Aaron Siskind

Robert Mann Gallery/Andrew Rosen Gallery/Whitney Museum/Studio Museum in Harlem

In his photographs, Aaron Siskind (1903–91) comes up very close to his “subject”—often the trace of an apparently spontaneous gesture or mark on some tactile surface. This is Abstract Expressionist territory: The meandering scrawl in Kentucky 12, 1951, and the tarry streaks in Vermont 166, 1987 (on view at Robert Mann Gallery), are so many brisk “expressions,” fraught with unexpected, if unnameable, unconscious import. The “artistic” point is made explicitly in a number of Homages to Franz Kline (notably Jalapa 66, 1974, on view at Andrea Rosen Gallery, or Lima 59, 1975, at Robert Mann), photos of graffiti-like scrawls that bear an uncanny resemblance to the painter’s canvases, with their chance drips, broad handling, and quirky tensions of black and white. (Though Kline’s artistic automatism seems more studied than Siskind’s found automatism, both have the same raw physicality.) Clement Greenberg wrote that “every fresh and productive impulse in painting since Manet . . . has manhandled into art what seemed until then too intractable, too raw and accidental, to be brought within the scope of aesthetic purpose.” Siskind suggests that when brought into sharp focus and seen close-up, every raw and random physical detail can be aesthetically resonant. He admires Kline’s paintings but implies, in an unexpectedly Duchampian and Cagey way, that you don’t have to paint to make art—not even abstract art. You just have to look, hard and carefully. Thus the camera’s eye seems the equal of the painter’s eye, and the labor of looking the equivalent of the labor of painting.

A true artist should be able to see all kinds of images in a crumbling wall, Leonardo said; or, Breton would update, to project his unconscious fantasies onto any surface. Thus in Martha’s Vineyard I, 1947, the stone and seaweed become a streamlined figure à la Miró, and in Seaweed 8, 1947, an eroded footprint becomes a grotesque face. (Both works are on view at the Whitney Museum.) Siskind is clearly at home in “liminal zones,” the symbolic and spatial areas of transition between worlds—in the photographer’s case, the worlds of casual detail and self-conscious art. At this threshold, surface and depth—the ordinary and extraordinary—con-fuse; perhaps they were never separate at all.

Siskind’s earlier photographs, such as “Harlem Document,” 1932–40, which were on view at the Studio Museum in Harlem, involve close attention to social rather than expressionistic detail. But however descriptive, they are also abstract: The black and white of the photographs could be an index of black and white society. In Nightclub I, 1937, white people ogle a black female singer; we understand that the white world is always implicitly there, oppressing black Harlem emotionally as well as economically. In Stan on Bed, 1940, a sleeping man could be dreaming of the (white) Hollywood stars in the photographs on the wall beside him; the image could also be an ironic commentary on commercial “dream” photography by a photographer trying to wake his viewers to an unpleasant reality. Siskind is also saying that he himself is not here to entertain you.

Hints of the photographer’s visionary interest in texture and design are apparent in his studies of backyards and facades, among them Backyard, 1940, Airshaft, 1943, and Boys in Empty Tenement, 1938, in which a wildly baroque entrance, signaling better days, stands out against an otherwise bleak scene. Again and again children appear, often blighted by a premature fatalism. But Boy’s Head, 1937, though it could be mistaken for a “scientific” portrait or, for that matter, an abstract study of shape and texture, reveals a dignity and seriousness in the subject’s expression that suggests a heroic perse- verance and endurance.

Siskind was Jewish, and perhaps the subtlest aspect of the Harlem photographs is that they remind us of Jewish kinship with African Americans. Siskind’s photographs are a damnation of prejudice against blacks, informed by his status as a Jew—and as a photographer, photography long having been considered the inferior art.

Donald Kuspit