In visual art, is it better to know nothing about an artist — absolutely nothing — before you know the artist's work? Should Picasso's brutish behavior toward women affect how we see his art of women? And should Edward Hopper's looks — his bald pate, his brooding brow, his utter intensity — impact how we see his paintings? These are some of the questions that arise from “Arnold Newman: Masterclass” at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, which celebrates the lifetime of photographic portraits that Newman made of the famous — not just visual artists but politicians, musicians, actors, writers, filmmakers, and athletes.
Each portrait is a complex look at people we think we already know. Marilyn Monroe? She's the sex goddess who was always “on” and always alluring — except under Newman's gaze, she isn't. John F. Kennedy? He's the president who single-handedly stared down Cuba, accelerated America's space program, and initiated the Peace Corps — except under Newman's lens, Kennedy is surrounded by a phalanx of advisers on whom he relied, all of them smiling or laughing. Each image upends popular perceptions and reveals something hidden, something internal, about Newman's subject.
So it is with his snapshots of Hopper, Marcel Duchamp, and other visual artists whose art is instantly recognizable — even if the artists themselves are not. In three decades of relishing Hopper's canvases, I'd never seen a photo of him until taking in “Arnold Newman: Masterclass,” which features a 1960 image that Newman worked and worked to orchestrate. Hopper rarely opened up about his life or his art in interviews, and the people in his paintings are similarly shut off from others (see his 1963 work Intermission, which SFMOMA acquired in 2012).
But Hopper allowed Newman into his inner circle, at least for the duration of the shoot at Hopper's Cape Cod summer home. Newman studied to be a painter, so he had that in common with Hopper. While with Hopper and Hopper's wife, Josephine, Newman witnessed the couple's volatility, and his photo has them at a great distance, with Hopper sitting as far as possible from the woman with whom — in private — he would frequently bicker. Newman sprinkles his photos with clues to his subjects' lives. Instead of being impromptu snapshots, they are intricate testimonies directed by Newman.
With Duchamp, the clues are in the string and shadows that envelop the artist in Newman's 1942 photo. Taken at a landmark art exhibit called First Papers of Surrealism, the image puts Duchamp behind the layers of twine that Duchamp had strung throughout the show at a large Manhattan mansion. Dressed in suit and tie, hand in his pocket, Duchamp is looking away, with shadows covering his cheek and even his eyes. We see Duchamp but can't see him.
Newman, who meticulously researched his subjects, knew that Duchamp opposed art that appealed only to the visual senses. Duchamp disliked painting for painting's sake. Duchamp's famous “readymades” — like the urinal he exhibited in 1917 — were meant to detach artgoers' reliance on an object's looks, and to stoke internal reactions. Newman, who studied painting on scholarship at the University of Miami, understood Duchamp's “anti-retinal” principles, which were at odds with much of the art establishment. He understood one of visual art's central contradictions: At its most sublime, art should appeal to artgoers' internal instincts.
That's why Newman's images — especially of painters, sculptors, and other photographers — are so rewarding, and why “Arnold Newman: Masterclass” is one of the most engaging exhibitions to come to the Bay Area this year. Organized by the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography and the Harry Ransom Center, “Arnold Newman: Masterclass” is the first posthumous retrospective of Newman's work. Newman died in 2006 at age 88. He was known for his photos of famous people, taken for the world's most prestigious publications, but Newman didn't relish “celebrities.”
“I am interested,” he once wrote, “in what motivates individuals, what they do with their lives, their personalities, and how I perceive and interpret them.” In that way, Newman's photos are important supplements to the work of artists like Duchamp and Hopper. They answer — not too easily — questions that will always linger about the artists' lives and their deepest motivations.
The swishes and swirls that emanate from Keira Kotler's abstract paintings are subtle but still intoxicating. Kotler takes a single color and then plays with its tone and texture, mimicking the way light will shift a small spot while leaving other spots unchanged. “Keira Kotler: I Look for Light,” at Brian Gross Fine Art, reaches its apotheosis with Magenta Meditation, a small work (not quite 3-by-3 feet) that changes complexion depending on how close you stand. Even at a distance, Magenta Meditation has a pull that is undeniable.