New York

Paul Outerbridge, The Kitchen Table: A Study in Ellipses, 1921, platinum print, 4 1/2 × 3 1/2".

Paul Outerbridge, The Kitchen Table: A Study in Ellipses, 1921, platinum print, 4 1/2 × 3 1/2".

Paul Outerbridge

Paul Outerbridge, The Kitchen Table: A Study in Ellipses, 1921, platinum print, 4 1/2 × 3 1/2".

The forty-one images in this survey of Paul Outerbridge’s photographs—the largest show of his works since a J. Paul Getty Musuem retrospective in 2009—included still lifes, advertising images, and erotic nudes, though the distinctions among these categories was often far from clear. In many of the still lifes, geometric form is seemingly more important than the familiar, ordinary objects Outerbridge takes as his ostensible subject matter; The Kitchen Table: A Study in Ellipses, 1921—an arrangement of three eggs, a bowl of milk, and a milk bottle—is exemplary. In some of these, Outerbridge daringly isolates individual objects, treating them as pure forms—essentializing them, as it were, at the expense of their everyday function: Thus, Ide Collar and Telephone, both 1922, and Jell-O and Marmon Crankshaft, both 1923, approach pure abstraction. All are handed with a detached impersonality and impartiality—a certain superior indifference to their banality.

The German Albert Renger-Patzsch’s New Objectivist photographs of mass-produced objects made during the same decade have a similar abstract, “transcendental” thrust. They make the commonplace seem uncommon, transforming it into a quasi-Platonic form—the idea of a thing rather than the thing itself. In 1925, Outerbridge went to Paris, becoming acquainted with Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, and Berenice Abbott; we may detect these artists’ influence in Outerbridge’s quasi-Surrealist work Fantasy, 1926. The Triumph of the Egg, 1932, is much more convincing: Here, Outerbridge abandons “found objects,” instead taking constructed geometric forms as his subject matter. Made after his return to New York in 1929, that masterpiece is the grand abstract climax of his avant-garde period, a realization of aesthetic idealism.

For a while, Outerbridge also worked commercially in Paris—he had the largest, best-equipped advertising photography studio anywhere, and shot for French Vogue—and in New York he made almost nothing but commercial photographs. All one has to do is compare the aforementioned semiabstract still life The Kitchen Table: A Study in Ellipses with Kitchen Scene (Canning), ca. 1936—a stiff, creepily synthetic, and staged domestic arrangement—to get the point.

Outerbridge became obsessed with color, making high-tech carbon-based prints, which were resistant to fading, unlike silver-based black-and-white prints. The lastingness of these glossy, bright, and shiny color photographs suggested the products depicted would be as immortal as the picture. Kandinsky wrote about the emotional import of colors; Outerbridge’s spiffy, reified colors are emotionally dead on arrival. Though they may never fade, there is something brittle about Outerbridge’s color photographs, even when he softens them, as he does in his photographs of female nudes (once forbidden, now rather tiresome clichés). The woman in Nude Lying on Love Seat, 1936, looks like she’s been lifted from a Modigliani; the subject of the somewhat more risqué Nude with Mask and Hat, 1936, looks like she’s posing for a role in an s/m film; the nude in Beauty, 1936, is fresh off the Santa Monica assembly line that Billy Wilder said mass-produced Hollywood starlets. Yet there’s nothing seductive about Outerbridge’s nudes, or about his color.

In the strangely titled advertising image Kandinsky (Advertising Shot for Cinzano), 1937, Outerbridge pays nostalgic homage to his old abstract composition, but it now exists to popularize a brand of vermouth. Appropriated for commercial ends, abstraction has lost its intellectual luster—but the blatant, pushy, glamorizing color compensates for the loss. Color communicates the product effectively: Indeed, the image all but jumps into your lap.

Donald Kuspit