Finding Beauty will be exhibited at the London gallery from 13 October 2015 - 27 February 2016
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‘My work might be described as a search for certain notions of beauty. It’s an old-fashioned idea. The word ‘beauty’ is not particularly liked these days. People like Renoir are not taken as seriously because, maybe, the paintings are beautiful – which isn’t thought enough.’ Saul Leiter, 2013
In On the Sublime and the Beautiful of 1757, Edmund Burke declared that beautiful objects tend to be small and smooth; their parts are diversified, and not angular, but melt into each other; they are delicate, and their colours are clear and bright, not glaring. The most frequent hues of beautiful objects are light greens, soft blues, whites, pinks, reds, and violets. Burke thought that there was a natural tendency to see objects with these properties as beautiful – think of the beauty of a butterfly’s wings, an orchid, the pattern in oil on water. In contrast, sublime objects were vast, rugged, dark, gloomy, and threatening. A cliff, a thunderstorm, the waves crashing against the shore – these were sublime not beautiful. Beauty provokes pleasure; the sublime carries with it the risk that it will destroy or engulf us – the danger is part of its attraction since it stirs powerful emotions in us at a deep level.
Romantic painters and poets were drawn to the sublime, depicting craggy mountain tops, raging waterfalls, describing lone figures in nature. Their equivalents in the post-War US art scene shunned delicate beauty for large-scale canvases that flirted with destruction, dwarfing the viewer, and marked with traces of psychological turmoil and angst. The edges of the paintings were scarcely visible to the viewers who were encouraged to immerse themselves in Dionysian frenzies of paint and passion. Mark Rothko, Willem De Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Cy Twombly, and Lee Krasner, made art that was expressive, large, gestural, raw. It was occasionally sublime, but only very rarely beautiful in Burke’s sense. Later Pop artists concealed the brushstroke, and mocked painterly art, shunning beauty for different reasons, substituting it with ironic nods to the viewer, taking a lead from billboard advertisements, the more banal the better. Minimalists sidestepped beauty and focussed on form and materials.
Small-scale painted beauty was under attack from a different direction too - and still is. The self-conscious anti-aestheticism of Duchamp’s readymades, from Fountain onwards, had triggered more than a century of conceptual experimentation and repetition, experimentation that ultimately risked metamorphosing into an academic game of art about art in which the most trivial of objects is transformed into an icon simply by being placed on a plinth or in a gallery. The art world, caught in a loop of repetition became deeply suspicious of beauty for its own sake. Re-cycled conceptualism was more acceptable: it was cooler, it was sensational, it was cutting edge. In that context beauty delivered without irony looked naïve, sentimental, or kitsch.
Against this current, acutely aware of its flow, Saul Leiter crafted small paintings of fragile beauty, layering paint on scraps of paper, cardboard, book covers from his father’s library, envelopes, photographs of women, even the cuffs of old shirts and the pieces of card that liquor stores use to stop bottles banging together in transit. He transformed these found materials into abstract art just for the joy it gave him and others. Loving colour, he chose Pierre Bonnard as his master, rather than Duchamp or Pollock, well aware that this would put make him an outlier, an eccentric even.
For Leiter, the act of painting with a brush had an almost religious significance that he did not intend to abandon for the sake of artistic fashion and fad. Like the Zen calligraphy he had studied and admired as a young man, his paintings are acts of meditation in colour, brushstroke, and balance. They are layered, re-painted compositions, sensual experiments with pigment made outside the mainstream by an artist with integrity and self-direction. It was no secret that the act of painting gave him great satisfaction: unlike many of his contemporaries, he was driven by pleasure in beauty, not by anguish, depression, or inner turmoil.
Franz Kline once half-seriously tried to persuade him to paint on large canvases so that he could ‘become one of the boys’ and exhibit alongside New York school painters; but Leiter was committed to beauty and the exquisite, not the sublime. He had already found his direction, his medium, and his technique. In this he was closer to Giorgio Morandi, who spent many years painting arrangements of bottles on a shelf in his home in Italy in subdued colours. Leiter’s too is a small-scale painterly art, not one of grand gestures. It is an art of intimate and subtle beauty.
© Nigel Warburton, 2015
Read Nigel's 2013 interview with Saul Leiter here
A wonderful documentary has been made about Saul Leiter, In No Great Hurry by British film-maker Tomas Leach. The Times has called it "A beautiful film about a lovely man"
To find out more about the film please visit innogreathurry.com
Saul Leiter was born in Pittsburgh in 1923, the son of a rabbi. Leiter's interest in art began in his late teens, and at 23, he quit theology school and moved to New York to pursue painting. That year he met the Abstract Expressionist painter Richard Pousette-Dart, who was experimenting with photography. Leiter's friendship with Pousette-Dart and, soon after, with W. Eugene Smith inspired his involvement with photography.
Leiter's earliest black and white photographs show an extraordinary affinity for the medium, and by the 1950's he also began to work in color. Edward Steichen included 23 of Leiter's black and white photographs in the exhibition Always the Young Stranger at the Museum of Modern Art in 1953. Leiter's first exhibition of color photography was held in the 1950's at the Artist's Club - a meeting place for many of the Abstract Expressionist painters of that time. In the late 1950's the art director Henry Wolf published Leiter's color fashion work in Esquire and later in Harper's Bazaar. Leiter continued to work as a fashion photographer for the next 20 years and was also published in Show, Elle, British Vogue, Queen, and Nova.
