As I was walking through “The Photographs of Ray K. Metzker and the Institute of Design” at the J. Paul Getty Museum, I saw a picture that looked familiar: A photograph of Constantin Brancusi’s Endless Column.
Except it wasn’t. It was one of Metzker’s “Composites” works, a composition built up of multiple photographic images. This one was titled [Composites:] Tall Grove Nudes (1966, at right, collection of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art). The work is a stellar example of what I think Metzker likely became interested in about this time: Using photography to directly engage the dominant media of art and art history: painting and sculpture.
If that’s what Metzker was doing in many of the works in his career-best “Composites” series, he was in good company. In the mid-to-late 1960s many American photographers, often working independently of one another, began a major re-investigation of how their medium could address painting and sculpture.
Sure, individual American photographers had engaged with other media before: The two most famous examples are self-proclaimed “photographist” Carleton Watkins, who engaged painters both compositionally and personally (Albert Bierstadt and William Keith especially). Alfred Stieglitz’s “Equivalents” pictures were an updating of John Constable’s cloud studies, as well as an engagement with Wassily Kandinsky’s new experiments in abstraction.
For Metzker that address is most evident in his “Composites.” In addition to Tall Grove of Nudes, [Composites:] Nude (1966) could be read as a riff on hard-edge painting. [Composites:] Philadelphia (1967) is a photographer’s take on multi-point perspective, long the domain of painters. [Composites:] Nite Lites (1967) is a trompe l’oeil photograph (of which I wish I had an image — it’s remarkable). [Composites:] Comings and Goings (1966) seems to address George Tooker’s The Subway (1950). And so on.
It wasn’t just Metzker. From about the mid-’60s onward, photographers seem to have initiated a direct, broader engagement with painting. Lewis Baltz took dead aim at contemporary painting (and to a lesser extent minimalist sculpture) in his first significant body of work, “Prototypes.” The group of unaffiliated photographers now known as The New Topographics forever altered American art’s painterly engagement with landscape, and in so doing forever changed the way American artists portrayed American art’s favorite subject. In the Getty’s exhibition, a Kenneth Josephson picture titled Chicago (1959) is an updating of Mondrian.
I’m sure there are other examples (Minor White’s Courbet-like ocean-scapes, for one), and I encourage readers to add them in the comments. (And it’s an exhibition I’d like to see!)
[Image above, left: Brancusi, Endless Column, version I, 1918. Collection of the Museum of Modern Art.]