6.12.17 — Archetypes and Stereotypes

If you are going to reduce people to types, it helps to treat them with compassion. August Sander did—and all in the pursuit of the universal.

His photographs have collectively become a group portrait of Germany over the course of more than two decades starting in 1910. It has room for young and old, men and women, workers and the comfortable middle class. August Sander's Boxers. Paul Röderstein and Hein Hesse (ARS/Metropolitan Museum, c. 1928)It shows how they defined themselves in the dress codes of their class, their occupation, and an older world. It evokes a way of life that was already vanishing, as an older order endured a world war only to give way to a fragile republic.

Yet he does see them as individuals, starting with the frontal poses that make them impossible to overlook. Sander does not seek Germany in the halls of power or the narratives of an older photography and an older art—although he did photograph a member of parliament and a political prisoner. His subjects smile or frown as they see fit, and even their inability to move appears today as an act of compassion. It frees them from putting on a show, and it allows them something visible to call theirs, in their appearance and the house or shop front behind them. Photos also include paired and group portraits now and then, like a restless and stoic boxer as distinct versions of a shared way of life.

Compassion helps all the more after so many decades, when what Sander took for universals have become particular and quaint. Born in 1876, he began with the idea of “mankind in general” and its characteristics. He sorted people into archetypes as part of the whole, first in his native village of Westerwald and then in Cologne—many published as Face of Our Time in 1929. Now they appear in an ample selection reprinted by his son, Gunther, at Hauser & Wirth uptown through June 17. It was a project in sociopolitical economy, at a time when Marxism was in the air and sociology was being born. It also coincided with the rise of psychoanalysis, including Carl Jung and his archetypes.

In time, though, supposed archetypes become stereotypes. They become even more so in their titles. The types include distinctions recognizable from political and gender critique in the present—like “The Skilled Tradesman,” “The Woman,” “Classes and Professions,” and “The City.” Yet they also include “The Lost People,” “The Sage,” “The Philosopher,” and “The Man of the Soil.” What seemed scientific then borders on sentiment now. Maybe the search for archetypes always will.

The photos survive as more than stereotypes because of their imperfections. Sander insisted on “honesty” rather than the perfect moment, as the very requisite to a systematic view. He makes no effort to alter the dull or dour expressions. He embraces the stiff folds of peasant costumes, the boastfulness of a top hat, and the stains on a varnisher’s apron. They make for more richly textured photographs and a further reminder, like a video of Sanders at work by Omar Fast, that their subjects are long gone. If one ever doubted the vulnerability of the Weimar Republic, one can see it again here.

It seems more vulnerable, too, in light of “Small Trades” by Irving Penn, in his retrospective at the Met. Penn’s photos dwell on broad gestures and the tools of the trade. Sander includes props far less often, and they remain subordinate to the archetype and individual. The varnisher holds a tin without showing off, while an alert hound stands in front of the man in the top hat as just another part of his boast. Where Penn makes portraiture of act of stagecraft, Sander makes it an act of remembrance.

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5.31.17 — From Billie Holiday to Proust

In 1969, fresh out of grad school and a newcomer to New York, William T. Williams entered the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. MoMA must have thought it knew what it got. (Hey, a watchword of late Modernism was “what you see is what you get.”) It did not, for already the African American artist was challenging the mainstream.

Those first broad bands of conflicting color, separated by thin outlines, look straight out of Frank Stella—or do they? Stella had introduced his Protractor paintings just two years before, and they are still among his biggest, brashest, and most recognizable works. William T. Williams's Mercer's Stop (Michael Rosenfeld Art, 1971)Seemingly everyone then wanted to be the next great white hope, and no doubt MoMA was looking for him, but Williams? Hardly. His bands run every which way, straightening out, fanning out, snaking out, or overlapping. Tall, narrow paintings like Harlem Angels from 1968 seem cut off by the edge of the canvas, as if glimpsed through a door.

Sometimes what you see is not what you get. Those thin outlines are white, not bare canvas, because Williams does not derive his image, like a proper formalist, from the art object, but rather from experience. Shows have given pride of place to black abstract artists—like Alma Thomas or Jack Whitten, whose tiles of dark acrylic ran just recently at Hauser & Wirth through April 8. And the door-like paintings are six feet tall but barely forty inches across, like a painter standing tall. Their freewheeling style and flirting with illusion also recall white artists who did not quite play by the rules as well, like Al Held and Jack Tworkov. They may still, though, have other stories to tell.

Born in 1942, Williams remembers quilting in rural North Carolina, and his next series took him to near monochrome built from cross-hatching. (Its metallic colors, while still acrylic, return in the show’s most recent work.) He also thinks of jazz with a title like Strange Fruit, after the Billie Holiday song about a lynching. He must think of race, too, in a series from the 1980s. Its colors build to a greater darkness, and the brushwork resolves into hands raised as if scraping against a wall in the throes of death. Paintings from 1988 to 2002 rely on a patchwork of rectangles, maybe an echo of wood siding.

Better not, though, take anything too literally. Williams had his MFA from Yale and fell into a busy New York art scene. The one remaining past series, from the 1970s, divides canvas into just two or three areas, like early Brice Marden. Some paintings have Marden’s muter tones as well, although deepened by contrasts between fields. Flat areas may lie alongside looser brushwork, richer colors, or more quilting. When it comes down to it, Williams is always setting approaches to art side by side, just as in deconstructing Stella. He calls one painting of hands A Note to Marcel Proust.

He does have at least one thing in common with Stella: each time he takes a series to its next step, it changes altogether. His twenty-eight paintings in Chelsea, at Michael Rosenfeld through June 3, start with his latest—in part to give the largest and squarest early paintings enough space in back. Paintings since 2007 fit comfortably by the entry. Their approach to calligraphy, with dry and broken marks in yellow or white over closely matched fields of blue, almost demands close quarters. Yet the reverse chronology also insists that he did not begin in New York or quit in 1971.

Not every gallery can transform a tight show into a serious retrospective like this one, and not every series has equal weight. The best do the most to explore a vocabulary for painting, a bit like formalism after all. The early band paintings still do it best, like palettes or color wheels flying across the room. The paintings from the 1970s do it more subtly. The paintings spanning the 1990s do it, too, with a return to bright colors and distinct brushwork in every patch. One can see why, by their dates, each took Williams more than a decade.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.