28
Jul
13

Exhibition: ‘A World of Bonds: Frederick Sommer’s Photography and Friendships’ at the National Gallery of Art, Washington

Exhibition dates: 16th June – 4th August 2013

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Frederick Sommer is not as well known as others in the famous quintet (the others being Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Minor White and Paul Strand). He is the (slightly) forgotten master. But for those that know his work, Frederick Sommer is the photographer’s photographer.

There is a visual and intellectual alchemy transmitted through his work. It is as if he was a magician, producing images out of thin air: paper cuts, smoke on glass, collage, found objects, rites, passages, cleavages, heroes, occultism (Paracelsus was a Renaissance physician, botanist, alchemist, astrologer, and general occultist). From the few photographs I have seen in the flesh his prints, like his thinking, have a volume to them that few other photographers can match. Here I must cede to the knowledge of my friend and photographer Ian Lobb who visited Sommer at his home in Prescott, Arizona.

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“You will notice with FS prints that the only date given is the date of the negative. This is not unusual of course, but one of FS strengths is being interested in returning to a negative and print it with enthusiasm after looking at other versions for a very long time.

Another strength is a really simple strong way of working – according to Les Walkling, FS had a block of wood the same size as an 8×10 contact print. By placing the print on this base as he spotted, the print was always raised above his work environment and the chance of an accident was reduced. So simple  – so elegant.  I see this state of mind repeated – eg when he was out photographing with Siskind and he found a pile of X-rays and said that this was his work for the day.

Caponigro and Sommer are the ones that make their technical skill communicate in very unique ways. By chronology, Sommer is the first one who found that something beyond the f/64 Group vocabulary could be said. Whereas Edward Weston and Paul Strand are working at about 3/10 for their prints, Sommer is working at 9/10. He doesn’t always get there in every print but when he succeeds the results are beyond what any other classical photographer ever achieved in the physical presence of the photograph.

Venus, Jupiter and Mars was the first extended viewing of Sommer that arrived here (in Australia). It would have been at the Printed Image (bookshop) in 1981.”

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Many thankx to the National Gallery of Art for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

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Frederick Sommer. 'Venus, Jupiter and Mars' 1949

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Frederick Sommer
Venus, Jupiter and Mars
1949
Gelatin silver print
23.8 x 19.1 cm (9 3/8 x 7 1/2 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Frederick Sommer

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Frederick Sommer. 'Valise d'Adam' 1949

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Frederick Sommer
Valise d’Adam
1949
Gelatin silver print
23.9 x 18.9 cm (9 7/16 x 7 7/16 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Frederick Sommer

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Against a backdrop of rusting metal, Frederick Sommer arranged a grouping of found objects. A clipboard clamp represents a head and shoulders while dirty, cracking doll’s arms and legs provide more literal context, defining the object as a human body. Within that fragmented body, Sommer places a complete doll with its head pointed downward, as if ready to be born.  The photograph’s French title, Valise d’Adam, or as Sommer translated it, Adam’s Traveling Case, is a sly reference to the idea that man travels through woman into the world, and perhaps, woman even carries man through life.

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Frederick Sommer. 'Moon Culmination' 1951

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Frederick Sommer
Moon Culmination
1951
gelatin silver print
24.2 x 19.2 cm (9 1/2 x 7 9/16 in.)
Gift of Frederick Sommer

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Aaron Siskind. 'Manzanillo, Mexico' 1955

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Aaron Siskind
Manzanillo, Mexico
1955
Gelatin silver print
35.6 x 27.8 cm (14 x 10 15/16 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, René Huyghe Collection
Image courtesy of the Aaron Siskind Foundation

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Frederick Sommer. 'Untitled' 1947

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Frederick Sommer
Untitled
1947
Gelatin silver print
24.2 x 19.1 cm (9 1/2 x 7 1/2 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Frederick Sommer

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Frederick Sommer. 'The Anatomy of a Chicken' 1939

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Frederick Sommer
The Anatomy of a Chicken
1939
Gelatin silver print mounted on paperboard
24.1 x 19 cm (9 1/2 x 7 1/2 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Frederick Sommer

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Frederick Sommer. 'Cut Paper' 1980

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Frederick Sommer
Cut Paper
1980
gelatin silver print
24.2 x 18.7 cm (9 1/2 x 7 3/8 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Frederick Sommer

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Frederick Sommer. 'Paracelsus' 1957

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Frederick Sommer
Paracelsus
1957
Gelatin silver print
34.3 x 25.6 cm (13 1/2 x 10 1/16 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Frederick Sommer

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“The National Gallery of Art explores the continuities in Frederick Sommer’s varied body of work and demonstrates the influence of his friendships with fellow artists in the exhibition A World of Bonds: Frederick Sommer’s Photography and Friendships, on view in the East Building from June 16 to August 4, 2013. Drawn from the Gallery’s significant holdings, which include a major 1995 gift from the artist himself, the exhibition showcases 27 works by Sommer, Edward Weston, Max Ernst, Man Ray, Aaron Siskind, and Charles Sheeler, including three pieces on loan from other museums and private collections.

“The Gallery is privileged to display this influential body of work, which illuminates Frederick Sommer’s interactions with his fellow artists,” said Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art. “In addition to photographs drawn from our permanent collection, we are grateful to the lenders who have assisted us in revealing the continuities in Sommer’s broad range of work, as well as The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation for its generous support.”

