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Arnold Newman @ Contemporary Jewish Museum

Igor Stravinsky, New York, 1946
 
He wheedled, cajoled, sweet-talked, bullied, threatened, flattered, and, when necessary, pulled levers of power to gain access to people and places he needed to photograph.  By the time Arnold Newman died in 2006 at age 88, he had amassed as many images of 20th century icons as any photographer who ever lived, including, among others, Yousuf Karsh, Irving Penn and Richard Avedon. 
 
Masterclass, a stunning retrospective organized by the Minneapolis-based Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography, makes this point even before you enter the exhibition by way of an enormous wall text containing capsule biographies of every subject on view, 132 in all.  Their ranks include not only the visual

Jean Dubuffet, 1956

artists for whose portraits Newman is best known, but also a great many other mid-century public figures: authors (Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Truman Capote), composers (Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein), world leaders (John F. Kennedy, David Ben-Gurion, Richard Nixon), architects (Robert Moses, Frank Lloyd Wright) choreographers (Geoffrey Holder, Agnes De Mille, Martha Graham) and scientists (James Watson, Robert Oppenheimer). 

Newman’s greatness, however, did not reside in the tagging and bagging of stars; he detested celebrity and studiously avoided anyone he considered “famous for being famous.” Rather, it was in how he presented them and how he applied modernist thinking about painting, architecture and design to photographic portraiture. Today that may sound elemental, but in the early 1940s when Newman began, portraiture hadn’t evolved much beyond what it had been when photography was invented 100 years earlier.  In the publications (Life, Look, Newsweek, Harper’s Bazaar, The New York Times, The Saturday Evening Post) where his work most often appeared, that often meant headshots against unimaginative studio backdrops or props.  The main exceptions were Walker Evans, whose documentary approach was closer to activism than to portraiture, and August Sander and Lewis Hine, exemplars of the typological study. None of them touted exemplary individuals as Newman did. His specialty, the artist portrait, had two clear forerunners: Edward Steichen and Man Ray. 
 
Piet Mondrian,  New York, 1942

Newman’s problem with their approaches, and with portraiture in general, was a lack of context.  “With only a close-up of a face or a head you are not saying a bloody thing except showing what a man or woman looked like,” Newman is quoted saying in the exhibition catalog.  “Every artist,” he continued, “is a different human being, a different kind of person, a different kind of personality, a different kind of psyche, and all of this the photographer should reflect.”  Newman’s solution was to photograph his subjects in their studios or in workplaces, an approach that was subsequently dubbed “environmental portraiture.” He didn’t invent the term, nor did he like it; he preferred “symbolic portrait.”  Nevertheless, he vastly elevated the concept by injecting into it the compositional mannerisms that defined mid-century Modernism: grids, geometric forms, biomorphic shapes and so forth.  Backed by extensive research into the lives of his subjects, Newman located those elements wherever he went and he fused them with his subjects in ways that made them appear inseparable from their work. 

Conversely, there were plenty of times when he suspended his own injunction against using physiognomy to tell a story. His headshots of Picasso and Dubuffet, for example, are two of the strongest artist portraits in the show, equal in communicative power to any made in situ.  A tight shot of Truman Capote’s face, which isn’t included the show but should be, shows him as the tipsy rake he was, hat askew, hand across his mouth as if

Marchel Duchamp, New York, 1942

reacting to a bawdy joke. (The Capote photo we do see, showing the writer reclining seductively on a sofa, is suitably louche, but not half as effective as the close-up.)  In other instances – as with Gore Vidal and Philip Guston – who he photographed against backdrops in the manner of Avedon, the results were successful for having isolated the subjects. 

Newman once remarked that a great portrait needed to first be a great photograph; but the reverse wasn’t always true.  Newman, who trained as a painter before switching to photography to earn a living, showed himself to be perfectly capable of making superbly crafted images that fell short as portraits.  His 1950 photo of Alfred Barr and Dorothy Miller, director and curator, of the Museum of Modern Art, foregrounds a variety of objects and artworks related to them, but it practically banishes them.  The photo reads like an ad for an estate sale. At other times sitters had clearly become exasperated by Newman ’s experiments.  The photographer could be notoriously prickly when things weren’t going his way, and several photos attest to that.  The painter Alex Katz looks like he’s about to slug him.  So does Jasper Johns.  In these instances it would have been helpful to see contact sheets from those sessions to learn what preceded and followed the shots Newman selected.  As the artist observed: “There are many things that are false about photography,” chief among them the misleading impressions that can be taken from a single shot.  “You must recognize this and build on it, and then maybe you’ll have art.” 
 
