In what amounts to a biennial event, the Academy Art Museum presents a debut exhibition of its new photography acquisitions, this time supplemented by highlights from its permanent collection. The previous photography show of newly acquired works was in 2019, and a few of those prints are shown again in the show that opened Saturday, Aug. 7, in the two large first-floor galleries, spilling over into the entrance hallway.
“Recent Acquisitions and Highlights from the Permanent Collection” includes familiar scenes of natural beauty by Ansel Adams. Among them, his iconic “El Capitan,” shot in his favorite landscape muse, California’s Yosemite National Park, is revisited in “Upper Yosemite Falls, Spring.” Both are silver gelatin prints of exquisite clarity and composition.
In a departure from her documentary-style urban oeuvre, Berenice Abbott focuses on the human form with a 1927 black-and-white portrait of sorts, self-descriptively titled “Cocteau’s Hands.” The photo pictures French filmmaker, writer, and visual artist Jean Cocteau’s with one hand folded over the other, showing his very prominent veins. Abbott returns to her usual subject on the opposite wall of the same gallery with “Department of Docks and Police Station, Pier A, North River” from her career-long album of prints on the changing architectural landscape of New York City. Her 1950s still from that series captures the Victorian building’s aluminum-siding restoration following repeated defacement.
Far less familiar, but perhaps the cream of this acquisitions crop, are three large color prints by an artist better known for his collage constructs. During his 1982 working trip to China, Robert Rauschenberg photographed extensively in color, resulting in many chromatic prints. In a project with the University of South Florida’s Graphicstudio, he produced a 100-foot-long photograph just 30 inches tall, cutting and collaging images on a single sheet of Kodak paper. He also published two portfolios of 28 images not appearing in the original 100-foot print and later five more editions. Three of those 20-by-24-inch color photographs are now part of the AAM collection. “Study for Chinese Summerhall (Hanging Clothes)” captures an evocative alleyway scene of city life in China. Two other studies are displayed in the entrance hallway—”Summerhall (Painted Lamp)” and (“Lily Pads”). None of these are what we’d suspect are Rauschenberg’s, though we know his eye for photography, typography, and odd objects in the collage works that made him famous.
Another artist best known for another discipline is Frederick Hammersley, who, like many painters, used the camera as a tool in creating oils and watercolors. Fittingly, his untitled cyanotype print depicting multiple pens for drawing is painterly in both subject and imagery.
Among the show’s other notables is Renee Stout’s” Her Request Brought Back Memories,” a computer-generated scanning of objects related to Black identity, among them an ad for “Overton’s Brown Face Powder.” And, as you leave one gallery for the next, check out Peter Hutchinson’s primitive-imagery collage “Morocco Tales” (2018). You’d never guess it’s produced photographically.
One note about a photo that made its AAM debut in 2019: Ed Clark mistakenly titled his lovely 1958 image of soon-to-be Sen. John F. Kennedy leaning over his first-born’s crib. The daughter’s name, of course, is Caroline. Clark many years ago misspelled it as “Carolyn.” Although this is not the museum’s error, AAM should add a corrective wall label, as it did at my request two years ago.
Moving past the museum’s handsome new entryway, take a right down the hall to the two smaller galleries for “Close Introspection: From Picasso to Kusama,” a collection of mostly smaller works by mid-to-late 20th-century artists. Don’t get too excited about Picasso’s “Spanish Woman” (1960)–he knew many, we gather–a simple black-on-white lithograph portrait distinguished by his bright red signature in one corner. It’s juxtaposed next to Kiki Smith’s “Muscle Face,” a 1992 painting on glass, presenting a ghoulish look beneath the human skin.
The other headliner in this show is Yayoi Kusama, a Japanese contemporary artist whose “Naoshima Pumpkin, Red and Black” sculpture brings to mind the cut-out top of a polka-dotted Jack-o-Lantern carved from a pumpkin crossed with a tomato. Naoshima, by the way, is an island town known for its art museums.
In between these two pieces, try to figure out Howardena Pindell’s 2008 black ceramic with faint gold numbers or Helen Frankenthaler’s 1971 acrylic-on-canvas “Painted Book Cover” –blue ink stains on a yellow background with an unfinished red frame.
More direct, at least to me, is Richard Estes’ “Downtown Reflections (Skyward),” a 2001 woodcut posing as photorealism while peering up between a canyon of New York City towers. I’m betting this image was shot after Sept. 11 that year. See what you think.
Before you enter or after you exit the museum, stop by the Juneteenth “Freedom!” installation on the lawn. Have a seat inside this brightly painted glass enclosure before it comes down at the end of August.
Steve Parks is a retired New York critic now living in Easton.
RECENT ACQUISITIONS AND HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE PERMANENT COLLECTION;
CLOSE INTROSPECTION: FROM PICASSO TO KUSAMA
Tuesdays-Sundays through Oct. 3, Academy Art Museum, 106 South St., Easton; 410-822-2787, academyartmuseum.org