PRINT January 1966


Aaron Siskind

Aaron Siskind, edited and introduction by Nathan Lyons, with essays by Henry Holmes Smith and Thomas B. Hess (Eastman House), 1965. 74 pages, 44 photographs.

AARON SISKIND, ALONE OF THOSE major artists whose germinal works constituted the ground for the central esthetic dialogue of the postwar age, chose to work solely in the photographic medium. The complete relevance of his accomplishments in photography to those in the other art disciplines have caused him to occupy that unique position which has been vacant since the death of Stieglitz.

His historical credentials for this position are of course impeccable. They include his continual close association with the N.Y. painters (especially Newman and Gottlieb), frequent exchanges of his work for theirs, a show at Egan’s in 1947, being the only photographer included in the Ninth Street Show of May 1951, and appreciative critiques of his works by Hess and Rosenberg. (Greenberg was excluded from this general appreciation by a curiously persistent photographic myopia which had him, as late as the mid-sixties, baldly declaring photography a literary medium. On topological grounds alone, a very curious position for a formalist to take.)

The value of any critical assessment of his work lies, therefore, not solely in an appreciation of his stature as an artist but in the uniqueness of his position in the arts. As demonstrated by H. H. Smith’s brilliant essay in the book at hand, any serious discussion of Siskind’s accomplishment forces considerations of general esthetic premises and their implications. Such discussion also throws into relief the differences, often imperfectly understood, which exist between those artistic formulations which are dictated by considerations of medium and those which are based upon more general esthetic concepts.

Two considerations must first be disposed of. One, Rosenberg’s account of the milieu in which these works were done must stand, especially as it applies to the very erudite humanistic bias of Siskind’s activity. He was a poet and has spent the major portion of his life in the highly responsible vocation of teacher. “The idea, the statement is the only thing that counts . . . I care only for people—I’m interested only in human destiny.” Two, the matters of precedence and influence which particularly concern cultural morphology. As early as 1943 Siskind had begun orienting his visual concepts to the flat plane. Barnett Newman who was particularly close to Siskind and had always appreciated the value of his work, denies any direct influence. The obvious formal analogies between Siskind’s work and that of the painters may be resolved by accepting the premise of a work of art being the expression of an intuition. While the intuition partakes of the nature of physical event the subsequent expression is incorporated, both for the artist and the perceiver, into the datum of further intuitions. Therefore, influence need not be understood as legislation. Moreover, if this limiting type of legislative influence had been accepted there would have emerged a school of artists producing relatively indistinguishable works on the European model. This did not occur among the men who had reached maturity as artists by 1950.

The historic routes of development followed by the different artists were quite diverse, however they all ultimately arrived at a point where little but the solitary figure and terrifying logic of Mondrian seemed to precede them. They had become involved in a direct confrontation with the experiencing of reality and its expression. Their work no longer permitted the subterfuge of artist-subject relation. Siskind had reached this position earlier than most: “I found I wasn’t saying anything. Special meaning was not in the pictures but in the subject. I began to feel reality was something that existed only in our minds and feelings.” The canvas or print became the “arena” for a unitary and discrete event, just as Rosenberg “metaphysically” described it. And for that group of artists who dealt with these matters intellectually, and who were better equipped to do so, the picture surface became a primary flat plane as part of a rational economic effort to more firmly establish the determinable qualities of their medium and so give them further freedom toward making their statement the work’s sole content. It was probably something of this same rationale that had led many artists to paint for a time exclusively in black and white.

