Sometimes we don’t know what the artists themselves collect until they die. It turned out that Andy Warhol was an obsessed lover of cookie jars, eclectic furniture, jewelry, and Native American artifacts. Other times they are quite public about their collecting habits, like Jeff Koons, who loves Old Master and 19th century paintings, or Damien Hirst, who owns Picassos, Warhols and Bacons.
But it is rare to have the opportunity to see so directly how the objects an artist collects have shaped their own work. This is the case of two exhibitions currently presented in Portland: “Presence: The Photography Collection of Judy Glickman Lauder” at the Portland Museum of Art (until January 15) and “Following the Light: Photographs by Judy Glickman” at the Jewish Museum. of Maine (until October 27). It is a pairing that offers a very special treat.
The PMA show is a powerhouse that brings together Maine photographer and philanthropist Glickman Lauder’s generous bequest of more than 600 photographs, pulling some of the medium’s most iconic images and blending them with work by lesser-known photographers. Interestingly, it’s not the famous photos that are the hits for me.
There is no doubt that familiar images are always powerful. “Migrant Mother (Florence Owens Thompson), Nipomo, California” by Dorothea Lange will always break your heart. Lewis Hine’s “Power House Mechanic” is a hymn to the innate dignity of American workers and a modern equivalent of Michelangelo’s reverence for masculine beauty. Gordon Parks’ “American Gothic (Portrait of Ella Watson, Washington, DC)” further challenges you to call this provocative-looking black woman “uneven” or not an American.
From all these subjects emanates the essential quality of the title of the show. But other images seem to pack an even heavier punch for their ignorance; the fact that they take you by surprise adds to their impact. We can’t help but marvel at how they’ve escaped our notice – or exposure through wider exposure – for so long. One such image is “Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing, Crowds Wait Along Burial Road, Birmingham, Alabama” by Danny Lyon.
An outspoken chronicler of the civil rights movement, Lyon captures a woman staring at the camera whose expression has a presence that feels like a very personal confrontation. It’s an explosive mix of fury, outrage, deep pain, grief and betrayal that seems to summon centuries of mistreatment and discrimination to the surface.
This photograph is part of a section titled “Work, Justice and Dignity,” which is the most emotionally heartbreaking in the exhibit. But there are plenty of lighter moments, including Mario Giacomelli’s irresistibly cheerful photos of priests whirling and dancing in the snow; the youthful recklessness of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe in Norman Seeff’s portrait of their friendship; The cunning and wisdom of Isak Dinesen in Richard Avedon’s portrayal of the Danish author ‘Out of Africa’.
There are also examples of almost atrocious interiority. Painter Agnès Martin’s image of Diane Arbus seems almost overwhelming in the way it pierces Martin’s intimacy to capture his reluctance and vulnerability, especially considering Martin’s struggles with mental illness. You almost want to look away in embarrassment.
As a collector, one can see Glickman Lauder’s penchant for slightly surreal scenes, something that also inhabits a few images from the Jewish Museum exhibit. For example: Paul Fusco’s 1968 “Robert F. Kennedy Funeral Train, Harmans, Missouri,” an image of a family, sons in shorts, standing in line at attention near train tracks. Why are the boys half naked? Or there is Verner Zevola Reed III’s “Brunswick Hotel, Boston, Massachusetts” from 1957, depicting a table of patrons in the hotel’s tea room enjoying a concert in their Sunday best while rubble piles up outside the door (the hotel was being demolished to accommodate a new office building).
PORTRAIT OF AN ARTIST
It’s images like this that are most interesting because they seem to indicate the evolution of Glickman Lauder’s eye as a photographer. Glickman Lauder shot black and white films and developed them in the darkroom for about 40 years. But at the Jewish Museum’s “Following the Light” exhibit, scheduled to coincide with the PMA exhibit, we see his digital color photography, which marks a significant shift. “With a sense of inner presence, the purity of color itself and its deepest shadows,” she explains in her statement, “I step into the light, into the image itself.”
We literally see her “stepping into the light” in the sense that her reflection or shadow appears somewhere in most images. Sometimes it’s quite subtle, adding a sort of Where’s Waldo archetype to the footage. Yet this device also feels confident, affirming Glickman Lauder’s stature as an artist in his own right.
Seeing these works as part of the PMA’s “Presence” exhibition is fascinating. The grids and rectangles – whether clear or abstract – in photos like “New York, 2014” or “New York, 2020” relate to PMA images of Mary Alpern, who photographed intimate moments in a strip club through the grate of the club’s bathroom window across from his workshop. The illicitness of Alpern’s snaps also seems to permeate Glickman Lauder’s “London, England, 2015,” a photo of the window of what appears to be a sex shop, though Glickman Lauder is funnier and flirtier.
The image of the buildings in “Helsinki, Finland, 2013” recalls various architectural images from the PMA fair. Glickman Lauder’s sense of color in several photos, especially those artificially lit or those lingering in the orange light of sunset, resembles the dazzling, bright dimness of Nan Goldin’s bedroom scenes at the PMA , although without the sexual charge .
The harsh cropping of a photograph like “Bilbao, Spain, 2015” at the Jewish Museum seems synchronous with Ruth Bernhard’s gorgeous nude, 1946’s “Triangles” at the PMA.
The artist has long had a penchant for shooting in reflections that blur our reading of an image, which happens again and again in “Following the Light.” “Maine, 2016” is an image of an image – namely, I believe, William Wegman’s “Sent” triptych, three Polaroids placed side by side to show his signature Weimaraners sitting in a canoe. The shard of the glass she fires into reflects Glickman Lauder’s own shadow. Yet the whole scene – Wegman’s work, reflections and the artist’s shadow – appears flat, as if everything is on one plane, even though we know rationally that cannot be true.
“Florida, 2018” is a mass of reflections that includes a reproduction of the Mona Lisa who appears to be inside a display case, a security guard next to her. The glass reflects the low stucco buildings across the street and a row of palm trees. As we take this image, our eyes ricochet between what we think is foreground and background, inside and outside.
This concern clearly stemmed from his upbringing. At the PMA, there is a photograph of Glickman Lauder’s mother, Louise Weinstein Ellis, taken by Glickman Lauder’s father, Dr. Irving Bennett Ellis – an award-winning photographer. It is actually two portraits glued to each other, one laughing, cigarette in hand, the other more thoughtful and serious. Here we see the same kind of confusion between foreground and background.
It is also seen in Glickman Lauder’s puzzling black and white photograph titled “Café Istanbul” (2002) at the PMA. Helpless to understand it, I asked the show’s curator, Dr. Anjuli Lebowitz, how Glickman Lauder had achieved this. I don’t want to spoil the mystery, so I won’t say anything. What I will mention, however, is that even after Lebowitz’s explanation, the image continued to play with my brain and my perception.
In no way do I mean to imply that Glickman Lauder’s work is derivative. It’s not. But we can see how certain elements and qualities of the work of the photographers she collected have become lodged in her memory banks. It may illuminate Glickman Lauder’s own predilections for subject, light, and color, at the same time as we can guess how those predilections might emerge in his own work, albeit in new and totally original ways.
Jorge S. Arango has been writing about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected]
Review: Comedian Taylor Tomlinson has a charm to match a devilishly sharp wit