New York

Frederick Sommer

Pace | 32 East 57th Street

When the elevator doors opened onto the recent Frederick Sommer show, some viewers might have thought they’d gotten off on the wrong floor, perhaps at an exhibition of midcareer Pollock or (more to the point) early Max Ernst. One might not expect paintings and drawings of organic abstraction in a show drawn from the photographer’s estate, but there they were, provocatively on display among four of the more familiar gelatin-silver prints: four drawings in ink on charcoal paper and four paintings in tempera on stretched canvas. This was a risky and delightful show, both for what it attempted and for what it revealed. For too long, Sommer, who died at age ninety-three in January 1999, has been regarded wholly within the constricting frame of fine-art photography. In fact, he was a protean artist who not only was attracted to the photographic treatment of sensitized surfaces but also made paintings, drawings, and collage; created musical scores and compositions; and wrote lapidary treatises on aesthetics throughout his long career.

All but two of the twelve works shown here date from 1945, a year before Sommer’s first one-man show of photographs, and as such they provide a sort of snapshot of his aesthetic investigations across media at a particular time. Two large paintings display a mass of leafy, almost tropical abstraction (Sommer grew up in Brazil) in green and reddish-brown tempera, overlaid with drawing in broad black lines. A third consists of a rough black outline on a pure white ground, enclosing a small black rectangle in the lower left that is circled in blue. These three paintings, I am told, were exhibited in a similar way (combined with drawings and photographs) in 1957, at the Institute of Design in Chicago, where Sommer had been invited to teach. After his death, Peter MacGill, working with the estate, found the paintings in the artist’s darkroom, where they had been neatly stored for over forty years. Though not unappealing, their principal effect is to show us the kind of work Sommer might have done had he become a painter.

The four drawings in black ink on white charcoal paper are all done in the compact gestural style that Sommer would return to periodically over the next twenty years, in media ranging from pencil on charcoal paper or colored glue on black paper to his signature smoke-on-glass. In the last, he generally incised an image into blackened aluminum foil and then transferred the “drawing” onto a greased sheet of glass. The method of these line drawings, especially the way they define interiors and outlines at the same time, was also employed to great effect in Sommer’s cut-paper abstractions, which he began not long after he started experimenting with smoke and glass. It is a thrill to see how Sommer’s formal investigations are carried over from one medium to another. Three of the drawings here contain two “figures” in relation to one another—in dance, dialogue, or battle—while the fourth shows a pair of figures joined, perhaps as horse and rider. In the 1945 photograph Coyotes, Sommer found the attenuated figures of his drawings in an arrangement of four coyote corpses, mummified to near transparency by the Arizona sun.

The most fully realized painting in the show was the smallest one (18 by 22 inches), precisely dated July 14, 1945, and apparently never before exhibited. It is a complex palimpsest of colorful organic forms overlaid with a strong black line drawing that runs from top to bottom and accordions the whole composition horizontally. Hanging nearby was Arizona Landscape, 1945, a photograph in which the sun-flattened surface of the desert is punctuated by insistently vertical cactus spires, achieving a similar spatial compression in a different medium. The kind of archaeology practiced in this show is especially worthwhile in the case of an artist like Sommer, who worked out solutions to formal and conceptual problems meticulously, over a long period of time, and for whom every action was the result of an aesthetic decision.

David Levi Strauss