Manhattan's Neue Galerie
By John Camp
Monday was quite a nice day in Manhattan, so I sent off on a 44-block march north from my hotel to the Neue Galerie, a small museum at Fifth Avenue and 86th Street that specializes in German and Austrian art of the early 20th Century. The museum attracted much attention a few years ago when one of its founders paid a reported $135 million for Gustav Klimt's golden portrait "Adele Bloch-Bauer I" (1907). This painting is familiar to many Americans as a poster that seemingly every young intellectual woman of the late 20th Century had hanging in her college dorm room.
Gustav Klimt, Adele Bloch-Bauer I
I was going to the museum specifically to see the show "Gustav Klimt: 150th Anniversary Celebration." I don't particularly like Klimt, and I specifically don't like "Adele Bloch-Bauer I," but the collection is generally well worth viewing. When I arrived at the museum, I found that in addition to the Klimt installation, the Neue Galerie was also presenting a photographic show called "Heinrich Kuehn and His American Circle: Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen."
Kuehn is not a familiar figure in America (at least, not to me), so what I have to say about him here is taken from the exhibit information and the accompanying catalog, which is available from Amazon for $36.42. Those sources report that he was an influential figure in the Vienna Secession of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and was deeply influential in the Pictorialism movement, one of the first to try to establish photography as an independent art form with a status equal to painting. He was close friends with Alfred Stieglitz and much influenced by Stieglitz's ideas about modernism.
Kuehn was also an avid experimenter in photographic techniques, and was one of the first to try working in color.
Before this exhibit, I was mostly familiar with Pictorialism through books. The Pictorialist aesthetic fell into disrepute with the rise of Modernism, but there are some undeniably beautiful pictures in this exhibition. In modern and post-modern times, it often seems that beauty isn't enough, and is even the object of derision—as not being "serious"—but this show demonstrates (to me) that beauty can be enough. (Impressionism is sometimes considered a lightweight aesthetic because so many of its central works are simply beautiful, without any other obvious meaning or intent; it's notable that many of Kuehn's works are so close to Impressionism.)
Kuehn was not interested in photography as a way to catch fleeting images—he felt that doing so put the emphasis on the machine, rather than the aesthetic. He often worked out his own photographs by sketching the image he wished to make, using the camera only when he was satisfied with the composition.
Whatever you may think of Kuehn's aesthetics, his technical work is fascinating. He worked in an incredibly wide range of printing techniques, and some of his prints, particularly the gum bichromates, are quite large, commonly more than 20 inches in each dimension, and some as large as 30 inches.
He also did autochromes, silver and platinum prints, carbon prints, and bromoils, and worked with several other processes, including some combination processes such as pigments or watercolor over platinum. Seeing large prints of all these processes together on a few walls, with a variety of paper textures and coloring processes, and with an emphasis on the Pictorialist aesthetic, suggested to me that our current preoccupation with resolution and color accuracy is rather stifling.
This Neue Galerie exhibit is worth seeing simply for the variety of techniques on display.
For those of you affected by personal histories: Kuehn (1866–1944) was born into a wealthy bourgeois family that eventually lost its money in the European economic cataclysms of the early 20th century. A conservative man, he became more radically conservative as he aged, and late in life, joined the Nazi Party in Germany.
The show will be up until August 27. General admission is $20, Seniors and Students $10. Children under 12 are not admitted, and those under 16 must be accompanied by an adult.
Former Pulitzer-prizewinning journalist John Camp now writes bestselling novels under the nom de plume John Sandford.
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Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Jeff: "This video produced in conjunction with the exhibit provides interesting information regarding Kuehn's autochrome process. Kuehn's work appeared in Camera Work on at least two occasions (issue #13, with four works, and issue#33, with 15 works)."
Featured Comment by Eamon Hickey: "I can happily confirm Mr. Camp's reporting: Monday was an (alas, all too rare) exceptionally nice day in Manhattan.
"And your comments about the value of seeing actual prints, as opposed to book reproductions, makes me want to hop on the uptown 6-train and go see for myself, which brings me to an off-topic rant:
"The $20 admission is a real deterrent to me. It's enough money to make me stop and think, 'Is it really worth it?', whereas $10 or even $12 would not be. I felt the same way about the $20 admission to the Cindy Sherman exhibit at MoMA. I ended up going, but I hesitated, and when I paid, I frowned.
"I don't know when museum prices crossed over that magical, mystical line between 'not a factor in my decision' to 'do I really want to spend that?'—maybe it's not new at all? But I'm noticing it this summer, and it seems really lamentable to me.
"Before anyone says it, yes, I know that Manhattan is in a parallel pricing universe (evidently the universe where the Higgs Boson is plated in gold), and I know about Free Fridays, and if you go a lot to one particular museum, membership is a much better deal. I applaud all those efforts—and student discounts, too—to make art accessible. But, phew, $20 is a lot to drop in and look at some pictorialist prints. Not sure I need the experience that bad."