New York

Frederick Sommer

Light Gallery

The Light Gallery showed over 60 photographs by Frederick Sommer from 1941 through 1972. Sommer was born in Europe in 1905, grew up in Brazil, studied landscape architecture at Cornell, took up painting in the early ’30s, and photography upon meeting Stieglitz in 1935. For the last 30 years, Sommer has worked and taught in Arizona. Sommer’s photographs seem to fall into three general categories: allover landscape photographs of Arizona; architectural photographs under which photographs generally tied to a ’30s view of Constructivism and Biederman’s structuralism can be included; and experimental photographs derived mainly from Dada-Surrealism and the kind of abstract experimentation common in the ’30s. To make things neat, a fourth category might be created to include those photographs which don’t fit into the other three categories. Not that Sommer’s work must be so categorized, but here Carl Andre’s Cardinal Series has application: to not divide Sommer’s work into categories for discussion, is to try to deal with each image unit separately as it forms the whole. The point of forming these categories is not to insist on them, but to use them.

In a sense, it is odd that I find Sommer’s experimental photographs the least interesting. Within this category are “found object” photographs and what can be thought of as “assisted ready-mades,” that is, objects which are not photographed as they are found, but are arranged and altered by Sommer before photographing. These photographs are generally more interesting as pictures than as ideas, the ideas having been more or less exhausted before Sommer got to them, though not necessarily exhausted in photography. Beyond the attractiveness of the images and the relationships between different kinds of objects within the pictures is the curious question of whether the assemblage pictured has or doesn’t have some kind of extra physical meaning. Sommer’s interest in Surrealism and Max Ernst (whose portrait is included in the show) indicate that a Surrealist kind of meaning is probably intended; that is, Sommer seems more interested in working within Surrealist convention than questioning how certain combinations of objects can take on a meaning in a photograph. Another kind of experiment are the photographs of cut paper abstractions and the no-camera photographs made by contact printing oil paint brushstrokes on cellophane and configurations formed by smoke and grease on plate glass. The problem with these experimental photographs is that Sommer’s obvious interest in creating abstract patterns not only repeats experiments with decorative abstraction in painting 40 years earlier, but the concern with abstraction overwhelms the issues of photographic process which are more dormant in these photographs than implicit. The most interesting aspect of these photographs, and also the most problematic, is they seem more photographs of art work than simply photographs as photographs. It should also be noted that Sommer’s abstract photographs are his most recent work and were made throughout the ’60s.

Sommer’s architectural photographs are essentially photographs of architectural details such as Ponte S. Angelo of 1960, in which the camera is moved suddenly, causing a blurred image which is puzzling perceptually and gives a sense of movement to the inanimate; and photographs more structuralist in nature such as Kyoto Lumber Yard of 1969, picturing a systematic arrangement of modular unit s, in this case, uniform stacks of shingles. The Arizona landscape photographs of the early ’40s picture allover horizon-lineless situations of surprisingly uniform rocks and vegetation. Gold Mine—Arizona pictures perhaps a mile of deep space, but the rocks and clumps of grasses in the foreground at the bottom of the picture are the same size as the rocks in the distance at the top of the picture, which creates a visually tense and interesting situation, especially when the units in the center of the picture are understood as mine buildings, which are also generally the same size as the foreground and background units of rocks or grasses. All of the Arizona landscapes have this same kind of allover tension built into the photographs, and in the case of these landscape photographs, Sommer followed no one; and if anything, in these pictures he preceded painting. All of Sommer’s prints seem about as perfect as prints are likely to get.

The abandonment of the traditional categories of painting and sculpture has theoretical strength not because of something basically fallacious in painting and sculpture as categories, but because painting and sculpture seem to have exhausted their capacity to generate new problems. But it seems reckless to assume the death of painting and sculpture, unless by “death” we mean only something temporary; this might appear an odd notion of “death,” but not when the metaphoric death of an idea is understood as being different from the death of a physical entity which once had life as a biological fact. Painting and sculpture need a rest, and generally they are getting it by way of reduced expectations. Neither painting nor sculpture, for the moment, are expected to carry on art’s innovations; the slack in innovation has been taken up by work in other areas which may relate to painting and sculpture, but can’t be said to be within either category. But in this present state of exhaustion, painting and sculpture need more than rest or respite from too much attention; they need reformulation.

Bruce Boice