There's an old New Yorker cartoon that shows a class of art students busy drawing from life. The pictures on their easels all look like Picassos, full of strange angles and corners and cubes -- but then, so does the live model shown standing in front of them. That's the world as shown to us by American photographer Aaron Siskind, who died in 1991 and whose 100th birthday fell last year. His photos riff on all the great innovations of modernist fine art by finding parallels for them out in the world. The elegant forms of biomorphic abstraction, the strange juxtapositions of surrealism, abstract expressionist mess -- all are hunted down and captured by Siskind's roving lens.
The Phillips Collection, following on the many anniversary celebrations that began last year, has assembled a sampling of 46 of the artist's stunning black-and-white prints, mostly on loan from the Aaron Siskind Foundation. All of them are elegant, appealing works, very easy on the eyes. Only a few, however, have the raw creative energy of the fine-art models they take off from.
A series of spare images of single threads of seaweed resting on sand, taken in the 1940s, is as graceful as any of Hans Arp's kidney-shaped forms. They have the sinuous energy of a drawing by Paul Klee or Joan Miro.
The surrealists believed in the power of the accidental. Art would be transformed, they felt, if only it would embrace the beauty of "the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table," as their famous tagline put it. Siskind captures just this kind of glimpse of the uncanny in one of his most famous images, titled "Gloucester 1H," shot in 1944. An empty work glove, sitting on weathered wood, seems to beckon us closer, or maybe warn us off.
Siskind doesn't have to build an artificial world of melting clocks or apple-headed men. He doesn't even have to set shots up, as most surrealist photographers preferred to do. He can find animated gloves giving disembodied greetings just by scanning reality with his camera.
Siskind shows how even the discombobulations of collage, one of the most cherished and fertile inventions of modernist fine art, are out there for the asking. In 1951 in North Carolina, torn posters gave Siskind the chance to show a woman's naked legs sitting between the words "IN" and "AND," and all he had to do was point his camera at the wall and snap the shutter.
Siskind finds Henry Moore buttocks and breasts among the rocks of Martha's Vineyard. He even finds an analogue to Victor Vasarely's op art dots and angles painted on some shingles in Bahia.
And, in his heyday in the 1950s, he famously finds abstract expressionist scribbles and daubs everywhere, but everywhere, he looks. His "Jerome 21" (1949) is all Clyfford Still: He spots that artist's masses and voids, his ragged triangles and fractured surfaces, in a patch of peeling paint in a small town in Arizona. His famous "Gloucester 1" is a Cy Twombly scribbled blackboard painting, discovered lurking on another scarred wall in small-town U.S.A.
The problem with all this -- if we can bring ourselves to notice problems in such pleasing imagemaking -- isn't that Siskind's art is derivative. A number of his pictures, such as that Twombly-ish "Gloucester 1" from 1944, arguably predate the painted art they seem to echo. The problem is that by virtue of being photographs, Siskind's images lose the made-from-scratch creative punch that the best modernism had. How radical can something be, after all, if it's been in the world around us all along, just waiting to be caught on film?
Siskind's photos argued, in a sense, that if we looked hard enough, we'd find modernist abstraction all around us for the asking. Modernism wasn't some crazy artist's arbitrary innovation, after all. It was just another aspect of the same world artists had been portraying since the Renaissance. Radical modern style becomes a kind of old-fashioned realism: In Siskind's camera-wielding hands, it's a depiction of reality, rather than a back turned to it. Which means those hands have also tamed something that once was wild.
Aaron Siskind: New Relationships in Photography is at the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW, through Sept. 5. Call 202-387-2151 or visit www.phillipscollection.org.