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remembering Aaron Siskind's abstractions « Previous | |Next »
November 27, 2007

Aaron Siskind is interpreted by art historians as an American abstract expressionist photographer. His work, using a large-format camera, created abstract photographs by focusing on the details of nature and architecture. He presents them as flat surfaces to create a new image out of them. These images, he claimed, stand independent of the original subject, and his images ask to be taken on much the same terms as paintings.

Aaron Siskind, Arizpe, 1966

This photography has its roots in the nonrepresentational art of the early 20th century, such as Wassily Kandinsky (an expressionist), Picasso (a cubist), and Kasmir Malevich (a Russian Constructivist), which challenged the power of realism in the visual arts. It took photography a lot longer to displace realism and establish credibility as an abstract art and it primarily came with Aaron Siskind's development of abstract expressionism:

Aaron Siskind, Chicago, 1949

During the 1950s, Siskind’s primary subjects were urban facades, graffiti, isolated figures, and the stone walls of Martha’s Vineyard. Graphic in form, the subjects of each of these series resemble script, reflecting Siskind’s interest in musical scores and poetry. However, Siskind never opted for absolute formalism for all his emphasis on ''pictorial structure'' .

The influence of Siskind can be seen in contemporary photographers, such as James P Blair's recent An Homage to Aaron Siskind

James P Blair, Paris, 1959

This kind of abstraction then broadens to explore the decayed and torn posters on walls that begin to place an emphasis on significance as well as pictorial structure:

James P Blair, Yugoslavia, 1969

And so we come to contemporary photographic practice that is shaped by the Situationist idea of detournement:

Gary Sauer-Thompson, melange, Waymouth Street, Adelaide CBD, 2007

We are a long way from the abstract expressionist concerns about the authenticity or value of a work laying in its directness and immediacy of expression, and the art work being a revelation of the artist's authentic identity as a heroic romantic artist. We are in a much harsher and gritter place, but whilst working there outside the art institution, we should not forget Siskind:

Aaron Siskind, Lima 57, 1975

He is worthy of remembrance. Siskind's photographs forswear any hint of pictorial depth and they seem as flat as any abstract painter's canvas. His latter pictures courts exactly what Abstract Expressionist painters took great pains to avoid: the suggestion of a figurative image within an abstract one.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 12:05 AM | | Comments (8)


Lovely mini-essay. Thanks for the reminder to remember Siskind.

The influence of Siskind is everywhere on Flickr--especially the abstract photography groups. They are retracing his steps--- the progression from expansive images of urban façades and debris to fragmented views – potentially of the same buildings; and the concentration on the pattern, texture, and stains of the surface are seen at an intimate proximity. His photographs were akin to the abstract painting.

The current digitial photographers do seem to have their aesthetic heritage in the modernist art world.

I've always read Siskind in terms of a visual poetics, especially in his Homage to Franz Kline series. This was done from 1972 through 1975, and Siskind use as his subject matter walls with anonymously painted images and signs. Siskind found these images in Jalapa (Mexico), Rome, and Lima.

We should remember Siskind for another reason: he was one of the very few photographers to break ties with traditional photography and become identified with an artistic movement.

The fluidity and overlap betweed art, photography and design around street culture in the last five years is a significant cultural development.

Pam, Gary: You have given me some new things to look at / explore / think about. I've always been drawn to the abstract expressionist painters & now I want to look at a lot more Siskind in order to put him in context. I'll also check out the Flicker abstract photo streams.

I've been similarly drawn. We need to figure out what they mean to us now.That prrobably means dumping of a lot of the myths around the art historical stuff about action painting.

It's the work that speak s to us --not the artistic rationalisations of the bohemian genuses of the New York School.

I've been following with interest your engagement with street art and its poetic rationalisation via the Situationists especially "their" ideas of detournement and psychogeography. I too have fallen under their spell but what I can't accept is their almost wholesale dismissal of surrealism, especially as it is expressed in the introduction to Home's "Assault on Culture".
The surrealists had long roamed the streets using it as a backdrop for their poetic investigations. You only need to read "Nadja" by Andre Breton or "Paris Peasant" by Louis Aragon (both published in the 1920s) to see how far poetry had left the page and parked itself in the street. I could quote many sources but here's one from J. Karl Bogarrte. "Surrealist have always had a predilection for the streets where, amidst the seeming confusion of the banal and ordinary, startling evidence of a deeper and truer sense of reality continually pierces the consciousness of those who know how to look for it. Wandering at all hours, and determined - like arrows en route to their targets, or rather, magically en route to other, more revelatory kinds of targets - we may find ourselves waiting at some particular place for which we feel a certain fondness, or even a certain anxiety; where, with a fierce resolution - a will to find that which sparkles, that which tears the veil from the normal - we become wholly engaged in a search that is not just an isolated adventure, but rather part of a unique way of life."
This passage is from an essay, "Revolutionary Aspects of Everyday Life : An Introduction to Lacerated Posters" in which Bogarrte refers to a conference staged by the surrealists in Paris in 1935 where Leo Malet presented a discussion on "The Surrealist Physiognomy of a Street", accompanied by a presentation of "lacerated posters". Thus emerged the concept of "decollage" (unsticking), defined in the 1938 "Abridged Surrealist Dictionary" as "the generalization of the process of peeling pieces off a poster so as to reveal fragments of the poster or posters beneath it," in turn provoking "speculation on the disruptive or disordering quality of the results obtained."
As Bogarrte further writes of these posters, "Starting out as dreary manifestations of a commercial social order, these advertisements end up - thanks to 'ordinary' people who are just waiting - as emblems of 'something else'. Such images, liberated from the grip of commodity fetishism, reveal aspects of the latent content of the ceaselessly unfolding mythology of our epoch."
So the admirable work of Siskind, Blair and yourself carry on a tradition with a long and engaging history.
I could even go so far and claim Botticelli as a precursor. Apparently, Botticelli did not like landscape painting, regarding it as a "limited and mediocre kind of investigation." He said that "by throwing a sponge soaked with different colours at a wall one can make a spot in which a beautiful landscape can be seen."
And today we walk the streets of Adelaide and smell the flowers in the walls.

good point about a tradition with a long and engaging history.Walter Benjamin's Arcades project would be another example from the surealists. This walking the city goes back to the early modernists--eg., Baudelaire---and is based on the whole flaneur tradition.

I didn't know about the surrealists "decollage" (unsticking):

"the generalization of the process of peeling pieces off a poster so as to reveal fragments of the poster or posters beneath it," in turn provoking "speculation on the disruptive or disordering quality of the results obtained."

I'll dig around and have a look.