated tastes and preferences of its staff.

 

The many articles catering to the largest portion of its readership have sunk beneath the seas of history, but at least one dissertation has been written on the magazine's more enlightened articles – most of which were created under the leadership of Dorothy Seiberling (1922-2019).

 

Seiberling tried hard to put across ab-ex in the 1950s.  She knew it was a difficult sell, given the fact that Life's target audience was readers in the heartland with only high-school educations, so she used at least three major ploys to get her message across.

 

One of these three ploys was an article devoted to women painters.  Both abstract and representational painters were included – to keep everybody happy – but its lede was a full-page color photograph of Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011), today well-remembered but then still young & relatively little-known.  In the photograph, she sits demurely atop what looks like a pile of her canvases.  A blown-up photograph from this photo shoot is in the Jewish Museum's "Modern Look."

 

The photo was taken by Gordon Parks, a very well-known African-American photographer who worked primarily (but not exclusively) for Life. Another photograph from this same shoot adorns the cover of "Fierce Poise," Alexander Nemerov's new book on Frankenthaler, and I saw what I recall as yet another version of it in a Parks show at Jack Shainman in 2018 (I mentioned it in my review of that show).

 

In pairing a woman artist with an African-American photographer, this photograph is a double-barreled example of "diversity," the second-most recent vogue to hit the postmodernist art world, and I believe still the most popular one (despite more recent publicity given by the NY Times to "NFTs"—see below). In "diversity," the race/sex/gender-orientation of the artist is more important than the art.

 

(Please don't misunderstand me: I'm not opposed to recognizing quality in the underprivileged. I'm all for it. It's only when "diversity" is used as a substitute for quality in determining who gets the publicity and/or exposure that I'm irked.

 

However, as Clement Greenberg so often said, there can be no objective proof of esthetic quality, so in the debate as what should or should not be given pride of place, this proviso leaves us pretty much where we came in. 

 

I note in the NY Times for April 25 that the people at DIA, who are busily tanking up on female and African American artists, also claim that they insist on quality, though the DIA installations that I have so far seen– with their surfeit of minimalists & conceptualists — only rarely seem to me to be anything more than slick and barren in the extreme.)

 

FIRST, LIFE

 

If you believe the demographics implied by The Jewish Museum's show's choice of Life photographers, the entirety of the magazine's photographic staff was African American or female (the only other Life photographer that I noticed in "Modern Look" was Margaret Bourke-White). 

 

The fact that most of Life's many excellent photographers were white males seems to consign them in the present artistic climate to communities outside message-happy New York – and only then when accompanied with a battalion of suitably up-to-date interpretations..

 

The only show of Life photographers to hit New York in recent years featured six women photographers from the magazine. It played The New-York Historical Society in the summer of 2019, while a more broadly-based show with both male and female Life photographers was staged in early 2020 across the Hudson at the Princeton University Art Museum.

 

Princeton's show, "Life Magazine and the Power of Photography," was forced to close down after only three weeks due to the pandemic, and won't re-open because the museum is now closed until 2024 for major renovations. 

 

However, the interpretations went on as scheduled, including a virtual walk-through of the show by the museum's curator of photography, Katherine Bussard, and a series of 5 virtual events between April 22 and September 24 featuring academics and other authorities discussing different aspects of the show. 

 

Bussard's walk-through focused largely on the technical aspects of preparing the finished photography spread for a story, how text editors prepared shooting  scripts in advance, how pictures editors selected finished work and/or what else they did with it prior to publication, etc.

 

She offered only a minimum of discussion concerning the actual work itself (beyond a dig at the famous Alfred Eisenstaedt photograph of a sailor kissing a nurse on V.J. Day: "Today, we may question whether what we see is a consensual romantic embrace").

 

I will have more to say about that photograph in just a few minutes, but first I want to observe that I find this emphasis on the technological underpinnings of art. -- as opposed to what the art itself actually looks like, either in formal or iconographic terms --- common within today's postmodernist environment. 

 

The ghost of Duchamp still casts a long shadow, with his insistence that the act is more important than the result—that one can take a bicycle wheel and stand it on a stool and this makes it Art (regardless of whether it has any esthetic dimension or not).

