ANDOVER — Even a glance at the two new shows at the Addison Gallery of American Art reveals how impressive they are. Not that you’d only want to glance at them.
In “Frame by Frame: Photographic Series and Portfolios From the Collection,” can that be every one of the photographs from Robert Frank’s “The Americans” and Bruce Davidson’s “Brooklyn Gang”? Yes, it can. In “Stone, Wood, Metal, Mesh: Prints and Printmaking,” those are prime works by J.A.M. Whistler, Edward Hopper, Jasper Johns, and a whole bunch of Audubons among the more than 150 prints? Yes, they are.
“Frame” runs through April 14, “Stone” through March 17.
But to understand what may be the most notable aspect of the two shows, you need to go back to that most-mocked of decades, the 1970s. That mockery, though, ignores one extremely important thing about the ’70s and misperceives another.
Any decade that can claim the first two “Godfather” movies and “Gravity’s Rainbow” and Philip Guston’s return to figuration and televising the Senate Watergate hearings (the greatest extended event in network history) and “Music for 18 Musicians” and the final full acceptance of photography as a fine art — well, culturally speaking, that is a decade to reckon with.
Obviously, that’s not the whole story, which leads to the misperception. The most pernicious cultural legacy of the ’70s has nothing to do with disco or polyester or jiggle television. It’s the blockbuster art show.
Art museums had long mounted traveling exhibitions. But they were of equal or, more often, secondary importance to what was on display from permanent collections. That balance started to shift in the ’70s with the cultural event that was “The Treasures of Tutankhamun.” For three years, as the show went from Washington, D.C., to six other US cities, the ticket-timed opportunity to gaze at pharaonic gold generated record-breaking crowds.
Museum directors — chief financial officers, too — took note. Museumgoers came to expect blockbuster shows. They were an art-world variant of another ’70s cultural legacy, the mushrooming of celebrity culture. Andy Warhol founded Interview in 1969. The first issue of People appeared in 1974. Blockbuster shows also had an affinity (like Warhol, too, come to think of it) with Reaganomics. “Tut” was the first to have “treasures” in the title but far from the last.
Many of these shows were artistically worthy as well as popular. Few were outright duds. Individual quality wasn’t so much the issue, though. Bad enough were skyrocketing insurance rates, sometimes dubious directorial decisions, fragile works being made to travel. The most troubling problem was how blockbusters altered public expectations. Museumgoers increasingly neglected permanent collections in favor of road shows. The artistic ante kept getting jacked up: more bells, more whistles. Why bother with the boring stuff that’s always there?
Which brings us back to “Frame by Frame” and “Stone, Wood, Metal, Mesh.” Both shows come from the Addison’s holdings. Granted, it’s a lot easier for an institution to mount exhibitions of this quality from its own collection when that collection is as good as the Addison’s (now at 17,000 items and counting). But one of the ironies here is that those very museums with the strongest collections have been among those that most clearly succumbed to blockbuster addiction. It’s been that way from the start. “Tut” opened at the National Gallery, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art was its next-to-last stop.
So it’s deeply satisfying — cheering, too — to encounter a self-standing show as rich and substantial as “Frame by Frame.” How rich, how substantial? Four of the six groupings in the show — Frank’s, Davidson’s, Bill Owens’s “Suburbia,” and Aaron Siskind’s “Harlem Document” — could form discrete shows that any museum in the country would be eager to show.
The Addison is one of just three US museums to own a complete set of images from “The Americans.” These 84 photographs from Frank’s book are as recognizable as any grouping in photography. How could they not be? They’re as influential as any grouping in photography. Yet seeing them in this context rather than on the page allows Frank’s patterns and rhythms to emerge that much more clearly. The artfulness of his connections — food, couples, crosses, flags, white and African-American — are further revealed.
