BEVERLY — Some artists’ names sound the way their work looks: the solidity and mass of “Gustave Courbet,” the elegance and polish of “Constantin Brancusi.”
“Carl Toth” is another: simple, almost blunt, yet also somehow . . . opaque? Inscrutable? “Carl Toth: Pioneering Artist, Photographer and Educator” is at Endicott College’s Manninen Center for the Arts through Dec. 11.
The name sneaks up on you. The work does, too. It’s mysteriously straightforward. An almost-Zen sense of proportion makes for absolutely transparency — no mess or clutter or blur within the frame — yet this makes the work somehow all the more elusive.
Born in 1947, Toth studied with Donald Blumberg at what is now the State University of New York at Buffalo. Blumberg is also the subject of a retrospective, at the Yale University Art Gallery, through Nov. 22. Like Blumberg, Toth creates photographs and collages and other works that balance detachment and a deep curiosity about how we visually process the world.
There’s something teacherly about that detachment, a sense of standing back and taking things in — rather than rushing up and buttonholing them. It’s no surprise to learn that Toth spent 34 years as an artist in residence and head of the photography department at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, in Michigan.
The 40 or so items in the show — there are sketches, collaged 8mm film stills, and Polaroids, as well as standard silver gelatin and chromogenic prints — have something of the classroom about them. These are images born of arrangement rather than chance. Usually, we say someone takes a photograph; with Toth, it’s far more a case of making one. “I photograph,” Garry Winogrand famously declared, “to find out what something looks like photographed.” Toth photographs to prove that something looks the way he envisioned it.
Even when he works outside the studio, as Toth sometimes does, the sense remains of an environment that’s enclosed (if far from airless). A ladder, stuck in the ground, leads nowhere, other than the sky. Framed between its two top rungs are a pair of people standing off in the distance. The effect is so relaxedly bravura as to be dazzling — in an understated way, of course. This is virtuosity hiding in plain sight.
The work is too precise and solid to
be precious, too good-natured to be considered cold. A photograph that shows a
Polaroid that shows a Brownie camera
is art history with a gleam in its eyes. Along the same lines, it’s a mark of Toth’s cheery perversity that he shows a drive-in movie theater from behind the screen and during the daytime.
Toth creates images that are two-dimensional boxes, as a Bauhaus Joseph Cornell might. He operates in a realm of subdued enchantment, where rigor meets whimsy and magic infiltrates geometry. He’d make wonderful, if slightly alarming, children’s books. Kipling wrote “Just So Stories” (speaking of children’s books). Toth makes Just So Pictures.
CARL TOTH: Pioneering Artist, Photographer and Educator
At Manninen Center for the Arts, Endicott College, 376 Hale St., Beverly, through Dec. 11, 978-232-2250, www.endicott.edu/centerforthartsMark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.