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About the exhibition

The exhibition showcases the beauty and diversity of Sommer’s striking images and places them in the context of his formative friendships with such prominent contemporaries as Edward Weston, Max Ernst, Man Ray, Charles Sheeler, and Aaron Siskind.

As an artist, Frederick Sommer notoriously defies classification. Over the span of more than 60 years, he created paintings, drawings, and photographs, as well as collages, musical scores, poetry, and theoretical texts. Today, Sommer is best known for his photography, the medium in which he produced his most inventive visual experiments and which best suited the breadth of his visual interests. These ranged from disorienting desert landscapes to surrealistic arrangements of found objects, and to abstractions that brought together drawing and photography.

“All rare things should be lent away / and I have borrowed very freely,” Sommer wrote of his art. He also asserted that “the world is not a world of cleavages, it is a world of bonds.” This exhibition examines both claims, offering a glimpse into the ways in which Sommer shared ideas with his contemporaries while simultaneously creating a body of work uniquely his own.

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About the artist

Just as he defied the bounds of medium and genre, Sommer, who lived in the small town of Prescott, Arizona, also never fully belonged to any artistic group or movement. His work reflects both wide-ranging personal interests and a broad scope of artistic affinities with artists as divergent as the surrealists and the members of the f/64 group of West Coast photographers.

Sommer’s circle of close artist-friends and mentors helps explain his idiosyncratic sensibilities. This circle included the photographer Edward Weston, whose precise attention to the details of the natural world inspired Sommer’s turn to photography. Equally important to Sommer, however, was his friendship with Max Ernst, the surrealist whose automatic painting techniques and uncanny imagery encouraged Sommer to reconfigure familiar objects into strange new creations. Aaron Siskind was yet another close friend and peer with whom Sommer shared a fascination with the abstract textures of everyday materials. Other artists represented in the exhibition who influenced Sommer’s approach to photographing assemblages and his exploration of photographic abstraction include Man Ray and Charles Sheeler.”

Text from the National Gallery of Art website

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Frederick Sommer. 'Coyotes' 1945

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Frederick Sommer
Coyotes
1945
Gelatin silver print mounted on paperboard
19 x 24.2 cm (7 1/2 x 9 1/2 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Frederick Sommer

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John Cato. 'Man tracks #9R' from the 'Mantracks' series 1978 - 83

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John Cato
Man tracks #9R
from the Mantracks series 1978 – 83
Gelatin silver photograph
42.9 x 35.2 cm

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Frederick Sommer. 'Ondine' 1950

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Frederick Sommer
Ondine
1950
Gelatin silver print mounted on paperboard
19.2 x 24.3 cm (7 9/16 x 9 9/16 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Frederick Sommer

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Frederick Sommer. 'Taylor, Arizona' 1945

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Frederick Sommer
Taylor, Arizona
1945
Gelatin silver print
19.2 x 24.2 cm (7 9/16 x 9 1/2 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Frederick Sommer

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Frederick Sommer. 'Max Ernst' 1946

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Frederick Sommer
Max Ernst
1946
Gelatin silver print
19.05 x 24.13 cm (7 1/2 x 9 1/2 in.)
Collection of Susan and Peter MacGill
Frederick & Frances Sommer Foundation

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Frederick Sommer. 'Untitled' 1947

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Frederick Sommer
Untitled
1947
Gelatin silver print
19 x 24 cm (7 1/2 x 9 7/16 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Frederick Sommer

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Frederick Sommer. 'Coyotes' 1941

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Frederick Sommer
Coyotes
1941
Gelatin silver print
19.1 x 24.1 cm (7 1/2 x 9 1/2 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Frederick Sommer

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Les Walkling (Australia born 1953) 'Flypaper' 1980

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Les Walkling (Australia born 1953)
Flypaper
1980
Gelatin silver photograph
19.1 h x 24.3 w cm
Gift of the Philip Morris Arts Grant 1982
© Les Walkling

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Frederick Sommer. 'Lacryma' 1992

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Frederick Sommer
Lacryma
1992
Collage of photomechanical reproductions of lithographic, relief and intaglio prints on
heavyweight wove paper
36 x 42.4 cm (14 3/16 x 16 11/16 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Frederick Sommer

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Frederick Sommer. 'Drawing' 1948

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Frederick Sommer
Drawing
1948
Tempera on black wove paper
30.4 x 46.9 cm (11 15/16 x 18 7/16 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Frederick Sommer

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Frederick Sommer. 'The Queen of Sheba' 1992

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Frederick Sommer
The Queen of Sheba
1992
Collage of photomechanical reproductions of relief and intaglio prints on heavyweight wove
paper
21.8 x 31.8 cm (8 9/16 x 12 1/2 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Frederick Sommer

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Fiona Hall. 'Envy, Seven Deadly Sins' 1985

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Fiona Hall
Envy, Seven Deadly Sins
1985
Polaroid photograph
61 × 50.8cm
© Fiona Hall

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National Gallery of Art
National Mall between 3rd and 7th Streets
Constitution Avenue NW, Washington

Opening hours:
Monday – Saturday 1000 am – 5.00 pm
Sunday 11.00 am – 6.00 pm

National Gallery of Art website

Frederick Sommer website

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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