- The Washington Times - Friday, August 27, 2004

Famous American photographer Aaron Siskind (1903-1991) liked breaking rules. That predilection is now on full display at the Phillips Collection in “Aaron Siskind: New Relationships in Photography,” an exhibit presenting 45 tradition-bucking images from the late 1930s through the 1980s.

Exhibit curator Stephen Bennett Phillips considers Mr. Siskind one of the great 20th century photographers as well as a highly influential photography teacher.

Mr. Phillips has focused in this show on the Siskind black and white — drastically cropped, close-up images he considers “abstract,” a somewhat misleading term in this context.

Representational photography was what the artist did when he began his career in Depression-racked Harlem. Born and raised in New York City, Mr. Siskind initially taught English in the New York City public schools for 21 years, from 1926 to 1947.

Mr. Siskind’s subject matter intensively and clearly reflects the world around him, whether he’s shooting sinuous strands of seaweed on the beach or conveying the look of black tar brushed on patterned asphalt.

The photographer expresses his subject’s essence. He does this by elegantly and carefully capturing the textures and surfaces of large and small rocks on Martha’s Vineyard; seaweed and found objects from the Gloucester, Mass., beaches; driftwood from Cape Cod; sections of facades of old city buildings; peeling paint on disintegrating wood walls; and photographs sporting the signature paint drips of abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock.

Mr. Siskind recognized that photography was a static medium, in contrast to the typically more fluid medium of painting. He took advantage of the stationary character of photography to expertly emphasize the patterns and surfaces of what he saw.

An especially handsome example is the photograph “Martha’s Vineyard 107B”, in which the huge tilted rocks balance one another much like those in sculptures by the Japanese-American Isamu Noguchi.

The curator makes too much of the photographer’s “very personal” connections with international surrealism, citing the curving lines of the photographer’s seaweed series as reflections of those of Joan Miro and Paul Klee.

Mr. Phillips writes in the introductory label that the photographer “continued to experiment with his own brand of surrealism and symbolism” when he photographed found objects such as a painter’s discarded glove in his “Gloucester” series of the mid-1940s.

Mr. Phillips also emphasizes Mr. Siskind’s friendships with abstract expressionists Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning and Mr. Pollock by including several small Kline ink-on-paper sketches and oil paintings on paper by Mr. De Kooning and Mr. Pollock.

While Mr. Siskind’s aims differed significantly from those of the abstract expressionist painters, there are a few photos here that do show some of that school’s influences. These works are among the worst in the exhibit.

In “Gloucester I” (1944), for example, the downward falling drips from a triangular shape look like an afterthought, especially as they conflict compositionally with the print’s otherwise right-to-left horizontal thrust.

Nowhere in the exhibition does Mr. Phillips display examples of Mr. Siskind’s famous series “Terrors and Pleasures of Levitation,” taken in the 1950s and 1960s, then printed around 1972. The curator says the figurative series of boys energetically jumping off a pier didn’t fit the thrust of the Siskind exhibition. Although ignored in this exhibit, these photos show that Mr. Siskind brought an unusual passion to the social documentary images he shot from 1932 to 1941.

The artist found himself turning to a more symbolic and individualistic kind of photography in the later 1930s, when he was inspired by the discarded objects he discovered on Martha’s Vineyard.

The last room in the exhibition presents works from a later photographic series, “Homage to Franz Kline.” Photographs like “Lima 63” from the series demonstrate the worst of what could be called abstract expressionist mimicking. “Jalapa 35” (1975) is stronger and looks like a detail from a Kline painting. None of the Siskind images measures up to the tensions and energies of the Kline sketches.

Mr. Siskind writes, “When I photograph I want it to be an altogether new object, complete and self-contained.” Although he looks to other artistic movements, as do all artists, he bends an object’s “look” until it becomes what he wants.

No rules existed for this photographer. For Aaron Siskind the term “abstraction” was superfluous.

WHAT: “Aaron Siskind: New Relationships in Photography”

WHERE: Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, until 8:30 p.m. Thursdays, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. Closed Mondays. Through Sept. 5

TICKETS: $8 adults, $6 seniors and students

PHONE: 202/387-2151

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