Although primarily known as an innovative photographer fraught with obsessions ranging from black-and-white images of lyrical cut-paper patterns and torn posters to gnarled coyote bones and splayed chicken parts, Frederick Sommer was much more than that. While photography was his diurnal practice, Sommer was a total artist capable of bending gracefully in many directions, wherever his inspiration might lead. Born in 1905 in southern Italy, raised in Brazil, and educated at Cornell University in upstate New York, Sommer made his home in the Arizona desert—presumably for health reasons—by the time he reached 30, and more or less stayed there until his death in 1999. As a self-taught photographer, Sommer learned to capture the multitude of shapes and light patterns found in the desert as an essential vocabulary. Much has been written about his portraits of his wife, Frances, and of his friend, the Surrealist artist Max Ernst, and the various other residents, both young and old, from the environs in which he lived. But most would agree that his most extravagant, subtle, majestic, and impressive photographs —comparable in many ways to the views of Yosemite Valley’s El Capitan and Half Dome by Ansel Adams—were Sommer’s seemingly infinite desert landscapes, some of which he referred to as “constellations.” Given the abundance of cacti, prehistoric fossils, rock forms, bleached desert bones, and carcasses of animals, Sommer would return over and over again to photograph these silent spectacles, each time pulling graceful innuendos of abstract form from whatever he saw through the viewfinder. Much of this work—borrowed from the Frederick and Frances Sommer Foundation—opened in early February at Bruce Silverstein, a gallery in West Chelsea that specializes in works by vintage American photographers.
Having recently seen another exhibition of Sommer’s work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, concurrent with the monumental Arshile Gorky retrospective a couple of months ago, I was delighted to find more variations on many of the artist’s themes, both intimate and sublime, shown at Silverstein. Given the consistent quality—the richness of the silvery, diffuse tonality in the desert landscapes, which suggest an almost total submersion by the artist in transforming photography from elegant craft to a form of luminescent topology, a transcendental art form comparable to the best of Rothko—I was taken by the artist’s ventures and explorations into other mediums, including automatist painting (influenced by Surrealism), collage, poetry, and a series of remarkable musical scores, shown in various colors on black paper or scribbled and smeared notations drawn with ink on white.
The extraordinary aspect of these scores is that apparently Sommer never learned to read music, and therefore the notations were conceived visually, without an accurate knowledge of what the system of notes symbolized in auditory terms. For the occasion of the opening, an improvisational ensemble, called FFEAR, featuring saxophonist Ole Mathisen and trombonist Chris Washburne, performed these scores, some heard for the first time in public.
Sommer’s paradigm as an artist/photographer lay somewhere in the seams between art and reality. This is not exactly the same as art revealing a correspondence to life as the Neo-Dada artists, such as Allan Kaprow, Carolee Schneemann, Al Hansen, Alison Knowles, and Dick Higgins, tried to show in the late 50s. Rather, in the case of Sommer, art and reality were less intertwined than synonymous to the extent that if one were really into the aesthetic experience—that is, feeling the presence of art as a rarefied form—it meant that art had the power to transform reality, that is, to elevate our perceptions of reality in a new and unforgettable way. When I recall the images of the Arizona desert (all the same, but each one invariably unique), or the photographic light seeping through the crevices of his cut-paper shapes, or his images of walls with peeling paint and torn posters, eroded by the Arizona sun, or the scribbled, yet lyrically controlled paintings of linear striations moving back and forth through the dark caverns of a recumbent spatiality, I am struck by the work of an artist who was so much on his own wavelength and so resolved in being there, that I may wonder why art needs anything more (auctions, investments, theories, and empty rhetoric) to make itself known. Frederick Sommer did it all on his own. He photographed everything and he drew and spoke and painted what seemed to make sense, and it all created a distinct continuity, nearly without effort. His was a paradigm beyond the reign of the ordinary, beyond the politics and economics that has so infiltrated art that we no longer see it.
Frederick and Frances Sommer Foundation: Circumnavigation will run through March 20th at the Bruce Silverstein Gallery.
ContributorRobert C. Morgan
Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.