The primacy of the picture plane, like most statements of the obvious, merits further inquiry. For the photographer it has always been a background issue. Lens design requires elaborate formulation to enable it to focus the different lengths of light rays onto a flat field. Keeping film and paper from buckling is a continual mechanical concern. Moreover the photographer working with a large ground glass camera as Siskind did sees his photograph, selects and focuses it onto the flat plane of that glass. Siskind first began visualizing toward this plane while photographing rocks and then went on to make the perfectly obvious and moral decision of employing walls for his photos. Hardly a startlingly revolutionary feat. Moreover since we are educated to depth perception, when a recognizably three-dimensional object is included in the work there is a degree of resistance to its being limited to two, as demonstrated in the St. Louis photograph of 1953, in which a telephone pole and a building, rising behind the wall, seem to be left dangling. This confusion is caused by mingling two levels of abstraction in one work. It was not so much as the epochal discovery of a basic truth that this plane had its value, but as a limited fact selected for its utility as providing the ideally neutral ground on which he could impose his vision, much as Weston and the f64 group and Stieglitz and “straight” photographers had selected their photographic imperatives. Sharp focus and full tonality are no more “true” than out-of-focus areas and a limited grey scale. Moreover, in order to have a work which is actually perceptible as a flat plane it would have to be all of one value and, if in color, of one hue as well. That some artists have since proceeded to this point was to be expected. Nevertheless, all their efforts to maintain this surface purity, the airbrushing, thin washes, etc., are merely immaculate executions of an indifferent conception. In Siskind’s photos these limitations of depth, together with the rigid abstraction of a clearly defined rectangle combine with a formal mastery to provide works which are consistently of a wholeness that pictures with subject references can rarely equal. Since they contain only that which the artist chose to deal with they possess the cogency and elegance of mathematical argument. The simplicity of the forms and the clarity of the expression offer no measure of the complexity of the experience or its satisfaction.

For the painters to establish a limited depth they had first to throw off the conventions of Renaissance space. Cubism, taking its name, like ancient heroes, from its defeated enemy, had made long strides in that direction. The Newman, Rothko wing of painters carried on this work until they achieved that limited depth which perceptually caused the spectator to confront the work rather than enter it. A limited spatial environment had been conceptually created which articulated only the artist’s reality. Siskind firmly belongs in this group. The other wings, led by Pollock and de Kooning had not developed the conceptually-based space limitations to this degree and employed a space which was more or less dependent on the kinetic sensations of their gestures (de Kooning) and the entire bodily unit (Pollock).

The one enormously important factor in this period’s art which could vitally have affected the course of photography, yet has been somehow neglected, is scale. Perhaps it is due simply to the dreadfully stultifying considerations of cost that photography has been able to retain its conservative character. The importance that neglect of this factor has had can be ascertained by imagining a Still or a Kline painting of the size of a Siskind photograph. Or, better, of photographs the size of these paintings. The lack of appreciation of photography’s importance as a potential vehicle for major expression, and photography’s own continued insulation from the vital developments in art is in large part due to this neglect. This, even more than the spectre of Lessing’s categories is why photos remain in sub-sections of museums.

“I am involved with the projection of myself as idea.” In the greater body of his work Siskind has employed the arbitrary selection of an area from a plane to wrest from an impersonal multiplicity of sensations the order he wishes to impose. His works form discrete units of an infinite series. He utilized, as well, the single most obvious alternate method for imposing an arbitrary ordering: the limited series which form a group (as in his photos of divers, “The Pleasures and Terrors of Levitation”). However recognizable the subject of the individual photo, whatever its customary connotations, these are brushed aside, altered to any degree the photographer desires and an entirely new set of references is established.

Paradoxically the art produced by this application of Apollonian logos has its greatest weakness and strength lying in the same set of premises. The significance of the works is entirely determined by the referential field of the artist. The forms employed themselves may have generic references of importance but they are at least ambiguous. The burden of reference is born by the artist’s personal configurations of symbol and not by some subject. While this carries implications of maximum human freedom and determinism, anyone other than the artist must be educated in some degree to his references for them to have significance.

The masters who created this art had both fulfilled traditional lines of development of twentieth-century art and produced formulations which transcended them and answered to the radically altered content of human consciousness and concepts of reality which developed since the war. The strength and scope of their formulations have provided the necessary “principia” for subsequent significant development among painters and sculptors. Few photographers have ever confronted the problems Siskind dealt with, let alone been able to incorporate his solutions.

––Arthur Bardo