New York

Artur Nikodem

At a time when Chelsea is filled with wall-size, color-saturated photographs pursuing “the painting of modem life,” there is something perversely appealing about a show of minuscule black-and-white photographs made by a painter. Known for his Tyrolean landscapes, agrarian scenes, portraits, and nudes, modernist Artur Nikodem was influenced in his native Austria by the Vienna Secession and Art Nouveau; he studied in Munich and Florence and lived briefly in Paris, where he was especially drawn to the work of Manet and Cézanne. From 1914 to 1930, Nikodem tested photographic equipment for a dealer friend, producing only two-and-a-half-inch square or rectangular contact prints and never showing them as art, though some of the hundreds of images he made during this time surely functioned as studies for paintings.

Nikodem’s prints (thirty-four of which were on view here) are so small that the ideal viewing distance is collapsed to a few inches, drawing us into a disarming intimacy that is most effective in his nude portraits of his model (and lover?) Gunda Wiese (who would die, at twenty-four, of tuberculosis) and second wife Barbara Hoyer. In one image Wiese appears poised to rise from an armchair, topless, her dress having fallen in complex folds into her lap. In another, Hoyer’s bare legs and feet rest on a patterned cloth strewn with small white objects (game pieces?), as she reaches languidly to steady an alert-looking teddy bear. Most of Nikodem’s photographs are shot in a single small, dark room, with shafts of daylight isolating the sitters, who often look directly, lovingly, into the lens. There is one self-portrait of the artist in his studio, standing with his arms crossed, one hand highlighted, beside a large painting of two nudes against an abstract ground. There are landscapes here, too, of rugged slopes and birch copses, but they lack the complexity and particularity of the portraits.

While Nikodem draws on a vocabulary of large simple shapes and luxurious color in his paintings, in his photographs he manipulates extreme contrasts and gradations of light and shadow. Yet the compositional sense is recognizably the same, as distinctive as a fingerprint. What’s most remarkable is that Nikodem, more than many other painters who have taken photographs, instinctively recognized that photography is all about composing with light, and that the pleasure in this is akin to that of composing with color. He even incorporated light leaks and other aberrations into his compositions, using techniques largely ignored by other photographer-painters.

Two images in the show are so perfectly realized that they remain lodged in the mind long after one has left the gallery. In one, Barbara’s hands are splayed and crossed before her, catching light and being caught in turn. In the other, a white swan glides in a black pool; the arc of the swan’s neck is mirrored in the water, and the forward thrust and lift of its head is memorialized by a fortuitous streak of leaked light, sweeping across the surface like a brushstroke.

David Levi Strauss