Arnold Newman: Masterclass, on view at the San Diego Museum of Art until September 8. 1450 El Prado, Balboa Park. 619-232-7931; sdmart.org
Mirrors were scarce in most mid-19th-century houses. Even by the 1840s, when a new process brought down their high cost, mirrors were usually found only in fine interiors. Anecdotal evidence tells us that many people had little idea what they looked like. The great, mischievous Nadar, who photographed the greatest writers, painters, and public men of Paris, said that clients sometimes left his studio satisfied with a portrait only until he caught up with them to say he’d given them someone else’s portrait by mistake. He also relished the fact that people were often horrified to see what they really looked like.
We’ve come far. The infinite potential manipulations of illusion and (apparent) actuality, on the part of both image-maker and subject, have pitched portraiture beyond meta-irony. It’s refreshing, and piquant, to visit a sophisticated but innocent photographic practice scrubbed of irony. In a very early 1941 photograph, Arnold Newman, who specialized in portraits of artists, writers, dancers, scientists, heads of state, and business titans, expressed preoccupations that would last a lifetime. In a Philadelphia violin shop, Newman photographed cutout patterns for sound boxes, necks, and bridges — it’s a classic Cubist motif. Abstract patterns, overlaps, fragments, and assorted framing devices would be constants throughout his career.
Newman is the subject of a big exhibition at the San Diego Museum of Art that fixes him in a historical context and dilates on the particular nature of his achievement. Coming of age in the 1940s and 1950s, he trailed in the wake of Walker Evans’s anthropology of the commonplace, those severe visual poems of signage, cityscapes, and citizens. Newman’s image of a New York key shop sign shares Evans’s love of the way a culture expresses its commercial enterprise. And his crisp images of clapboard sides of houses, ascetic exercises in formal discipline, were in tune with the passion for American vernacular celebrated by Evans and his fellow Farm Security Administration photographers Russell Lee, Gordon Parks, and Dorothea Lange.
The long-lived Newman (he was born in 1918 and died in 2006) grew up in Atlantic City. In 1936, he went to study art at the University of Miami but after two years ran out of money, dropped out, and moved to Philadelphia, where he made 49-cent portraits, which studios turned out by the thousands. By 1945 he had opened his own studio in Miami Beach and a year later moved to Manhattan and established himself as a portraitist for Look, Harper’s Bazaar, Life, and other high-circulation magazines.
In the semi-abstract work of the 1940s, Newman was already practicing a formal rigor and testing ways to embed a picture within a picture. (In one image, he “framed” an ironing board with wire hangers.) The framing was crucial, because the kind of “environmental portraiture” for which he became famous depended on the visual information surrounding the subject. Newman didn’t like the term “environmental photography” because it suggested limits, habits, a narrow way of doing things, but he did pose his subjects in their professional context. He liked to say that his famous portrait of Stravinsky wasn’t “environmental” because it was a constructed space and involved a borrowed piano. No matter if it wasn’t the instrument in Stravinsky’s studio, the great curved black wing of the piano lid does its emblematic work. His desire to localize subjects could lead to feeble, over-determined images, like that of Moses Soyer: the artist sits on a level with his painting of laborers so that his own face takes its place among them.
Most of the portraits in the exhibition are constructed, stylized, stolid. There isn’t much expressive pop or explosiveness or rawness in them. Artists generally carry a lot of chaos in them, but you won’t see much of that here. Wild ones like de Kooning, Dalí, Max Ernst, and Leonard Bernstein are tamed by the stylizing. Stuart Davis and W. Eugene Smith carry more animal unpredictability. Even the collaged work, where Newman mixes fragments, is tight and mannered. Sometimes the contrived environmentalism delivers surprises. In Helen Frankenthaler’s portrait, she presses her forehead against a canvas. It’s an act of erotic possessiveness, and around her are the veiled buoyant forms she was famous for and which give her best work its sexual energy. For me the most complex portraits are of nonartists. Robert Oppenheimer looks inquisitive, clutching papers on his desk as if to protect them. David Rockefeller looks like a merry master of the universe who alone built the skyscrapers that loom around him, and he did it with the crane that stands like some technological archangel between him and the buildings.
Pictures become “iconic” because they take on a particular life in the culture: we adopt them for reasons not necessarily intended by the image-maker. Newman made pictures with the intent of creating iconic presences — images crafted as objects of reverence. He was an illustrational, not analytical, portraitist. The problem with this kind of work is that it has a fixed emotional value: no ambiguity or ambivalence leaks into the image. Sometimes he got lucky and produced something that makes us ill at ease or really does expose something of the subject’s personality. His image of Marilyn Monroe shows a relaxed, frisky, un-self-conscious girl. It wasn’t a set-up: Newman was snapping candids at a party where Marilyn and Carl Sandburg (all poets should be so lucky) were dancing and playing games, and in one of the contact prints, he cropped out everything but Marilyn’s fresh, camera-unready face.
He does something different, but just as affecting, in a 1947 picture of Lilli Palmer that’s a study in asymmetry. She appears inside a square, softened black cutout; her out-of-balance face recedes in the hood of her coat, and, like a third framing structure, behind her are cross beams on a wall. These containers release and offer up Lilli’s face, they don’t withhold it from us — it’s portraiture as a carefully boxed gift. The mood of his famous picture of Edward Hopper couldn’t be more different. The aged painter, sitting before his house in Truro, stares into the camera with a look of bemused belligerence, while far behind him stands his wife Jo — theirs was a famously abusive relationship — with her arms raised, as if pleading or crying out for something.