Friday, 5 March 2010

Aaron Siskind

In my own work I try to seek out odd juxtapositions of objects and strange meetings of things and the images of things. I try to seek out artists and writers that attempt to explore similar issues. I really discovered Aaron Siskind after reading David Anfam’s Abstract Expressionism (1994).

Aaron Siskind (1903-1991) was a member of the New York Photo League in the 1930s. His early work was in the social documentary tradition producing projects such as Dead End: The Bowery, and The Harlem Document. In the 1940s he started to connect with members of the New York School, whose dominant aesthetic was abstraction, transforming his work and shaping his interests. His black and white images of this period were of found objects, graffiti, peeling posters and an urban landscape familiar and a source of inspiration to Kurt Schwitters and Robert Rauschenberg.

Martha's Vineyard (seaweed) 2 1943

Abstract expressionists like Gottlieb and Pollock explored calligraphy in an attempt to discover new visual languages. Siskind’s Martha’s Vineyard (Seaweed) looks gestural: a tracing in the sand, a biomorphic form, a letter (A for Aaron?) a figure or a sexual symbol.

Gloucester 16A, 1944

Biomorphism as an art form draws its inspiration from nature and biological forms. We see its visual representation in Art Nouveau and its more curvilinear forms (one thinks of the Paris metro or the dominant architecture of Barcelona, specifically the work of Gaudi ) and of course Surrealism (Arp, Masson, Miro, Tanguy and Dali). The biomorphism of surrealism fed into what became abstract expressionism. The above photograph recalls the totemic art of Masson, Miro, Newman and Rothko. The above image is one that returns our gaze. Do we not see a single blank eye, a hard profile; abstract yet physiochemical like forms or “ovoids” that Motherwell presents to us in his Pancho Villa Dead or Alive 1943, the Elegy for the Spanish Republic series or At Five in the Afternoon 1949.

New York I, 1947

Chicago (Auto-Graveyard) 3, 1948

The surfaces that Siskind presents are rough, fragmentary, divided in much the same way as a de Kooning, a Motherwell, a cubist space or even a Pollock. We see the gestures of the graffiti artists, stains, drips, rust, decay, lettering and urban sign-age.

Chicago 1947-48

Siskind focused more and more on the minute. The charred surfaces that caught his eye reveal “paint smeared- walls whose facades, dense with graphic traces apparently make darkness visible”(Anfam, 1994 p. 153).

Chicago 224, 1953

This last picture again celebrates urban decay, the fragmentary with addition of the glass pain that adds a new layer and perhaps depth to this picture. The torn elements of poster remains recall not only Schwitters and the neo-dada, but the nouveau realism (Hains and Rotello) and the Situationist detournement (Debord and Jorn) that emerged in sixties Europe. This is the language of pop and low culture. What about the writing? Well, it does recall de Kooning’s dust jacket design for Harold Rosenberg’s Tradition of the New (1959) (see Hillier, Beavis The Style of the Century, 2ND Edition, 1999 p. 151).

Simon Morley’s book Writing on the Wall: Word and Image in Modern Art (2003) although does not explore Siskind’s work. However across a number of chapter we see various post-WWII gestures (forgive the pun) that involve calligraphy or writing that move towards abstraction and action painting.

Abrams, D (1994)
Abstract Expressionism London: Thames and Hudson Hillier, B (1999) The Style of the Century, 2nd Edition, London: Herbert Press Morley, S (2003) Writing on the Wall: Word and Image in Modern Art, London: Thames and Hudson.

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