WALTHAM — At two very different venues, Brandeis currently has two very different exhibitions by two very different photographers. Those photographers do have at least two significant things in common: They weren’t primarily photographers and both were utterly elusive.
Elusiveness may seem like an odd quality to ascribe to someone as familiar as the subject of “Image Machine: Andy Warhol and Photography.” It runs at the Rose Art Museum through Dec. 15. If Andy isn’t the most famous artist of the 20th century (has any other post-Renaissance artist been so frequently referred to by his first name — or guest-starred on “The Love Boat”?), that’s only because Picasso had a half-century head start on him.
But identifiability is not at all the same thing as having an identity. Beneath Andy’s ubiquity, and his art’s truly sedulous devotion to surfaces, lay a blankness and inscrutability that keep drawing people to both his art and its maker. As much as Marilyn and Elvis, and far more than Liz and Jackie, Andy remains on a (first) name basis with the larger culture. As it happens, “Image Machine” includes one Elizabeth Taylor lithograph and five Jacqueline Kennedy silk screens.
Where Andy’s elusiveness is a matter of hiding in plain sight, Vivian Maier’s is a product of anonymity — or, now, near-anonymity. You may recall the name from news stories. In 2007, a trove of negatives was discovered in five Chicago storage lockers. Maier was the photographer. She had been a nanny in New York and Chicago, but her passion was roaming with her Rolleiflex. In the course of more than half a century, Maier took 150,000 exposures. Only a few had ever been printed.
What made this news more than just a human-interest story was Maier’s talent. It’s amply evident in the 36 black-and-white photographs on display at the Women’s Studies Research Center, where “Vivian Maier: A Woman’s Lens” runs through Dec. 18.
Those three dozen photographs are mostly from the ’50s and early ’60s. They represent .00024 percent of Maier’s body of work. So in the unlikely event that God’s uncle were a photography curator, even he couldn’t cull a representative sampling from so large a body of work. But the center’s Karin Rosenthal and Susan Eisenberg, who chose the photographs, have seen to it that certain telling themes and motifs emerge. The most notable is self-portraiture. Maier liked to present herself, if not show herself. Often it’s only her shadow that’s visible; other times, she’s partially obscured by shadow. Even when perfectly visible, she’s imperfectly expressive. When it comes to blankness, she could have given Andy a run for his money (and everyone knows how much Andy loved money).
Buses recur several times in the show, and children figure in nearly a third of the images (which makes perfect sense, considering Maier’s livelihood). One of those pictures shows two ungainlylooking kids from Canada (“ungainly looking” is a euphemism) who recall Diane Arbus’s famous twin sisters. Another, from 1954, of a newsvendor surrounded by his wares, is presumably an homage to another famous photograph, Berenice Abbott’s “Newsstand,” taken 19 years before.
Those two examples aside, Maier’s photography is distinctively her own. Her work plainly has an affinity with Helen Levitt’s, another highly independent city dweller with an excellent eye and whose camera, like Maier’s, was also drawn to children and alert to urban surprise generally. Just as plainly, they were very different artists. The wonderfully oddball sight of a pair of shod feet among a display of canned peaches in a storefront window focuses on detail in a way that Levitt rarely did. People, not things, were always her thing. And the fact that most of the window is obscured by the reflection of two cars is the sort of surreal optical twist Maier delighted in.
Born in the Bronx, Maier spent much of her early life in France. She moved back to New York at 25. That sense of an outsider looking in was something she shared with Warhol. Pop was such an American style — a fact underscored by its originating in Britain, with British artists like Richard Hamilton, goggle-eyed at American abundance and pizzazz. As pope of Pop, Andy was himself such an American phenomenon. Which makes it easy to overlook how he, too, began as an outsider looking in: the son of Slovakian immigrants, raised in the Byzantine Catholic church (and what are his portraits, but a variant on Orthodox icons, in which celebrity assumes the place of holiness?).
The title “Image Machine” has a double meaning, as curator Joseph D. Ketner II explains. A camera is a machine that produces images, and Warhol — a man who all his life demonstrated a ferocious work ethic and named his best-known work space the Factory — was himself, figuratively speaking, an image machine.
The subtitle “Andy Warhol and Photography” has a sort of double meaning, too. Warhol constantly took pictures. Often he did so quite casually, as with the Polaroid photographs he took throughout the ’60s and ’70s, or with the Minox miniature camera that he started using in the mid-’70s. He also used the Polaroid SX-70 far less casually. The pictures taken with it during sittings in the ’70s and ’80s became the basis for the silkscreen portraits that became his most visible work during the final decade and a half of his life (Warhol died in 1987 at 58).
More generally, photographs formed the basis for the vast preponderance of his work. That’s why, of the roughly 175 items in “Image Machine,” roughly a fifth aren’t photographic images. They’re on display as a reminder of how deeply photography informed nearly everything Warhol did. Only occasionally a Warholian end, they were almost always a Warholian means.
It’s necessary to say “photographic images” rather than “photographs” because what may be the most remarkable works in the show are films: eight examples of Warhol’s “Screen Test” series, from the mid-’60s. Each is a single-take black-and-white silent film, four minutes in length, of a man or woman in close-up. As exercise in film grammar, they couldn’t be more basic. As study in human psychology, they couldn’t be more complex. That’s equally true of a sunglasses-wearing Lou Reed sipping from a Coke bottle, an affectless Edie Sedgwick looking like Marilyn Monroe’s kid sister (it’s uncanny), a very self-conscious Susan Sontag behaving a bit like a schoolgirl, or Dennis Hopper staring down the camera. Like all Warhol’s best work, they hover between banality and revelation. And for anyone who’s made the five-minute trek up South Street from the Maier show, they may make you wonder how she would have fared in front of Andy’s camera. Might she have just held up that Rolleiflex and kept clicking right back?
VIVIAN MAIER: A Woman’s Lens
At: Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis University,
515 South St., Waltham, through Dec. 18,
IMAGE MACHINE: Andy Warhol and Photography
At: Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, 415 South St., through Dec. 15,
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.