Saul Leiter has made an enormous contribution in the area of color photography. His distinctively subdued color, often has an overall hue and a painterly quality that stands out among the work of his contemporaries. In The New York School, Jane Livingston wrote, "The very fact that color becomes the subject of the photographs places Leiter's work in another realm-a realm that is unabashedly artistic." Mr. Leiter has said about his own photography: "I don't believe that black and white is sacred or that color is profane. In my own work they have both been equally important."
Leiter's work is featured in the book The New York School: Photographs 1936-1963 by Jane Livingston and in Appearances: Fashion Photography Since 1945 by Martin Harrison. His work is in the collections of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; The Art Institute of Chicago; The Baltimore Museum of Art; the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; and many other public and private collections. Starting in 2006 Leiter's work has experienced a surge of popularity after a monograph, Early Color, was published. This book has been followed by a series of monographs and international exhibitions highlighting the depth and scope of Leiter's work, as detailed below.
Saul Leiter lived and worked in New York until he passed away in November 2013.
2015 Finding Beauty, HackelBury Fine Art, London
2015 Homage to Saul Leiter, Fifty One gallery, Antwerp
2014 Fotografie Forum, Frankfurt
2013 A Life in Colour, HackelBury Fine Art, London
2013 Saul Leiter, Kunst Haus Vienna
2012 Retrospective, Deichtorhallen Hamburg
2011 Saul Leiter: New York Reflections, Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam
2010 Saul Leiter, Mois de la Foto, Paris
2008 Cartier-Bresson Foundation, Paris
Life is Stranger Than Fiction: Masterpieces from the Collection Albertin Innsbruck
First Doubt. Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut
2007 Pieces of a City. Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York
Mapping the City. Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
When Color Was New, Art Institute of Chicago
2006 Color Photography, Amon Carter Museum, Texas
The Streets of New York, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
2002 New York: Capital of Photography. The Jewish Museum, New York
New York Scene: Ted Croner, Sid Grossman, Saul Leiter and Leon
Levinstein. Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York.
Visions from America: Photographs from the Whitney Museum of
American Art 1940-2001.
The Whitney Museum of American Art, June 27-September 22.
1998 Look at Me, Fashion and Photography in Britain 1960 to the Present British
Council European Touring Exhibition.
1996 Delirium. Ricco/Maresca Gallery, New York
1995 By Night. Cartier Foundation, Paris
1994 The New York School. Dean Jensen Gallery, Milwaukee
1991 Appearances: Fashion Photography Since 1945. Victoria and Albert
1980 Fashion Photographers. Hastings/Rinhart Galleries, New York.
1958 Photographs from the Museum Collection. Museum of Modern Art, New York
1953 Contemporary Photography. Tokyo Museum, Tokyo
Always the Young Stranger. Museum of Modern Art, New York
1947 Abstract and Surrealist Art. Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago
Harrison, Martin. Saul Leiter, Early Color, Steidl Publishers, Göttingen, Germany, 2006
Delpire, Robert. Saul Leiter, Photo Poche, Paris, 2007
Harrison, Martin. Saul Leiter, Early Black and White, Steidl Publishers, Göttingen,
Sire, Agnès. Saul Leiter, Steidl Publishers, Göttingen, Germany 2008
SELECTED PUBLIC COLLECTIONS
Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover
Albertina Museum, Vienna
Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth
Art Institute of Chicago
Art Collection of Agnès B. (Private)
Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City (Hallmark Photographic Collection)
Milwaukee Museum of Art
Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Museum of Modern Art, New York
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
St. Louis Art Museum
Staatliche Museen Zu Berlin
The Victoria & Albert Museum, London
The Whitney Museum of American Arts, New York
Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven
Alleti, Vince. “Shadows and Fog,” The Village Voice. February 9, 1993, p.79.
Best, Isabel. “Saul Man,” British Journal of Photography. August 2006, pp.13-15.
Coleman, A.D. “Letter From: New York, No.41,” PhotoMetro. April, 1993, p.28.
Coleman, A.D. “Focusing on a Lesser-Known Cohort of Avedon and Arbus,” The New
York Observer. February 8, 1993.
Cowley, Rob. “Saul Leiter?s World,” Infinity. September 1961, pp.13-15.
Gottlieb, Jane. “In Living Color, The unassuming Saul Leiter finally and reluctantly, steps
into the limelight,” Photo District News, January 2007, pp.37-39.
Harrison, Martin. Appearances: Fashion Photography Since 1945. London: Rizzoli, 1991.
Harrison, Martin. “Saul Leiter Rediscovered,” The Correspondent Magazine. November
12, 1989, pp.14-20.
Hostetler, Lisa. “In Living Color: Photographs by Saul Leiter,” 2006, Milwaukee Art
Museum. Exhibition Gallery Guide.
Koetzle, Michael. “Saul Leiter: Color has its own Qualities,” Leica World. January, 2000.
Kozloff, Max. “Saul Leiter?s Elegance,” Matador. Volume J. Spring 2007.
Livingston, Jane. The New York School: Photographs 1936-1963. New York: Stuart,
Tabori and Chang, 1992.
Loke, Margarett. “Saul Leiter, Howard Greenberg Gallery,” Artnews. September, 1993,
Maine, Stephen. “Color Pioneer,” Art in America. April, 2006, pp.78-79
Meyers, William. “When the World Stopped Being Black & White,” The New York Sun.
December 22, 2005.
Roberts, Pamela. “A Century of Colour Photography: From the Autochrome to the Digital
Age,” Andre Deutsch, London, 2007.
Smith, Roberta. “Saul Leiter: Early Color,” The New York Times. December 30, 2005.
Tallmer, Jerry. “Still Time to Develop,” The New York Post. January 29, 1993
Woodward, Richard B. “Ten Undervalued Masters of Photography,” Art&Auction.