Mexico Times Two
South-Of-The-Border Works By Aaron Siskind and Max Yavno Are Showing At The Center For Creative Photography.
By Margaret Regan
IN LATE WINTER, in a show of works drawn from the Center for Creative Photography archives, there was a haunting picture called "Harlem" by the late Aaron Siskind. The 1940 photo showed a grim-faced black man lying on a bed in a forlorn city bedroom, its decaying plaster walls seeming to cry out with despair.
That Siskind work, realistic and politically charged, seems worlds away from the photographer's later pictures in the Center's big summer show Mexican Tableaux: Photographs from the Aaron Siskind and Max Yavno Archives. Siskind's Mexican photos, taken during eight trips made between 1955 and the 1980s, are near-abstractions, most of them tightly framed close-ups of crumbling walls. The beautiful textures, flat surfaces and tonal ranges in these black-and-white works bear a closer relationship to abstract painting than to the socially conscious photography of Siskind's younger years. In fact, many of them are dedicated to modernist painters.
"Jalapa 35" is one of a series picturing painterly slashes on walls that's subtitled "Homage to Franz Kline." Another artist getting a tribute is constructivist Joseph Cornell, in a series of photos from Merida of funerary niches and statues. (Cornell was famous for his 3-D boxes artfully housing found objects.) The Merida series, with its mostly recognizable objects, veers closest to Siskind's earlier documentary work.
To be sure, Siskind's Mexico pictures nearly all suggest a human presence. If there are very few people actually in the photos, the objects they picture are mostly human-made. They're full of human mark-making too. There are hyper-magnified images of tattered political manifestos now peeling from the stucco ("Veracruz 198"), of revolutionary slogans or commercial advertisements painted on the outsides of shops and houses (the "Jalapa" series), of fading painted crosses ("Durango, Mexico 8"). And by showing the deteriorating condition of the habitations of Mexico's lowly, Siskind documents, elusively, the grinding poverty of that nation.
But it's the late Max Yavno who exhibits the kind of documentary photography that Siskind's old "Harlem" print might have led us to expect. Yavno photographs the Mexican streets as a kind of stage of life, with the same eroding walls serving as a theatrical backdrop to children pushing candy carts, to campesinos herding pigs, to a young woman balancing a case of Pepsis on her head. Yavno made a single trip to Mexico, in the winter of 1981, and by all accounts he was willing to bide his time to get the perfect archetypal image. He would wait, a Mexican assistant remembered, "for the scene to come," for the white hat of the pig-herder to fall just so against the darkened archway, for the fat middle-class man to emerge from the San Cristobal cathedral at the exact moment that an Indian worker bent over his broom in the plaza outside.
Yavno's interest in Mexican architecture--the same textured stucco, arches, and Spanish-style houses bump up against the street that have so enchanted hordes of norteamericano artists descending south of the border--also links him to Siskind. Where Siskind zooms in for the emblematic detail of a building, Yavno stands back at a middle distance to take in the sweep of the passing scene. Pulled entirely from the Center's own holdings, this interesting show documents that the Mexico connection is only one in series of lifelong links between these two photographers.
Siskind and Yavno both were the children of turn-of-the century immigrants to America. They grew up on the same New York City block. Apparently, though, they didn't play together, since Siskind, born in 1903, was eight years older than Yavno. They hooked up again in early adulthood, when both were passionate devotees of photography. In the 1930s, both men joined the Photo League, a politically committed New York group that undertook comprehensive documentary projects. For three years, Siskind headed the team making the Harlem Document, an odyssey of urban picture-making that one art historian called a "searching look at life in New York's most significant black neighborhood." Yavno worked with Siskind on the document.
The League's sympathetic portrayal of the dispossessed in America came under suspicion in the McCarthy years. The U.S. Attorney General put the Photo League on a list of "subversive" organizations in 1950 and it fell apart in 1952. Whatever effect the political crackdown may have had on the subsequent imagery of these two photographers, their paths seemed destined to diverge in any case. Yavno went on to Los Angeles, where he had a successful commercial career, but continued to publish his personal work of architecture and people in countries around the world. He died in 1985.
Siskind had long been immersed in the arty New York world, and counted avant-garde writers and painters among his friends. Inspired by the Abstract Expressionists' emphasis on spontaneity and accidental gesture, Siskind began photographing the urban scene in a more experimental and abstract way. This impulse matured on his many journeys to Mexico: The beautiful print "Irapuato, Mexico 6," a shot of multiple layers of peeling papers photographed in a luscious array of blacks, whites and grays, could easily be the image of a Kline or Pollock.
As an influential photography teacher at the Chicago Institute of Design, and at the Rhode Island School of Design, Siskind continued his pioneering work blurring the boundaries between painting and photography. He died in 1991.
Mexican Tableaux: Photographs from the Aaron Siskind and Max Yavno Archives continues through September 15 at the UA Center for Creative Photography, south end of the pedestrian underpass on Speedway east of Park Avenue. A complementary exhibition, Selections from the Permanent Collection: Photo League, continues through the same date. There will be a free slide lecture at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, September 5, on Billboards on Adobe Walls: Photographs of Mexican Architecture by James Oles of Wellesley College. At 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, September 10, collector Leonard Vernon of Los Angeles will give a free talk filled with personal reminiscences of Yavno and Siskind. Gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. For more information call 621-7968.
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