 

Certainly, I found Bussard's discussion of the technology surrounding Life's photography interesting -- though it wasn't exactly news to me (the process for getting photographs on Time wasn't that different when I worked there, though of course photography played a far lesser role on Time).

 

I was a bit surprised at the presentation's insistence that Henry Luce based Life exclusively on European models. It's been a while since I read any biographies of Harry (as the staff affectionately called him), any biographies of his second wife, Clare Boothe Luce or any of the many books about Time Inc., not least the official company history by Robert Elson.  

 

Still, I did plow through a lot of such literature in preparation for my memoir, and as I recall, Clare (whom Harry married in 1935) was very interested in picture magazines.  For a while, there was even talk of making her Life's first managing editor.  Though it was eventually decided that such arrant nepotism might create more problems than it would solve, the fact is that Clare had been a top editor on the old Vanity Fair before it was folded in 1936 into its sister publication, Vogue (not to re-emerge as an independent magazine until the 1980s).

 

I paged through many issues off that old Vanity Fair for my memoir, too, and it was truly a glamorous publication, with well-known authors from T.S. Eliot  to P.G. Wodehouse among its contributors and much glittering photography, from Edward Steichen on down.

 

 I see the legacy of Vanity Fair in all the artistic and cultural coverage that Life offered (from movies to parties to celebrities to science to art) but that do not seem to have captured the imagination of the organizers of this show. 

 

Maybe the photography in such stories is considered less innovative than the photography in the area of socio-politics? Who knows?  Still, by focusing so exclusively on socio-politics, the show doesn't give the viewer a total view of what the magazine was all about.

 

I'm not complaining – every show has to draw the line somewhere, and focus on what it deems most significant and/or of greatest interest to today's viewers. But in the process of singling out the images which seem to have worn best, a true picture of the full range of Life's coverage gets lost—and with it, I suspect, the significance of Vanity Fair and Clare Boothe Brokaw (as she was known before marrying Luce). 

 

Still, Clare (so the story goes) had prepared a proposal for a picture magazine for Condé Nast, publisher of Vanity Fair.  Furthermore, picture magazines seem to have been a topic of conversation between Clare and Harry on their first date (or was it their first meeting?). Maybe the documentation for this can't be found in the voluminous Time Inc. Archives now held by the New-York Historical Society.  And I have neither the time nor the inclination to look up those books all over again.  But take it from me, they exist.

 

THOSE INTERPRETATIONS

 

To move on to the interpretations of "Life Magazine and the Power of Photography" offered by the Princeton University Art Museum (mentioning only in passing that the show itself was co-organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and will go on to that venue at some undetermined time in the future): I was very impressed by two of the speakers in the panel discussion held in Princeton on September 24.

 

The whole panel was called "Behind the Iconic Images in Life Magazine," and the speakers were the authors of various chapters in the show's catalogue (published by Yale University Press, with the Princeton Museum as "publishing partner").

 

The first speaker was Sharon Corwin from the Terra Foundation of American Art, who discussed Life's first cover in 1936.   It shows the massive Fort Peck Dam in Montana, then under construction with the aid of generous Federal funding from Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.

 

The image was created by Margaret Bourke-White, who had worked for Luce previously photographing industrial subjects for Fortune (Time Inc.'s business magazine, founded with Luce's characteristic optimism in 1930, in the immediate wake of the truly ghastly stock market crash and for my money the absolute nadir of the Great Depression).

 

Not only did Corwin discuss what was going on in the picture from an iconographic point of view, but to my delight, she went on to analyze it in formal language as well.

 

In the discussion period that followed,  one of Corwin's fellow panelists pointed out that the buttresses to this mighty dam slant up from right to left, so that they function as vectors pointing to the logo of the new magazine, Life, in the upper left-hand corner.  A delightful touch!

 

The last speaker in the session was even more illuminating. This was Robert Heriman, from Northwestern University's School of Communication, discussing the full-page photo by Eisenstaedt of the sailor kissing the nurse on V.J. Day, 1945, in Times Square (then as now known as "the crossroads of the world"). 

 

Heriman began by situating this photo in its context within the magazine -- at the end of a

14-page sequence with 68 photos showing all the other ways people were celebrating the end of World War II.  I doubt that I was familiar with this layout, but it helps to explain for me the abandonment of this pose.

