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Frederick Sommer’s photographs are so diverse, it’s hard to believe the same artist made them all.
In the National Gallery of Art’s small (verging on tiny) retrospective of Sommer’s works, the images run the gamut from lyrical landscapes to bloody, animal-organ still lifes, plus a sui generis assortment of works that combine drawing, sculpture, and photography. The exhibit features 17 works by Sommer, plus several by contemporaries Edward Weston, Max Ernst, Man Ray, Aaron Siskind, and Charles Sheeler.
Sommer (1905-99) was born in Italy, grew up in Brazil, and came to the United States in 1925, living for much of his life in arid Prescott, Ariz. Sommer’s best-known work is probably (and not undeservedly) his 1946 portrait of the painter Max Ernst—-a double-exposure of a bare-torsoed Ernst jointly exposed with the rough surface of a building, seamlessly mixing the two surface textures. (The NGA offers the surprising backstory: The image came together accidentally when Sommer was in the darkroom.)
Portraits, however, aren’t representative of the artist’s oeuvre. Sommer’s most impressive works are super-detailed, horizonless landscapes of scrub brush in the desert near his home—-works that are far more interesting than the more conventionally beautiful sand-dune photographs by Weston that the exhibit pairs with them. These landscapes exist virtually out of time—they could have been made any time between the 1930s and the 1970s—-and are portrayed unromantically, offering a nearly perfect facsimile of reality.
Sommer also undertook some worthwhile experiments in wedding other forms of visual art with photography. He would photograph paint sandwiched between two sheets of cellophane, or draw with soot on glass and then photograph the result. His photograph of sinuously cut paper offers a bracing contrast between ebony and creamy white. (Alas, the current show doesn’t include an inspired work shown in a 2005 retrospective at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles—-a musical score Sommer wrote with chemicals directly on photographic paper.) However, sometimes Sommer’s works stray too much into incomprehensibility.
Consider Sommer’s (for lack of a better phrase) gross-out photographs. In “Coyotes” (1945), Sommer documents dead coyotes, their teeth bared but their bodies stripped of their pelts, revealing muscle and sinew. And in “The Anatomy of a Chicken” (1939, shown) Sommer carefully arranges parts of a dead, and skinned, pullet; not only does the image include several of the bird’s glistening internal organs, but the artist has also taken the opportunity to place the bird’s own eyeball inside its beak.
The eyeball maneuver is a tad inexplicable, but at least such photographs grapple with a weighty topic—death and the impermanence of life. Not so with other works. For these, it’s not so much Sommer’s images that are annoying—arrangements of wood, castoff objects, doll parts, and the like. Rather, it’s the opacity of his titles—”Valise d’Adam,” French for “Adam’s carrying case,” or “Paracelsus,” a reference to a figure in 16th century medicine and alchemy.
The exhibit soft-pedals this habit (as did the Getty retrospective) but there’s a darker interpretation. Such titles suggest an artist who revels in the obscure and pretentious rather than the accessible—one who walls himself off from his audience rather than engaging them. There’s a word that comes to mind for this worldview, and appropriately enough for Sommer it has classical Greek roots: Hubris.
The exhibit is on view at National Gallery of Art to Aug. 4.
Photo: Frederick Sommer, “The Anatomy of a Chicken,” 1939