NEW YORK — The idea behind “Hidden Likeness: Photographer Emmet Gowin at the Morgan” is wonderfully simple — with results no less wonderfully complex. The show runs through Sept. 20 at the Morgan Library and Museum.
Gowin, one of America’s finest photographers, has chosen more than 50 items from the library’s holdings that resonate in some way with his own work. Those items hang alongside 59 of his photographs, thus making up the exhibition. It’s compare-and-contrast taken to a very high level.
The complexity comes in the many forms the resonances take. They can be visual, thematic, even emotional — a pose, a texture, a subject, a mood. Among other things, “Hidden Likeness” is a sort of perceptual guessing game. Can we see the hidden (or not-so-hidden) likeness? Can we see what Gowin saw in making his selection?
Sometimes it’s easy. “Edith and Elijah, Danville, Virginia,” from 1968, shows Gowin’s wife holding their son. Rembrandt’s drawing “Woman With a Child Descending a Staircase” offers an obvious parallel in both appearance and subject.
The circle of light at the center of an Irish landscape in a 1972 Gowin photograph chimes with the similarly positioned shape in an 18th-century Piranesi design. Two aerial views of the Nevada nuclear testing site that Gowin took in 1997 hang by a 15th-century Flemish drawing of Golgotha.
Sometimes the resonance isn’t obvious. In part, that’s because of the various nature of Gowin’s art. His early work concentrated on his wife and family, living in rural Virginia. These photographs are marked by a sense of rare intimacy and relaxed candor: profound affection unmarred by reflexive sentiment.
As indicated by some of the later subjects — Ireland, Nevada — Gowin’s subject matter has broadened and his approach altered over the years. In a sense, his work has remained intrinsically familial and caring; it’s just that the family extends so far beyond domestic life.
Gowin’s use of aerial photography, for example, would seem at the furthest remove from the portraits of loved ones early in his career. Not that he’s stopped taking them, either. A 2004 view of Edith’s face partially concealed by water droplets on a cobweb is one of the most distinctive images in the show. But in those aerial photographs there’s a sense of concern and connection akin to that brought to bear closer to home. A constant in his work, no matter how far from home or how large the scale, is an abiding sense of mystery. Gowin’s photographs show but never altogether reveal. In that respect, they partake of the sacred. The concealment afforded by those water drops in that 2004 portrait is emblematic.
The variousness of Gowin’s work in the show, which includes serial studies of moths and insect stains (yes, insect stains) and a collection of frog skins (yes, frog skins) has a counterpart in the variousness of his selections from the Morgan’s rich and eclectic holdings: postage stamps, a first edition of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species,” musical manuscripts by Bach and Beethoven, and a Mesopotamian clay table, as well as illuminated books, paintings, and prints by the likes of Gauguin, Degas, and William Blake.
Everything in the show is worth seeing, not least because so many of the things in the show are surprising. The biggest surprise of all, perhaps, is that more museums don’t mount similar exhibitions. The best way to understand an artist’s work is through the work itself. That’s not the only way, though. The insight that comes of being able to peek at artists seeing their own work through other artists’ work is so revealing that it seems odd that opportunities for doing so should be so rare. How odd? Odder even than insect stains and frog skins amid the splendors of the Morgan.
Photographer Emmet Gowin at the Morgan
At: Morgan Library and Museum, 225 Madison Ave., New York, through Sept. 20, 212-685-0008, www.themorgan.org
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.