 

Heriman demonstrated the speed with which Eisenstaedt must have been working by showing a strip from the contact sheet from which the final picture was selected. You could see how closely that final image resembled the other four in the strip, indicating that the photographer must have been clicking away like mad. 

 

Then Heriman contrasted this impression of mad abandon by pointing out how carefully the finished image was organized, with what looks like the triangular New York Times building rising directly behind the embracing couple, a few women (but no men) on the right-hand street behind the nurse –and a few men (but no women) on the left-hand street behind the sailor.  Fascinating.

 

Finally, he moved on to the meaning of the image, which as he saw it was richly symbolic -- though also complex and as such susceptible to many different interpretations (or to use a more up-to-date phrase, many different "readings.").

 

"Kissing the war goodbye," was one phrase he used.   I liked that one fine, but the one I liked even better was his suggestion that this picture was all about Thanatos &.Eros.  This pairing is taken from Freud, who in his later career (after the embittering experience of World War I) argued that humanity's two most basic instincts and/or drives were toward death and life. 

 

Thanatos was the Greek god of death. Eros is best known as the god of love under his Roman name, Cupid.  I understand  that Freud never used the word "Thanatos" to refer to the cluster of concepts with which he associated the death instinct, but his understanding of Eros was similarly more broadly based than merely the romantic love of Valentine's Day cards.

 

I'd argue that as a scientist raised in the deterministic century of Darwin, by Eros Freud meant not only the drive toward life itself – the perpetuation of the individual --  but also the equal if not more powerful drive of every species to perpetuate that species by mating with a member of its opposite sex—regardless of what pains or behavior it may (or may not) have taken to achieve that goal..

 

Hence Eisenstaedt gives us a passionate pose that looks a bit more like a rape than it does a consensual romantic embrace – but for that very reason is so extraordinarily true to its moment, and such a valuable record of it. 

 

Consider that moment: it marked the end of a war that had cost an estimated 75 million lives around the planet.  It was also the starting gun of a peacetime race to repopulate that planet.

 

The baby boom of the postwar period was not just an American phenomenon: it was global, and within two decades would be reaping a whirlwind of its own.  By 1965-66, when I was writing about foreign news for Time, young people were already making news in the U.K., The Netherlands, and Indonesia (to name just the countries I was writing about).

 

But maybe you had to be there to feel how amazingly apt Eisenstaedt's image is. Not necessarily as an adult. I was ten years old in 1945, but I remember V.J. Day, and the relief we all felt, after four long years of total war---relief and major joy.

 

People today I think may forget (if they ever knew) that by 1945, the US had more than 12 million men and women in the military (mostly men in those days —but as husbands, boyfriends, fathers or sons constantly in the minds and hearts of their nearest and dearest on the home front—many millions more and including millions of women.

 

The 12 million Americans in the services was at least three times the number that had been involved in World War I at any one point and six times as many as would be involved in Vietnam (which at its peak in 1968 numbered only 549,500 members of the military). 

 

News media right now are making a big deal out of Afghanistan and how high the total number of dead is there, but that's over a course of 20 years: it never looked that bad at any one point in time.

 

Even at its high point – in 2011 – our total force in Afghanistan never involved more than 98,000 people, a miniscule proportion of the nation's total population. Moreover, these were all men and women who had freely chosen to go to war.

 

World War II had the draft, and most members of the armed services had been civilians until they were forcibly inducted.

 

World War II was also total war in that the home front was involved.

 

God knows we had it easy compared to countries where the war was being fought, but in New York, we still had the blackout, with the night lights of the city's skyscrapers doused to make it harder for enemy bombers to locate targets.

 

I remember air raid drills around 1942-43, with me and my second-grade classmates at the Brearley School in Manhattan, sitting on the floors of inside corridors of the building.

 

Right up to 1945,  there was rationing: the Office of Price Administration rationed automobiles, tires, gasoline, fuel oil, coal, firewood, nylon, silk, and shoes. We had to use ration cards and stamps to buy limited amounts of meat, dairy, coffee, dried fruits, jams, jellies, lard, shortening, and oils (though if money was no object, one could buy steaks on the black market).

 

Then there were the pictures, which became even grimmer as the war in Europe neared its end. In Life, even at my boarding school, we saw gaunt faces and skeletonic bodies of German concentration camp prisoners, peering at us from behind barbed wire. 

