MEDFORD — What’s likely this year’s freshest, loosest, and most exciting art exhibition is also the most ephemeral. “Robert Frank: Books and Films, 1947-2017,” an elaborate pop-up, opened at Tufts University’s Tisch Library on Oct. 7 and closes Nov. 5.
The ephemerality extends beyond duration. The catalogue is a newspaper — yes, an actual, hold-it-in-your-hands newspaper — a 64-page special edition of Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung. Don’t worry, it’s in English. The show’s several hundred images — none of them framed or matted — are printed on long sheets of recycled newsprint. Oh, and both show and catalogue are free. So maybe subversive is a better description than ephemeral.
Subversion is something Frank has few peers at. Certainly, no other major living artist has been so unpredictable and contrarian for so long: Frank turns 93 next month.
His book “The Americans” (1958) transformed photography, with its seemingly casual blend of skepticism and lyricism, alienation and myth. Yet Frank soon gave up photography for experimental film. After a decade devoted to filmmaking, he took up still photography again, but photography of a highly idiosyncratic, diaristic sort, emphasizing spontaneity at the expense of composition. Do you know the cover of the Rolling Stones album “Exile on Main Street” (1972)? That’s Frank early on in this period. “The Americans,” which remains as vital today as it did nearly six decades ago, was about a sensibility encountering a continent-sized country. The years since have been about that same sensibility turning inward, its touchstones now dailiness, memory, and hard-won wonder.
For some years, Frank’s books have been published by Gerhard Steidl. It was Steidl, the most exacting and beneficent of photo-book publishers, who had the idea for the exhibition and its unconventional format. “Cheap, quick, and dirty, that’s how I like it!” Frank said when he heard Steidl’s description.
The exhibition began its global tour in 2015 and continues into 2018. After Tufts, it goes to the Houston Center for Photography, then Blue Sky Gallery, in Portland, Ore. It should eventually reach some 50 venues, with a strong emphasis on universities and art schools. That’s fitting, since the exhibition displays more energy, daring, and youthfulness than any five college campuses combined.
The show does have some traditional elements: a timeline, a bibliography, a filmography. They’re all at the beginning, with a stack of those newspaper catalogues. Also at the beginning is a diagram of the show’s layout. It’s worth studying, since the exhibition is on two floors and not all displays are contiguous.
Take a few steps and turn right. Things become untraditional. Two dozen Frank books hang from the ceiling. They hover and float, like rectangular angels. Nearby seven Frank films play simultaneously, a visual chorus.
Keep walking and enter the library cafe. The displays include images from “Portfolio,” the gathering of photographs the young Frank brought with him when he immigrated to New York from his native Switzerland, in 1947 (hence that date in the show’s subtitle). The talent is unmistakable, if also not yet characteristic. The images are crisp, strong, forthright. They look very . . . Swiss.
When Frank was driving across the United States on the travels that produced “The Americans” he was arrested in Arkansas as a suspicious character. Blown-up on another cafe wall is a copy of a letter from the lieutenant in the Arkansas State Police who hauled him in: “He was very uncooperative and had a tendency to be smart-elecky in answering the questions.” Worse, Frank was “shabbily dressed, needed a shave and a haircut, also a bath. Subject talked with a foreign accent.” Except for the accent, that could describe what makes Frank’s photographs so arresting (in a different way).
“Henry James and American Painting” opens Thursday at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. James and Frank have about as much in common as a wheel of Stilton and a bottle of Benzedrine do. That said, much of this show could be seen as an inside-out version of that one. Call it “Robert Frank and American Writing.” It’s not just that he came over the years to often incorporate text into his images or the ways in which much of his photography reveals a literary sensibility (as James’s writing has such a strong pictorial element). It’s the glimpses of such writer friends as Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, William Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac.
Frank isn’t a portraitist, per se, but faces bring out something special in him. This is especially so with photographs of his wife, the artist June Leaf. One of the books, “Household Inventory Record,” has a marvelous three-photo sequence of her. Smiling, she holds a couple of postcards. Close-mouthed, she looks slightly triste. Finally, her hair now gray, she has a mirthful mien, her eyes looking to the side, as if she’s peeking at her younger self.
In a sense, the entire exhibition is Frank peeking at his own younger selves — or, rather, peeking at what those selves once peeked at. The most important thing about the show is the overall impression it leaves: of an embrace of eager incompleteness, a demonstration that it’s possible to be vigorously provisional. Frank’s what uniquely testifies to what can happen when instinct reacts to happenstance. Even as so many of the displays in this overspilling show look haphazard, they feel unerringly right. That’s not a bad working definition of art. It may be an even better definition of life.
ROBERT FRANK: BOOKS AND FILMS, 1947-2016
Tisch Library, Tufts University, 35 Professors Row, Medford, through Nov. 6. tischlibrary.tufts.edu/about-us/news-and-events, 617-627-3347Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.