New York group shifted world of photography

ART

Art Column

September 27, 2006|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

There's a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek painting by American artist Mark Tansey called Triumph of the New York School. In it, Tansey imagines the seismic shift in the art world's center of gravity from Paris to New York that occurred after World War II as an American military victory.

In Tansey's whimsical depiction, the generals on both sides are painters and critics -- Picasso, Matisse and Andre Breton for the European modernists; Pollock, de Kooning and Clement Greenberg for the New York School Abstract-Expressionists -- and they're shown in various uniforms arrayed around a field desk near the battlefield as if signing terms of surrender.

Tansey was a painter, however, and in the mid-1980s, when he created the work, neither he nor anyone else much thought about the equally significant shift in postwar photography that, in effect, had constituted a second "triumph of the New York School." (Not surprisingly, there are no photographers -- or photography critics -- in Tansey's clever but wholly apocryphal scene.)

It wasn't until the early 1990s that art historian Jane Livingston dubbed the loosely affiliated group of American photographers who were working from the 1930s to the 1960s -- and who included such seminal figures as Robert Frank, Louis Faurer, Sid Grossman, Richard Avedon, Diane Arbus and Weegee -- the "New York School."

Now these brash American photographers are the subject of The Streets of New York, a delightful exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington of about 70 works.

These rebellious young artists, whose movement passed relatively unnoticed at the time, wrought a revolution in their own medium that was every bit as sweeping as the change brought about by the New York School painters.

In doing so, they wrested creative leadership from photography's "School of Paris," exemplified by such European masters as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Andre Kertesz and Eugene Atget, as decisively as Pollock and de Kooning had vanquished Picasso and Matisse.

If there were any article of faith common to the New York photographers, it was that there were no rules that couldn't be broken to serve their expressive ends. Though they respected Cartier-Bresson's "decisive moment," Kertesz's picaresque humanism and Atget's formal elegance, they were perfectly happy to chuck the Europeans' aesthetic if it got in their way.

Their pictures were sometimes blurry, grainy, out-of-focus or otherwise noticeably off-kilter. Weegee's lurid crime scenes and Arbus' deadpan images of misfits and outcasts, in particular, seemed so far removed from the conventions of polite taste as to be barely admissible as artworks.

Yet the work had an elemental, raw power that was undeniable. The New York photographers sought to capture the immediate, gritty experience of urban life, not just its image, and they were willing to stray far beyond the medium's accepted conventions to achieve their goal.

Ted Croner, for example, a Baltimore native who moved to New York in the late 1940s to pursue a career in commercial photography, quickly found himself bored by mass-market magazine illustration.

Croner began taking crazy-canted, long-exposure images of the city at night, in which the illumination from office buildings and the lights of passing cars swirled together in luminous streaks that expressed the jittery, transitory character of experience in a great metropolis.

Sid Grossman produced sympathetic, unflinchingly honest portraits of working-class people. Helen Levitt mined the rich street life of children, and Roy Decarava revealed the rich humanity of his African-American neighbors in Harlem.

None of them expected to make a dime from this work; some, such as Avedon, Croner, Arbus and Faurer, had day jobs as fashion photographers. Weegee was a newspaperman, Grossman taught, and Decarava and Levitt mostly made do on freelance assignments.

Yet the financial challenges they faced only made their achievement the more remarkable. The National Gallery exhibition celebrates a decisive moment in history when a small band of adventurous, supremely ambitious photographers rewrote the rulebook and laid the foundation for every important development in their medium that followed.

"The Streets of New York" runs through Jan. 15 at the National Gallery of Art, Seventh Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest in Washington. Call 202-737-4215 or visit nga.gov.

glenn.mcnatt@baltsun.com

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