New York

Herbert List

Charles Cowles Gallery

This extensive exhibition spans the career of West German photographer Herbert List. It includes work from the ’20s through the mid ’70s, and ably represents the photographer’s diverse output. List’s photographic world is charged with a multitude of psychological meanings. While his portraits of well-known figures such as Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau are his most widely recognized works, this show presents us with glimpses into his rarely seen homoerotic photography.

List is a master of efficient composition. Even his most abstracted images maintain a strict sense of order. Muted gray tones dominate almost all of his scenarios, so that a melancholy mood predominates. While some of his portraits are stiff and overdramatic, there is no denying his superior craftsmanship. Often the subjects in his photographs seem emotionally distant, so that attractive surface impressions gloss over any psychological insights.

These photographs demonstrate List’s keen ability to discover and create heightened moments of unreality. One of the photographer’s recurrent themes is the disguising of the self. In several images people wear stylized costume masks; for example, Der Eieresser, Hamburg (The egg eater, Hamburg), 1933, features a man in heavy clothing and gloves wearing a stiff mask and a goofy grin. He sits still, contemplating a cracked egg on a plate. This is lukewarm Surrealism, slightly twisted but ultimately less than compelling.

It is List’s art photographs of young men that are most intriguing here. These pictures epitomize the voyeuristic strain in photography, as well as the medium’s capacity to immortalize a fleeting moment of youthful beauty. The homoerotic content of the works seems courageous in light of the historical context. They are the most straightforward images in the exhibition, as they represent a certain type of eroticism taken to a specific level of clarity. They manifest a strong sense of longing for an unattainable, exaggerated ideal of beauty. At times List’s sensual preoccupations interfere with his artistic judgment, giving rise to work that is rather clichéd. For instance, Strong Boy, Baltic Sea, 1933, shows a nude young man standing among tall plant stalks, his back toward the camera. List presents his subject in a vulnerable position of objectification, and the work holds no more sway than gay soft pornography.

List does create some lyrical images, but many are so stylized and overheated that they border on kitsch. Shotputter, Hamburg, 1933, is an image of an Aryan-type youth, and it suffers from this macho excessiveness. List’s cropping makes the picture seem stilted and the model’s stiffness undercuts his portrayal of a superhuman figure. List is more successful when he tempers his imagery with a sense of enigma, as in Phantasy, Hamburg, 1934, in which a beautiful young man holds a small sculpture of a nude female, staring at it in bewilderment. The image has been double-exposed, accentuating its dreamlike disorientation.

Jude Schwendenwien