I traveled to Akron, Ohio last week to see the opening of the Edward Weston show at the Akron Art Museum. The purpose of my visit wasn't completely artistic. Akron is my home town so it was a chance to spend a day with my father. If the show had opened in Columbus, I'm not sure I would have made the trip! Still, the show tugged me west for more reasons than a family visit.
Michael Mattis is a name that comes up frequently in photography circles. Together with his wife, Judith Hochberg, he is an avid collector. He also has a strong philanthropic profile. He has helped build the collections of two museums about which I care a lot: ICP and Akron Art Museum(AAM). Part of his philanthropic profile is also his involvement with an organization called art2art Circulating Exhibitions. Art2art was responsible for this show of Weston from the Mattis-Hochberg collection.
(A little side note here. Mr. Mattis has a played a significant role in another recent post. He is one of the principle players in the Mike Disfarmer narrative (www.disfarmer.org is his website devoted to that subject). While we may disagree on some of the talking points about Disfarmer, we have many more points of agreement. I didn't name names in the Disfarmer post for just this reason. I want my posts to be about ideas and thoughts, not personal attacks. Whatever our disagreement about one photographer or another, I have tremendous respect and gratitude for Mattis' philanthropic philosphy.)
As a supporter of AAM, I was invited to a vernissage dinner at which Mr. Mattis was scheduled to give a tour of the show. Though I am familiar with him by reputation and word of mouth, I had never met him, nor heard him speak. Michael Mattis revealed himself to be an articulate and passionate speaker on the subject of Weston and the history of photography in general. I guess it's no surprise that someone who has amassed such an important collection would have a scholarly knowledge of the subject.
The show is comprehensive starting with early examples of his work as a commercial studio photographer and ending with his final photograph, The Dody Rocks (1948). In between, the photos are grouped generally by period, but also by some of the subjects that Weston used most effectively. So, we start in California and Mexico, then progress through portraits, nudes, and still lifes, and finish with the sand dunes and California landscapes he worked on at the end of his life.
Though the exhibit is filled with eye-popping examples, I had my favorites. There were a few platinum prints scattered through the first few rooms that were just exquisite. They came from a tight little period between 1921-23 and were mostly portraits. The portraits of fellow artists Johan Hagemeyer (1921) and Tina Modotti (1921) were character studies of the first order, while the portrait of Ralph Pearson beguiled with unusual framing, exquisite use of shadows, and genius use of negative space that limned an adobe wall as abstraction. Of course, the photo of the smokestacks of the Armco factory in Ohio was a treat to see both for its magnificent print quality and the way it showed Weston's move away from Pictorialism towards modernism.
Later in the show, there was the room devoted to Weston still lifes. One was not surprised to see the iconically famous "Nautilus" and "Pepper #30." A bigger treat for me, though, was to see Peppers from the series that were new to me plus two remarkable detail studies; one of the fins of the underside of a toadstool and the other a cabbage leaf that could as easily been the veins on the forearm of a sculptor. I had never seen any of these as anything but reproductions, so it was a revelatory treat to see them in person.
Akron's pleasure is New York's loss. I've posted here many times what a vigorous and exciting program AAM consistently mounts. It made me wonder what kind of reception this show would receive if it came to NYC. Would the NY audience feel they had seen it all before because a few fine examples are occasionally seen at the Met or MoMA? Would the show be seen as too classical in a city where the word "contemporary" sometimes doesn't extend back 5 years? Or would we see it as a chance to re-visit and renew our pleasure and knowledge in a foundational figure in photography? I would love to find out. In any case, I'm glad I didn't stay home.