Some of the best examples of Newman’s art come from beginning of his career, when he began making forays from his home in Philadelphia into New York. There, in addition to meeting museum curators and taking encouragement from Alfred Stieglitz, he visited the studios of the European émigrés who’d fled Hitler, as well the lofts of the abstract expressionists who, at that time, were known only to each other.  Of the dozens of outstanding images from this period, his portrait of Piet Mondrian is certainly one of the greatest.  It shows the artist in profile against two dark paper rectangles set on a white wall.  Into that arrangement Newman placed

Max Ernst, New York, 1942

an easel perpendicular to the wall.  Its interlocking three-dimensional parts appear to rest both outside the picture plane and on it.  The stiff, linear portrait sums up Mondrian, exactly. Alexander Calder Newman stationed at the intersection of two walls, one white, the other black.  At the center he placed a wood sculpture containing two upright wires, each of which suspends a different small object, one dark, the other light.  Calder stands in the middle of the setup, the very picture of kinetic equipoise.  Max Ernest, the surrealist, Newman pictured in a high-backed wood chair next to a Kachina doll, his face and blonde mane swathed in a cloud of cigarette smoke: a sorcerer.  Duchamp, Newman shot pipe in hand, standing behind his installation of 16 Miles of String, a room-sized cat’s cradle that fractures the artist’s face and body into intersecting planes, suggestive of the sort of geometric abstraction that would enter painting a decade later.  If there’s a single career-defining image, it’s the one Newman made of Igor Stravinsky seated at a grand piano with the lid up.  The gigantic, bulbous shape of it dominates the picture and looks very much like forms that Jean Arp and Adolf Gottlieb were making at around the same time, 1946.  It’s one of the greatest photographic portraits ever made.  That it was commissioned and later rejected by Alexey Brodovitch, the famed Harper’s Bazaar art director, now seems ironic in view of the fact that it subsequently became Newman’s most circulated photo. 

Andy Warhol,  The Factor, New York, 1973

Teasing out the crosscurrents in a career as lengthy and as variegated as Newman’s couldn’t have been easy, but William A. Ewing, the curator of Masterclass, does a superb job of it. He organizes the exhibition into eight categories that reflect Newman's thinking and work modes : “Searches,” “Lumen,” “Geometries,” “Sensibilities,” “Weaving,” “Signatures,” “Choices,” and “Habitats.”  Visually, the differences between them aren’t always clear-cut, since certain devices like Newman’s preference for strong geometric shapes, is something of a through-line. But certain headings, like “Habitats,” are truly instructive.  It traces Newman’s preference for abstraction to his early days, when he was working at a 49-cent portrait studio by day and roaming the streets of Philadelphia in his time off, recording architectural details that – no accident – strongly resembled contemporary painting.  “Weavings” a section devoted to Newman’s use of collage, shows how he conceived the intermingling of abstract elements and human faces though double exposures, sandwiched negatives and cut-up prints.  With Louise Nevelson, he combined two negatives to make it appear as if her body had grown organically out of her sculpture. Warhol’s face, a composite of ripped prints, gives off the spookiness of a ransom note.  While such images are outliers within Newman’s oeuvre, they serve as a pipeline to his brain, key examples being the “straight” photos of a similarly “woven” character that he took of so many artists, Isamu Noguchi’s being a particularly strong case in point.  In this, Newman makes Noguchi’s face part of a sculpture: a dimly lit silhouette framed by stark black lines. 

Alfried Krupp, Essen, German, 1963

No doubt, each of these photos has a backstory.  The most amazing one concerns how he managed, on assignment for Newsweek in 1963, to secure a sitting with Alfried Krupp, the German industrialist (and convicted war criminal) who supplied armaments to the Nazis.  Newman’s ghoulish, green-tinted photo of him in a derelict factory ranks among the greatest character assassinations of all time.  As he told an interviewer for the Getty Archives: “I deliberately put a knife in Krupp's back, visually. He was a friend of Hitler's and Hitler let him use prisoners as slave labor. If the prisoners fell, he just unchained them and they went directly into the crematoriums in Auschwitz.

“Krupp's people realized I was Jewish, and they were worried that I might not be kind to him.”  (Krupp reportedly consented after seeing Newman’s portfolio.)  “I was trying to figure a way to show who he really was without being obvious. I lit from both sides and I said, ‘Would you lean forward.’ And my hair stood up on end. The light from the sides made him look like the devil. It's an un-retouched photograph. He actually was a handsome man.”  "Krupp, when he saw Newman’s portrait, was enraged.  Newman was elated: “As a Jew, it’s my own little moment of revenge.” Ayn Rand, author of the libertarian touchstone Atlas Shrugged received similar treatment.  With a dollar sign pinned to her lapel, and a cigarette clasped between her middle and forth finger, she stared into his camera with a defiant, unforgiving glare. 
 
Indeed, when Newman nailed his quarry, the results were definitive. 
–DAVID M. ROTH
 
Arnold Newman: Masterclass @ the Contemporary Jewish Museum through February 1, 2015. 

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