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Review: Midcentury Experimental Photos at 'Texas Bauhaus' at PDNB

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, January 29, 2008
Updated: Monday, January 13, 2014
DATE: January 29, 2008

Ten years ago, Burt Finger, the owner of Photographs Do Not Bend Gallery, received a phone call from a woman who invited him over to see her mother's photographs. Art dealers often receive such calls, and the prospects are not often very promising. But when Mr. Finger arrived at the woman's home, he found the walls filled with remarkable abstract photographs taken mostly in the 1950s.

They were the work of Ida Lansky, and the research Mr. Finger and his gallery did with Ms. Lansky's archive has resulted in the exhibition "Texas Bauhaus," which is currently at the Dallas gallery after its first showing in 2006 at the El Paso Museum of Art.

Carlotta Corpron, Nature Dancer, 1944 Courtesy
PDNB Gallery.
In the early '50s, Ms. Lansky was working on a degree in library science at Texas Woman's University in Denton when she took Carlotta Corpron's photography workshops and got hooked. Ms. Corpron, who had her own retrospective exhibition at the Amon Carter Museum in 1981, was devoted to the theories of the Bauhaus, the radical German art school that promoted a union of art, design and architecture.

When the Nazis closed the Bauhaus in 1933, many of its teachers relocated to Chicago and opened the New Bauhaus, which became over time the Institute of Design. Years before Ms. Lansky enrolled in Ms. Corpron's classes, her teacher had brought to Denton such Bauhaus luminaries as Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Gyorgy Kepes. Their theories that a photograph should be about the play of light and not the objects photographed flew in the face of the social documentary and new objectivity that formed the American mainstream, and they along with Ms. Corpron made North Texas a surprising stronghold for mid-20th-century experimental photography.

"Texas Bauhaus" includes work by Ms. Corpron, Ms. Lansky and Barbara Maples, another participant in Ms. Corpron's workshops. Walking through the exhibition, you see a clear line of influence as each of the three women brings her own sensibility to processes developed in Germany in the '20s.

Ida Lansky, Colony, c. 1950s Courtesy
PDNB Gallery.
Some of the photographs appear to be multiple exposures, but control of the photographic moment and not manipulation of the negatives is at the core of their practice. It is often difficult to know exactly how a particular image was produced.

Photograms, a camera-free method of producing images by placing objects directly on photographic paper, play a part in each artist's work. Light boxes, at the time a recent device developed by Nathan Lerner, tightly controlled how an object would be presented by isolating it in a neutral setting under directional lighting. Within the light box, mirrors might be used to multiply the image, or the final print might be reprinted in reverse to create a diptych.

For a process known as reticulation, the negative was soaked in water until it began to break up, creating an eerie sensation that solid objects were alive with organic movement.

Both Ms. Lansky and Ms. Maples did some work with architecture and interiors, but for the most part the three worked in the studio with props. Ms. Corpron's Nature Dancer (1944) is nothing more than a splayed Chinese cabbage, but her photograph has the elegance and drama that recall contemporary images of Martha Graham and other modern dancers.

Eggs, seashells and small sculptures also appear in their work, but the object photographed would often be difficult to identify without the titles. Ms. Maples, with such titles as Plastic Boxes, Plastic Jars and Paper Form, is the most informative, although throughout the exhibition there are enough untitled works or those identified merely as "abstractions" that you often have little idea exactly what you are looking at.

Staying true to their Bauhaus roots, however, Ms. Corpron, Ms. Lansky and Ms. Maples are never so much concerned with what they are photographing as how they are doing so, and trying to guess what has gone into each image is somewhat like worrying over how a magician does his act. It is better to sit back and enjoy the show.

All three create images that are at times sensuous, amusing or dramatic. They are equally capable of dissolving physical objects into displays of light and shadow or bringing order to seemingly random piles of stuff. Ms. Lansky used interlocking asbestos tiles, a children's toy of the day, to build puzzlelike architectural models. Ms. Maples crumpled paper with great finesse. For her Flowing Light images, Ms. Corpron left the camera shutter open to create complex spirals and rushing lines of light.

In today's digital world, we are accustomed to photographs that have been manipulated into high-tech wonders of both scale and sophistication. "Texas Bauhaus" shows the roots of those impulses in work that could have been produced in the studio or on the kitchen table.
By Charles Dee Mitchell
For The Dallas Morning News

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