New York

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

Marcuse Pfeifer Gallery

The subjects of Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ portraits are all avant-garde artists of the ’50s. More specifically, they’re the New York artists who came together in an informal group called “The Club” in the late ’40s or who exhibited work at the Ninth Street Show organized by The Club in 1951. A more lean and hungry crowd of rebels has seldom been seen in the art world. How remarkable it is to see many of them together now, in Greenfield-Sanders’ portraits, looking fat, prosperous, and self-important, like a cartel of 19th-century bourgeois.

Part of the reason they look this way is that Greenfield-Sanders has photographed them with a camera that is itself a holdover from the 19th century, a 75-year-old plate camera with an 11-by14-inch negative. With its long exposure times and shallow depth of field, this instrument almost makes necessary the solemn, self-hugging postures seen in so much Victorian portraiture. Only by getting a good grip on themselves can the subjects remain still enough to obtain a clear image. It is not only necessity that turns these artists into burghers, though. Greenfield-Sanders exploits in a number of ways the opportunity his camera gives him. If these artists have grown paunchy with the years and their success, as many have, the portraits show off this fact. In order to cross their arms in front of them, Robert Motherwell, Herbert Ferber, and James Rosatiall have to reach over or around an ample girth. Aaron Siskind’s belly sticks out between his suspenders and James Brooks’ has his shirt pulled tight across it because he’s reaching down out of the frame as if he were about to hitch up his pants.

One or two of these artists manage to outfox Greenfield-Sanders and avoid a look of expansive complacency. With his hands plunged into his pockets and his shoulders hunched forward, painter Robert De Niro looks taut, aggressive, restless. He couldn’t fill the part of the modern artist better if he were being played by his son. Noguchi defies the camera, too, with his samurai warrior’s eyes. But even those subjects who have a trim figure come before the camera in bulky clothes that give them the appearance of those who were called, 100 years ago, people of substance. The portraits have a certain cumulative momentum, a consistent point of view to which each subject is made to conform. All the artists had to come to the photographer since his camera was too unwieldy to go to them. Made in his studio under unvarying conditions, these portraits have the uniformity that a set of Nadar studies of officials of the Second Empire would have. Here among the esthetic rebels and revolutionaries of 30 years ago we see the art establishment of today.

Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr.