The Norton Simon Museum’s new show “Beyond the World We Know: Abstraction in Photography,” is an intimate exhibition featuring innovative and experimental artworks by some of the 20th century’s most celebrated photographers, including Barbara Morgan, Frederick Sommer, Arthur Siegel, Minor White and Edward Weston. Seen together, the works on view demonstrate how abstraction as a nonrepresentational, visual language played a significant role in bending the expectations of the medium esteemed for its ability to record what the eye sees.
The photographs featured in Beyond the World We Know present a range of subjects transformed by varying degrees of abstraction. For example, Frederick Sommer produced small oil paintings on cellophane paper, which he then placed between sheets of glass. By means of an enlarger, he printed the images onto sensitized paper. His camera-less photographs are known as cliché-verres. Edmund Teske employed the Sabbatier technique—a process of chemical toning and solarization, in which the print is exposed to bright light during its development, introducing painterly elements and unusual spatial juxtapositions.
In other cases, artists employed cropping and novel framing devices, previsualizing the result. Framing the details of his subject tightly, Aaron Siskind captures the hieroglyphics of urban life—graffiti, sidewalk markings—creating photographic depictions that, in such extreme close-up, call to mind the gestural paintings of the Abstract Expressionists. Intricate patterns in nature and manmade objects stimulated Brett Weston’s keen interest in emphasizing photography’s tonal capabilities and dramatizing its contrast range. Whatever the stimulus, the subject is distanced from recognizable contexts. These strategies defamiliarize the principal object. As a result, viewers are encouraged to take in the image and see beyond the ostensible subject.
In their integration of the visible world and abstraction, the gelatin silver prints on display in Beyond the World We Know demonstrate that the simplest subjects can be evocative works of art when composition, texture, tone and light are handled by artists of great imagination and virtuosity.
Beyond the World We Know is organized by Curator Gloria Williams Sander. It is on view in the Museum’s small exhibition gallery on the main level from Friday, November 22, 2019 through Monday, April 20, 2020. Related events and programs can be found online at nortonsimon.org/events.