 

These images stayed with me on a conscious level, but when I was revisiting them for my memoir, I saw one picture I'd forgotten (on a conscious level): the charred corpse of a solitary prisoner, evidently incinerated by departing jailors.

 

As I looked at it I realized it must have prompted a nightmare I'd had along about then, and have never forgotten: that the Nazis were coming to burn me up in the school incinerator.

 

One final thought:  For all the 12 million in the armed services, death was an ever-present possibility. Their fear for their lives was shared by the millions more of their friends and relations back home. And the possibility of bedding down with spouses or lovers may have seemed as remote as the possibility of getting killed seemed close.

 

The result of such myriad tensions was that on V.J. Day we were all just tremendously relieved - absolutely delighted to be freed from this burden of anxiety and fear. And the result was that everybody – or at least an awful lot of us -- went out and did things that they'd never done before and never would do again.

 

A kind of national – even worldwide -- insanity momentarily grabbed us, a temporary lunacy brought on by sheer joy.  If anybody can remember the modest amount of dancing in the streets that went on in Manhattan when the networks called Biden as the winner of the 2020 election, just imagine that multiplied by millions of participants.

 

The summer of 1945, I was living in the suburb of Hartsdale, NY, with my mother, the man she had married that Easter (and would divorce before Thanksgiving), together with his two sons (by a previous marriage) and a lady named Lucky. 

 

Lucky's job was to look after us kids while our parents went to work in the city every weekday.

 

On Tuesday, August 14 (EDT) we heard the war was over (the Japanese emperor Hirohito had announced Japan's surrender on the radio, though the official peace treaty wouldn't be signed until September 2).

 

Lucky piled all of us into the car and we drove through the town – and around the neighborhood—honking our horn again and again. Lots of other people in other cars were doing the same thing.

 

Honk, honk, honk.  Honk, honk, honk.

 

It was our way of expressing joy. I'd never done such a thing before, and I've never done it since, but it was just one of those wild and crazy things we all felt compelled to do that day– like that sailor's kiss. Look at it again. Isn't there something just a little bit over the top about it?   Anyway, that's my reading. 

 

It's too bad that I didn't get to see "Life Magazine and the Power of Photography," for myself.  I would have  liked to see exactly how large or small the photographs on display actually looked, for example, how they were hung, and to what extent the technological aspects of the show enhanced or detracted from its overall visual appearance.

 

Even without eyeballing it, though, I feel fairly sure that I might have said it's too bad the show didn't make it into the Big Apple. Then again, Life's photography in general, with its robust harmony and balance, has given offense to some of Manhattan's postmodernist eyes for some time now.

 

I dimly remember reviewing a show of it at the International Center of Photography years ago (when the Center was still on the Avenue of the Americas). At the time, I was contributing reprints of excerpts from FMD to a SoHo-based hard-copy magazine called NY Arts (since expired, I gather from the web).

 

From its publisher, Abraham Lubelski, I had received a guarantee that none of his predominantly young and inexperienced editors would be allowed to alter so much as a comma of my copy.  I quit when he rescinded his guarantee.

 

Not long before I left, he'd tried to get me to deal with the objections raised by one of those younger editors who was outraged by my review of Life's photography. I'd loved the show. She'd hated it – which as I look back on it now was a characteristically postmodernist response.

 

SECOND, VOGUE AND HARPER'S

 

This may explain why Life plays only a subordinate role in "Modern Look" at the Jewish Museum . Vogue & Harper's Bazaar are both given much more prominence. Both magazines, according to the literature accompanying this exhibition, had artistic directors who were Russian-Jewish immigrants fleeing the onset of Hitler. 

 

At Vogue, this was Alexander Liberman (1912-1999), and at Harper's Bazaar, this was Alexey Brodovitch (1898-1971).  The two were engaged in a longtime competition – but if you believe this show's program, Brodovitch was by far the more important.

 

"Brodovitch's influence, exerted equally by teaching and by example, cannot be overstated," raves the wall text. "In 1933, he founded the Design Lab in Philadelphia as a weekly gathering of students to focus equally on photography and the graphic arts. Through the Lab, he dared a generation of photographers and designers to challenge their formal conventions with his famous exhortation 'Astonish Me!'

