Concrete Abstraction: Aaron Siskind Photographs
September 7, 2003 – January 4, 2004
Concrete Abstraction: Aaron Siskind Photographs celebrates one of the giants of American photography. The exhibition spans the artist’s career, from his first major series documenting Harlem in the 1930s to subsequent works in which urban graffiti is transformed into visual poetry. As the artist told an interviewer late in life, “There are things in motion, there are things in conflict…but I am trying to make a picture out of it.”
Siskind is best known for black and white images—buildings or landscapes photographed in extreme close-up—whose formal abstraction invites comparison to works of the Abstract Expressionists. He dedicated a series of his mature photographs to Franz Kline, one of the New York painters with whom he was friends. For his part, Siskind’s legacy lay in using straight photography to create compelling compositions, capturing what he called “the drama of objects.”
Though many of the images in Concrete Abstraction document the artist’s travels at home and abroad, the title is often the only indication of the locale. In Jerome, Arizona (1949) the paint peeling from the side of a building betrays the print’s flat surface; a rock formation on Martha’s Vineyard (1950) is an object lesson in balance and proportion. In two photographs taken in Brazil, colorfully painted beach stools captured in full sunlight make for a breathtaking departure from five decades of black and white imagery.
As the centenary of Siskind’s birth, 2003 has brought a long overdue re-assessment of Siskind’s unique contribution to the medium. “If Siskind had lived his life as an artist only, his place in photography’s history would be secure” writes exhibition curator James Rhem, “but he was also one of photography’s most influential teachers in the twentieth century.” The artist’s commitment to teaching is commemorated in Two of My Students, the earliest image in the exhibition. An affectionate memento, the portrait also announces Siskind’s keen eye for architectural details that would dominate his mature works.
Born in New York in 1903, Siskind devoted most of his life to teaching, first in the New York school system, then at the Institute of Design (successor to the New Bauhaus and later merged with the Illinois Institute of Technology) Chicago. He published his first book of photographs in 1959 and had his first major retrospective at the George Eastman House, Rochester, in 1965. He continued to make photographs into his eighties, before establishing the Aaron Siskind Foundation in 1984. Aaron Siskind died in 1991 at the age of 87.
Guest curator James Rhem is an independent scholar and critic who lectures frequently on photography and has contributed art reviews to newspapers around the country. This is his first exhibition to be presented at the Art Center. Working closely with the Aaron Siskind Foundation, Rhem authored the recently published volume on Siskind for Phaidon’s popular “55” series on photography.
About Simon Payne
Concrete Abstraction: Aaron Siskind Photographs is a Bassett Exhibit Series Event organized by the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Generous support has also been provided by the Steinhauer Charitable Trust; the Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission with additional funds from the Madison Community Foundation and the Overture Foundation; the Terry Family Foundation; The Art League of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art; the Exhibition Initiative Fund; the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art’s 2003–2004 Sustaining Benefactors; and a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin.