I am desperately sorry to report that Ray K. Metzker has died at the age of 83, following a long decline. The news struck at me deeply, because nothing makes an artist I don't know personally more alive to me than engaging fully and deeply with his or her work, and I spent several months this past year finally fully engaging wholeheartedly with Ray's art through the medium of the excellent book by Keith Davis, The Photographs of Ray K. Metzker, published by the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, one of the best books of 2012 for me (although very unfortunately no longer in print now).
Ray was an experimentalist with a brilliant sense of graphic composition using deep shadow as bold black shapes, and he was especially sensitive to repetition, minimalism and subtle variation. He was the kind of photographer who is rare in any era but is growing rarer now in that he was fully an artist and also fully and completely a photographer—his work is rooted in straight photography but he was also always alive to how it worked as form and implication. His work seems mid-20th-century to me, his closest compatriots being people like Aaron Siskind and Harry Callahan (with whom he studied), although he wasn't like either one very precisely; I think of him as being just as close to Robert Motherwell and Franz Kline and several other artists.
I highly recommend a good soak in Keith's book if you can get your hands on it, perhaps at the library. Keith Davis makes his usual skilled and humane case for the artist with his selections and sequencing, somehow evincing a fuller picture and implying greater breadth rather than exposing weaknesses. It's a lovely book and a fine way to encounter Metzker. There are of course many books.
There's an obituary by David Walker at PDNonline.com.
UPDATE: The New York Times obituary, by Douglas Martin, is now posted too.
(Thanks to Oren Grad)
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Featured Comments from:
David Simonton: "I had a wonderful wide-ranging telephone phone conversation with Ray back in 2003. I was about to turn 50, and, for one thing, concerned about what my responsibility was going forward to the decades-worth of work I had accumulated. His advice was simply to 'keep making the work, and get it out there'; which is pretty much what I'd been doing, and absolutely what I've been doing ever since then. Ray helped me to stop questioning the process (which had always come naturally before the half-century mark) and get on with it! He was—he is—an enduring inspiration."
Dalton: "I'm very sorry to hear this, he was one of my favorites. For anyone in the New York area, there's a comprehensive show of his work currently on view at Laurence Miller Gallery."
Kenneth Tanaka: "I, too, am very saddened by this news although I did know his health was in decline. Ray's work has been among the most influential in my my own eye and tastes. I had the opportunity to spend a delightful evening with him years ago when he visited the Art Institute of Chicago to talk with a small group of enthusiasts. I did not know his work well before that event. He was so relaxed, so utterly unpretentious, so utterly...un-artist-like!
"Wearing gray slacks, a plaid shirt and a old comfy brown sweater Ray spoke about his work in calm tones but with unrehearsed enthusiasm. Coming back to the AIC was like coming home for him, as he had been part of that famous group from the Institute of Design.
"My strongest memory of Ray came later that evening. I was seated at a somewhat undersized round table with him and three other people, juggling our dishes and glasses. It was a classic scene of everyone trying to be polite and he was so graceful at it. Last year I sent Ray a short handwritten note thanking him for his work and the vision that he had imparted to me. I'm certain that he would not have remembered me from that evening but I like to think that he read that note."