 

"He encouraged and expected the flouting of rules: the combination of high and low art, the use of outsized gestures or scale, stark doubling of figures and silhouettes, and full-bleed printing (without borders) from one page to the next."

 

All very well, but this text deals only with technical changes – again, the technology that seems to be so dear to the hearts of Pomonia (my pet name for postmodernist minds and hearts)..

 

Moreover, the details in this particular wall text if anything suggest to the viewer that Brodovitch's real claim to fame was as a forerunner of pomonian taste (note the pejorative context in which the word "formal" in placed, and the admiring context for "the combination of high and low art").

 

This wall text doesn't say anything about what kinds of the art of ages past Brodovitch himself preferred, or if indeed he cared anything at all about painting and sculpture, let alone abstract expressionism. 

 

We are similarly left hanging on this subject with regard to Liberman, but In my own study of the art coverage of the two magazines, I was struck by how much loving attention Vogue paid to the fine arts in the 1950s (fine arts in addition to applied arts like haute couture) and how little attention Harper's Bazaar paid to the fine arts in the same decade.

 

Both magazines were targeted toward more educated and sophisticated readers than Life ever was, but that didn't necessarily make those readers more up-to-date in their tastes and artistic preferences.

 

My mother would have been pretty typical: a successful advertising copywriter, she earned a handsome income, dressed well (without going to the most fashionable extremes) and went to most of the latest plays and movies, but abstract expressionism was to her a closed book.

 

Nevertheless, in addition to offering the more traditional kinds of painting and sculpture that its readers obviously preferred, Vogue did whatever it could to introduce ab-ex from time to time.  It's famous for using paintings by Pollock as backdrops for a fashion spread on ball gowns, but that was only one of its many ways to present fine art --- and even (occasionally) abstraction.

 

By contrast, the editors at Harper's Bazaar appear to have loathed abstraction. Sure, in 1952, they ran a fine photograph of Pollock seated on the running board of his old Ford, but this was AFTER he'd reverted to figuration.

 

In 1955, at the peak of ab-ex's influence within the art world, Harper's Bazaar devoted two full pages to an exceedingly tame disciple of academic realism named James W. Fosburgh.

 

Liberman must have been largely responsible for Vogue's continuing coverage of the fine arts and even ab-ex. In addition, he was an accomplished photographer. You don't get the full flavor of his talent as a photographer from the biggest exhibit by him at the Jewish Museum, a gimmicky row of blown-up collage-like Vogue cover designs.

 

He created a whole book of lovely photographic essays on the aging leaders of the School of Paris (Rouault, Chagall, Vlaminck and so on); Vogue ran eight chapters from this book in installments between 1954 and 1955.I don't recall any fancy photographic tricks in this series – just honest, straightforward photojournalism.

 

Even though I dealt in my memoir with the many other ways that Vogue wrote about and pictured fine art in the 1950s, from featuring collectors of Old Masters to reproducing a radiantly red Rothko at full-page size, that series on those aged but still somehow charming French painters stays uppermost in my mind.

 

I was looking forward to seeing it again in "Modern Look," but of course it was nowhere around. Except for the image of Frankenthaler, painting & sculpture are conspicuous by their absence here. Instead, this show relies heavily on graphic design and fashion "shoots" -- both of which generally bore me.

 

I see them as applied art not fine art – and applied art (except for architecture) I tend to find soulless (I'm not even that high on the Bauhaus).

 

I do regard photography as a fine art, though, and there is plenty of it in this show. Among the modernist photographers with star quality in this show (besides Bourke-White and Parks) are Richard Avedon, Herbert Matter, Lisette Model and Irving Penn.

 

All these I admire and enjoyed, though the dimensions of their work on display tended to be too large -- like the Parks of Frankenthaler -- or too small -- like the Avedon of T. S. Eliot and his (second) wife Valerie – which I looked eagerly to find, only to locate it hidden away on a very small scale within the pages of a book

.

Still, maybe there will be enough modernism in "Modern Look" to encourage younger visitors to go back to the show's sources and see what else these sources have to offer. In the process, they may conceivably rediscover what for some observers today seems to be a cultural outlook as remote as that of Patagonia. I do hope so.

Be the first to comment