The contrast between Siskind’s 30 photographs of Harlem during the Depression and Owens’s 116 of young marrieds in and around Livermore, Calif., in the early ’70s (there’s that decade again) is nearly as striking formally as in terms of content. There’s so much energy and eagerness in Siskind’s series: The sense of an alien place (alien to Siskind, if not its inhabitants) being discovered. Owens’s has a cheery blandness that hovers between subversion and, if not celebration, then acceptance. There the discovery takes the form of scrutinizing something so (seemingly) obvious as to have previously gone unnoticed.
“Brooklyn Gang,” from 1959, established Davidson’s reputation. He would go on to a very distinguished, and ongoing — career in photojournalism. His “East 100th Street” runs at the Museum of Fine Arts through Sept. 8, and there are shows of his work at the Robert Klein Gallery and Ars Libri through March 30. It’s not a bad way to get a head start on Davidson’s 80th birthday, in September.
The beauty of “Brooklyn Gang” is how the gang members, being used to posing in life, pose so naturally for Davidson’s camera. Their cigarettes and sunglasses and tattoos are so many props. Not that they did Davidson’s work for him. The very first image, with its artful yet unobtrusive framing of the Statue of Liberty in the background, declares how much Davidson will be refining the rich material these young people are presenting him with. Day and night, interior and exterior, male and female, group and individual: Davidson structures the images to create a novelistic density.
The other two portions of “Frame by Frame,” William Christenberry’s “15 Alabama Photographs” and William Eggleston’s “14 Pictures,” are so complementary they could combine for a worthy show of their own. The subjects are all Southern (Eggleston is a Memphian). Christenberry’s images are from the ’60s and early ’70s, Eggleston’s from 1974. Both men were pioneers in the use of color. The past chastely continuing on into the present is Christenberry’s great theme. An antically deadpan present bumping around in an eternal now is Eggleston’s. If all that weren’t enough, the two men are friends of long standing.
The title “Frame by Frame” is a bit of a misnomer. Films are frame by frame, and sequences within them are continuous. Still photographs, regardless of how closely related, never are. As Michael Wood writes in his excellent “Film: A Very Short Introduction,” “Every frozen frame can find unfrozen life as long as it has other unfrozen frames for company.” With the series in “Frame by Frame,” they’re kin rather than company. Coherence matters more — it evokes so much better — than continuity does. John Szarkowski, the legendary Museum of Modern Art curator, once wrote that “The central act of photography is choosing and eliminating.” Nowhere does that apply more forcefully than with serial works.
Serial works aren’t restricted to photography, of course, and there are several forms serialism can take. A work can be serial in extension (the same theme or subject developed) or iteration (the same image repeated). In that latter sense, all types of printing, monotype excepted, are serial works waiting to happen.
“Stone, Wood, Metal, Mesh” could have been called no less accurately, if rather more cumbersomely, “Lithography, Woodcut, Etching and Engraving, Screenprinting.” As so comprehensive a title suggests, the show offers a survey of standard printmaking processes. It’s didactic in the best sense of the word: lively as well as informative, sweeping as well as detailed. Any show that includes work from both Paul Revere (an engraving showing an obelisk under the Liberty Tree) and Kiki Smith (a diptych of a woman and her dog) is big on sweep.
As teaching aids, the show includes several display cases with tools and plates and blocks and other apparatus. The contents are both illustrative and engrossing, though less so than the teaching aids the art provides.
Romare Bearden’s screenprint “Carolina Memory (Tidings)” uses planes and flatness to provide layerings of memory and memories. The very slight differences among Arthur Wesley Dow’s three “Little Venice” woodcuts beguilingly demonstrate how subtle chromatic variation can be. The pair of etchings John Henry Twachtman made in Holland in the early 1880s are enchanting both in themselves and as explicit genuflections to Rembrandt.
Homages are another form of serial image, perhaps. They, too, come from a permanent collection. It belongs to the younger artist and consists of inspiration and influence and comradeship. “Stone, Wood, Metal, Mesh”? Certainly, but also heart, mind, eye, soul.Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.