NEW YORK — Globalization, a fact of recent economic life, has long been a fact of cultural life. The title of “From Bauhaus to Buenos Aires: Grete Stern and Horacio Coppola” reminds us of that. The thousands of miles separating Germany and Argentina meant little during the interwar years. This very large and exciting retrospective, with more than 300 examples of its subjects’ work in photography, film, and graphic design, runs through Oct. 4 at the Museum of Modern Art.
“Art on Camera: Photographs by Shunk-Kender, 1960-1973,” also at MoMA through Oct. 4, provides another reminder. Harry Shunk was German. János Kender was Hungarian. They did some of their best-known work in Paris and New York. Art ignores distance as geography does not.
Stern was born near Düsseldorf, in 1904. She and a friend, Ellen Auerbach, started a photographic studio, ringl + pit (based on their nicknames), in 1928. The firm focused on portraits and advertising. In the graphic work especially, one can see a blend of styles: Soviet Constructivism; Surrealism; the clean lines of the Bauhaus; the sharp focus of the New Objectivity photographers. Disparate though they may be, the styles cohere. The result is very ’20s, which is to say inventive and alert and radically new.
Coppola was born in Buenos Aires, in 1906. Using a large-format camera belonging to one of his brothers, he started taking photographs in 1927. He played with appearances — odd angles, abstraction, reflections. A 1931 photograph of a building and trees reflected in a puddle led his friend Jorge Luis Borges to exclaim, “This is Buenos Aires!” By then, Coppola was using a Leica — and had visited Europe several times. The camera’s handiness and portability liberated Coppola, turning his vision outward.
Where Stern combined a taste for the surreal with a graphic designer’s formalist rigor, Coppola united Surrealism with a documentary impulse. The result was a stream of striking cityscapes: of Berlin, Prague, London, Buenos Aires. The London images recall those of Bill Brandt, a comparison that honors both men.
In a cityscape like “Plaza San Martín desde Kavanagh” (Plaza San Martín from Kavanagh), from 1936, Coppola achieves a bravura balance between dream and document. Shot at a slight angle, several limousines line a Buenos Aires boulevard. A small billboard dominates the foreground, with a woman’s eyes dominating the billboard. Is she the daughter of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, in “The Great Gatsby”? Her identity doesn’t matter. What does is the interplay of here-and-now real with here-and-now fantastical.
It was at the Bauhaus, in the early ’30s, that Coppola and Stern met. They married in 1935 and moved to Buenos Aires. Before their marriage, they lived in London. Stern continued to work as a portraitist there. Among her subjects were several fellow German emigres, such as the playwright Bertolt Brecht and his second wife, the actress Helene Weigel. In Argentina, Stern took portraits of literary and artistic figures, Borges and the poet Pablo Neruda among them. “I was interested in faces before I became interested in photography,” she once said. That interest is palpable. Her portraits convey a sense of unvarnished scrutiny. They’re stripped-down and basic. One of Stern’s Argentine sitters called them “facial nudes.”
There’s a comparable feeling of exacting connection in Coppola’s photographs of Buenos Aires. Commissioned by the city to survey Buenos Aires for its 400th anniversary (Stern designed the cover of the resulting book), Coppola produced more than 200 photographs, a body of work at once arresting and sweeping: cafes, cinemas, night scenes, tree-lined thoroughfares, crowded sidewalks, pleasure seekers at the beach and race track. There’s an obvious affinity with Berenice Abbott’s “Changing New York” (1939). But Coppola’s Buenos Aires is even more varied and filled with an even greater sense of discovery. Some of that discovery, surely, is owing to Buenos Aires being unfamiliar to North American viewers’ eyes. Some of that discovery, just as surely, is owing to Coppola.
Stern and Coppola divorced in 1943. The exhibition concludes with a remarkable series of photomontages she did between 1948 and 1951, her “Sueños” (Dreams) series. They accompanied a weekly column called “Pyschoanalysis Will Help You” that ran in an Argentine women’s magazine. The figure of a woman is the centerpiece of an electric light, juxtaposed with a man’s finger about to flip the light switch. Another woman (note the stylishness of her gloves) finds herself next to — maybe even embraced by — a man with a tortoise’s head (note the nonchalance with which he holds his cigarette). These dream images are funny and alarming and somehow just right: Surrealism, and feminism, with a vengeance.
Nine years separate the final works in “From Bauhaus to Buenos Aires” and the earliest ones in “Art on Camera.” That’s not much of a distance in time — and even less in spirit. That the two shows are adjacent is fitting. It’s not just that both draw on collaboration, and transnational collaboration, at that. It’s the sense of consistent vitality and openness to the new.
The inspiration for “Art on Camera” is a gift from the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation of more than 600 works from the Shunk-Kender Photography Collection. First in Paris, then in New York, Shunk and Kender were important figures in the contemporary world of the ’60s and ’70s. Sometimes they photographed as documentarians: recording angels of the avant-garde. Other times, they functioned as collaborators, their photographic presence effectively enabling a work.
Both roles applied to their work on Yves Klein’s celebrated “Leap into the Void,” from 1960. Their photographs make up the composite image of Klein’s blithe jump from a second-story window, while other of their photographs record how the stunt was done (assistants holding a tarp beneath Klein, the multiple jumps he made).
By 1968, Shunk and Kender are in New York. “Art on Camera” includes sequences of two Yayoi Kusama happenings in New York: “Mirror Performance” and “The Anatomic Explosion.” The latter involved young people taking off their clothes in and around Wall Street. It’s a much funnier — and, by necessity, more fleeting — version of the Occupy movement. Both works also further remind us of cultural globalization, Kusama having been born in Japan.
For the 27 artists in “Pier 18,” who undertook various operations along the Hudson River in the late winter of 1971, Shunk and Kender enabled. No audience was there. The photographers’ visual recording completed, or even enacted, the various works. It also could enhance them. William Wegman’s “Pier 18 Bowling” would be amusing under any circumstances. But Shunk and Kender’s camera makes the duck pins looks so sculptural — and that much more amusing — not to mention the tell-tale splash of bowling ball into river.
FROM BAUHAUS TO BUENOS AIRES: Grete Stern and Horacio Coppola
ART ON CAMERA: Photographs by
Museum of Modern Art,
11 W. 53d St., New York, through Oct. 4, respectively,
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.