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Review: Lillian Bassman at Peter Fetterman Gallery

December 4, 2008 |  3:30 pm

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Fashion photographer Lillian Bassman, protégée of Harper’s Bazaar designer Alexey Brodovitch and friend to Richard Avedon, rose to prominence in the 1940s and ’50s but drifted out of the business, threw out her negatives and fell into relative obscurity for decades — until Helen Frankenthaler, who happened to be renting her onetime studio, came across a cache of lost negatives in 1991. A monograph followed, a flush of prestigious assignments and a handful of exhibitions, launching her career once more at about age 80.

A substantial survey at the Peter Fetterman Gallery reveals Bassman, now 91, to be an artist of singular if rather obstinate vision. Indeed, her style was so distinct — black-and-white, highly contrasted, fantastically romantic — that it’s difficult to imagine how she could have weathered the shift into the ocher-tinted haze of the ’60s and ’70s.

Her women are tall, impossibly slender, and suggestive less of women than of some exceedingly elegant breed of animal. Their gowns are, for the most part, enormous — she was a photographer ideally suited to couture — and they carry the garments with an agile grandeur rarely seen in the modern era or probably in any other.

These are marvelously glamorous pictures. More interesting, however, is the fact that many of them are also quite strange, veering from the concerns of commercial fashion into some other aesthetic territory entirely.

Bassman was fascinated with contrast and not afraid to take it to extremes, ramping it up at times to such a degree as to turn her forms into blocks of deep black and glaring white. She manipulated her photographs extensively in the darkroom, blurring, burning and bleaching without apparent trepidation, no more limited by the traditions of the print than she was by the reality of the female body, bending both to meet the vision of her mind’s eye.

-- Holly Myers

Photo credit: Lillian Bassman/Peter Fetterman Gallery

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