June 3, 2011 | Source: Monroe Gallery of Photography

Truman Capote, Holcomb, Kansas, April,1967
Steve Schapiro: Truman Capote, Holcomb, Kansas, April,1967

THE Magazine
Santa Fe's Monthly Magazine
June 1, 2011

In the words of the great storyteller Eudora Welty, "a good snapshot stops a moment from runningaway." Capturing someone on film is a tricky business, particularly when that someone is a famous author or artist. The skill and agility of the photographer is elegantly evidenced in Composing the Artist, an exhibition currently on display at Monroe Gallery. This diverse survey offers an intimate glimpse into some of thepast century's most iconic art personalities.

Abstract artists who emerged in the middle of the twentieth century introduced not only new ways of making art, but in fact encouraged us to look at the very concept and convention of art with fresh eyes. In Helen Frankenthaler, New York (1969) Frankenthaler is in a deep downward bend, pouring a bucket of paint onto a canvas spread out across the floor. She wears an expression of almost otherworldly serenity on her face—an aspect that stands in sharp contrast to the revolutionary physicality of her actions. This photograph of the incongruously graceful Frankenthaler is placed near an image of Jackson Pollock, who is crouched down in characteristic paint-flinging insouciance with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. Deeply personal portraits like these underscore the intimate and sometimes sensual act involved in the process of a painting's creation and make us momentarily privy to the very human activity of artistic expression.

Even a cursory familiarity with the creative luminaries of the past century is helpful in appreciating this show. For example, a 1967 shot of Truman Capote—dapperly dressed and jauntily posing outside the Holcomb, Kansas post office—seems playful at first glance; knowing that sleepy Holcomb is the town made infamous by Capote in his crime novel In Cold Blood adds depth and interest to this otherwise lighthearted composition. Fans of Matisse will swoon over Robert Capa's 1950 portrait of the celebrated abstractionist. The stout eighty-one-year-old painter is holding up a thin, long brush that's roughly the length of his body and gently applying paint to a large sheet of paper taped to the wall. The image's caption informs us that Matisse is making sketches for the murals of the Chapelle des Dominicains, in Paris. To hold a brush of this length would be an awkward feat for even the most able-bodied young man. It's clear, however, that Matisse's advanced age doesn't hinder him from his creative endeavors in the slightest. The artist's calm agility creates a composition of remarkable impact.

Pablo Picasso and Françoise Gilot pictures the couple walking along a beach. A beaming Picasso is holding a parasol above Gilot, his longtime muse and lover, and one recognizes in their carefree smiles the sort of sun-soaked giddiness that comes with spending a romantic day at the beach. The frayed rim of the straw hat worn by the radiantly beautiful Gilot is offset by the fringed tassels on the parasol carried by Picasso, adding further visual intrigue to the happy scene.

A riveting 1958 portrait of Vladimir Nabokov taken by Carl Mydans captures the author leaning out of a car window, looking over his shoulder with his hair mussed and his eyeglasses halfway down his nose. His eyes twinkle with mischief, and his quiet smile is both disinterested and amused. The subject's disheveled appearance contrasts mysteriously with his cunning countenance, making the simple act of looking at a photograph a strangely private experience. A portrait of Ernest Hemingway on a hunting trip with his son in Sun Valley, Idaho, in 1941, is absolutely stunning. The ten- or eleven-year-old boy is lounging nonchalantly against a bridge, his clean bare feet flexed, and it's clear that this comfortable pair is taking a break from the day's activities. The calm, casually postured Hemingway adds a quality of mellow serenity to a scene that is at once unplanned and composed. This quiet look at a moment of relaxation between father and son stops just short of being sentimental, and contains that rare quality that makes photography such a singularly personal and moving art form.

The exhibition standouts are plenty, and Monroe Gallery does a fine job of including a wide range of complex, fascinating characters. Perhaps that clichéd concept of "the good old days" is a largely exaggerated one, but these photographs nevertheless leave one feeling an almost intoxicating nostalgia for a bygone era marked by creative vigor and intellectual ingenuity.

—Iris McLister

The exhibition continues through June 26, 2011


112 Don Gaspar
Santa Fe, NM 87501


Tags: photographs of artits and writers Picasso Robert Capa Matisse Warhol photography exhibitions