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Party on!
‘Amazing’ photos at Tufts; plus Harry Callahan

The challenge of assembling a large group exhibit, especially one whose content spans centuries, styles, cultures, and æsthetics (not to mention the original purpose of the objects on view), bears some relation to the challenge of throwing a party. How do you bring people together in ways that don’t seem straitjacketed on the one hand and random on the other? How do you create groups and combinations that excite one another without the excitement’s becoming incendiary? How do you mix old with new, serious with playful, traditional with wild so that they complement each other? And though hosts ordinarily disappear among their guests, how do you relax the grip of the curatorial hand so that viewers have a sense of making their own connections instead of retracing someone else’s?

Memorable parties, like memorable group exhibits, are no mean trick, and what makes "The Amazing & the Immutable" (never mind the title) more memorable still is that it never once calls attention to its intelligence. No curator’s name beneath the show’s title, no invasive wall texts, no pedantry. All by themselves, the 114 photographs that bring together the collections of two Florida collectors, Robert Drapkin and Martin Margulies, at Tufts University’s Aidekman Arts Center make for a richly idiosyncratic show (early experimenters in the medium combined with modern practitioners and little in between) that unfolds with frequently whimsical and sometimes unsettling juxtapositions of images. It’s the rare exhibit that actually is bigger than the sum of its parts.

A team of four put "The Amazing & the Immutable" together. Their leader, Noel Smith, is curator of education at the University of South Florida’s Institute for Research in Art, and I felt the true educator’s guidance while moving through the show, an invisible Aristotelian force that brings you face to face with questions not only about art and artifice but more significantly about the meaning of what we see.

The pair of photographs that you see on entering the gallery set the terms of the show. (This is one of those exhibits that wants to confront all of your ocular baggage, so be prepared.) On a narrow wall towers Bernhard Prinz’s 2000 September, a six-foot-tall Cibachrome print of a blondish twentysomething. Wearing an updated dirndl and a cloth in her hair that suggests she’s posing at work, she looks like a world-weary Cinderella on testosterone. Immediately to her right appears a small (20 by 16 inches), demure, pubescent nymph whose muted tones in tinted platinum date from 1901, Rudolf Eickemeyer’s Evelyn Nesbit/Beauty As Evidence. The two women have in common unflinching gazes, pearly skin, youth and red lips and beauty, but it’s clear that our job is to appreciate the differences: big versus little, full-bodied versus head shot, sharp versus gentle, lantern-jawed versus finely featured, recent versus past, anonymous versus early-20th-century celebrity — Prinz’s big-shouldered fräulein with the cheekbones of an opera singer and the eyes of a vampire versus Eickemeyer’s feathery-haired, garland-crowned cherubic beauty.

So far, so good — but then you might start to realize that how we respond, what we believe we’re looking at, is dictated by convention. Prinz’s woman seems authentic because we’re familiar with her clothes and her attitude and the fingers on which she wears her rings, but in fact she’s as much the staged model as Evelyn Nesbit, as much the photographer’s vehicle as was her counterpart of a century ago. Look past the Lady Godiva hair and the outmoded tiara and the comely features of Nesbit and she’ll seem considerably more willful and decidedly more unknowable.

A nearby grouping offers up a different kind of surprise, with four black-and-white grids from Eadweard Muybridge’s Locomotion Studies (1884-’87) positioned near Spencer Tunick’s Barriers 1 (Williamsburg Bridge) from 1998. In this selection from the series that anticipated motion pictures with a frame-by-frame scrutinizing of, in these instances, human locomotion, two men fence, another man swings a baseball bat, another throws water from a bucket, and two women ambulate and converse. Not only is each grid small (21 by 25 inches), but each uses as many as 24 separate stills to complete the movement under study. All of Muybridge’s subjects perform in the nude with the exception of the fencers, who are wearing thongs. In Tunick’s large (60 by 48 inches) and colorful Barriers, naked men and women appear together in the same frame, and he’s positioned them, Muybridge-style, to create a static grid. We see 80 or 90 or 100 women and men from behind and above as they lie on their backs in four even rows that converge to microscopic forms across the expanse of the Williamsburg Bridge.

I’ve been seeing excerpts from Locomotion Studies for decades, but only in the context of Spencer Tunick’s photo did they ever register as kinky. When did studying the locomotion of hitting a baseball or throwing a bucket of water require a subject to disrobe? By the same token, had it not been for Muybridge’s nearby studies, Tunick’s Barriers would never had taken on the weight of a mathematical inquiry.

Seen by itself, Zhang Huan’s big (60 by 40 inches), colorful self-portrait (Sunshine, from 1998), in which the naked artist squats on a snow-covered hillside with one doll in his lap and another straddling his shoulders behind his neck, would seem a joke. Can Zhang’s deadpan expression overcome the ridiculousness of the setting? To the left of Sunshine hang two small (about 18 by 17 inches) color portraits from the 19th century. The one immediately to the left is another self-portrait, of the Italian photographer Giorgio Sommer, from 1860; to its left we see Kusakabe Kimbei’s Japanese Man with Flag, from 1870. Kimbei’s man, in a G-string and seemingly in mid dance, is so embellished, he could pose for royalty in a deck of cards. Giorgio Sommer turns out to be no less ornate, sporting a hat that trails feathers past his shoulder and a uniform reminiscent of a palace guard. Each man is in high costume; each presents himself from behind a mask. Yet the only mask we’re initially disposed to see is Zhang’s — as if the preposterous were without nuance and complexity. And it’s only Zhang’s proximity to the other two that encourages us to see past their superficial seriousness to the games they’re playing.

IF THE OVERRIDING ENERGY of "The Amazing & the Immutable" relates to the slipperiness of the truth in a photographic image, the opposite can be said of the 50 photographs by Harry Callahan on view at Gallery Kayafas. If King Solomon or Teiresias had been a photographer and had lived between 1912 and 1999, these might be his images: fiercely exact, as premeditated as sonnets, and though never linear or mathematical so impeccably composed as to suggest crystals. Callahan’s pleasures, the ones he pursued and the ones he delivers, were almost exclusively intellectual: his was a need for and a celebration of order. In one of his "Studies" from 1948, a snow-covered birdbath and nearby pocketbook — rendered at just over two inches square and with the contrast turned up so the snow offers no competing texture or quality — suggest teetering monuments. The snow melts into the surrounding white matte, so that the birdbath and the bag become magnified. In another black-and-white shot, Eleanor, Chicago, 1952, a tangle of sublimely articulated tree branches frames the artist’s wife, who stands dead center in the lower fifth of the space. Her dark hair and coat act to make the confusion above her appear to coalesce and resolve.

The exhibit’s press release argues, not without reason, that Callahan was the most important modern American photographer. First to be in the Venice Biennale and the National Gallery; protégé of Moholy-Nagy at the New Bauhaus in Chicago; founder of the photography program at the Rhode Island School of Design. You wouldn’t suspect any of that from the work itself, which delights in the surrounding world, his wife and his daughter, the streets and buildings of the cities he traveled and lived in, the shorelines of the oceans and lakes he walked beside. What he saw he made riveting.

"The Amazing & the Immutable: Photography from the Collections of Robert Drapkin and Martin Margulies"

At Tufts University Art Gallery, Aidekman Arts Center, 40R Talbot Avenue, Medford, through November 21

"Harry Callahan: Fifty Photographs"

Gallery Kayafas, 450 Harrison Avenue, Boston, through November 27.

Issue Date: November 12 - 18, 2004
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