New York

Arnold Newman

Sidney Janis Gallery

Arnold Newman is best known for his masterful photographs portraying prominent scientists and artists. In these works, Newman treats his subjects like still lifes, carefully framing them in an intricate web of their working environs. In one quintessential portrait of Piet Mondrian the artist stands like a black vertical column inside the stark De Stijl environment of his New York studio. His black suit echoes the verticals in the surrounding architecture of door jambs, window panes, and monochrome squares that float upon the white-washed walls. Newman melds subject and environment so well that the final image absorbs the formal properties of Mondrian’s art, and the artist and his paintings dematerialize into the photograph’s general texture.

The portraits provide an important context in which to consider another medium less commonly associated with Newman—collage. As early as 1940, Newman had manipulated his own photographic images by tearing and then reconstructing them. The recombination adds an interpretive dimension to the subject that cannot be captured by a camera. In a recent collage depicting Marcel Duchamp, Newman manipulates a photograph originally done in 1966. Using several prints of the same image, he recomposes it in a way that interprets one of Duchamp’s major pieces, The Large Glass, 1918–23. The visible tears read like slight cracks in the image’s surface. The result is that Duchamp is seen as though through the mirror/screen of his own work.

In The Studio Wall, 1988, Newman departs even further from traditional portrait photography. This collage consists of a composite photograph of Francis Bacon placed on the surface of a canvas painted dark green. A sheet of clear plastic covers the image; it has been stained with paint, as though it once served as a drop cloth in Bacon’s notoriously cluttered painting studio. A dark rectangular tarp is taped to the top of the piece. The work runs across a 14-foot sheet of paper which has been crudely stapled directly into the gallery wall. Newman’s use of diverse materials and monumental scale, combined with his treatment of the photograph as an ephemeral artifact, rivals the aggrandized photo-constructions by the Starn Twins and the mélange of images and materials in Robert Rauschenberg’s “Hoarfrost” collages. Yet The Studio Wall simply furthers the same pictorial concerns found throughout Newman’s work.

Whether the final image is etched in the negative or the result of a photographic collage, Newman’s pictorial agenda remains consistent. In each case, the subject is inseparable from its context. Although the portraits have been arranged internally and the collages externally, the two share the same compositional concerns. Conceptually, each work is so well constructed that the formal differences between the medium of collage and the more conventional one of photography seem inconsequential.

Kirby Gookin