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Art: An elegant little show

Photographer Frederick Sommer at the Art Museum.

Paul Keene's "Blues Band," '86. "Sound. Print. Record" explores synergy between music, visual art in African American works.
Paul Keene's "Blues Band," '86. "Sound. Print. Record" explores synergy between music, visual art in African American works.Read moreGift of Allan Edmunds and Brandywine Graphic Workshop

Among the various photography exhibitions in town, the show for Frederick Sommer at the Philadelphia Museum of Art may be the most elegant, the most concise in terms of defining a career, and the most memorable in terms of its creative invention.

The show comprises only 35 black-and-white photographs, three ink drawings, and one collage, all but two items borrowed from private collections. Oddly, the Art Museum doesn't own any prints by Sommer, despite his considerable reputation and the fact that he has influenced several local photographers.

According to exhibition organizer Peter Barberie, these include D.W. Mellor, a major lender to the Art Museum show, and Bucks County photographer Emmet Gowin.

Sommer is one of the leading lights of 20th-century American photography, although he also painted, drew, made collages, and wrote poetry and prose.

The exhibition emphasizes two of his salient characteristics as an artist - his exceptional sense of design, evident in his arranged still lifes, and his intuitive recognition of surrealist juxtapositions. The surrealist tone of his work, recognized by Max Ernst and Andre Breton, is its most persistent quality.

A prime example: In 1939, he obtained some chicken parts from his local butcher and composed arrangements of them on a porcelain sink. Five of these bizarre still lifes constitute one of the show's focal points.

They exemplify Sommer's talent for creating surrealist strangeness by juxtaposing ordinary materials into extraordinary tableaus. Arshile Gorky, subject of a current major museum retrospective, was similarly gifted.

Sommer possessed an equally acute eye for surrealism in its natural state, which he recognized in the emaciated bodies of dead coyotes he found in the Arizona desert. He lived in Prescott, about 75 miles north of Phoenix, from the early 1930s until his death in 1999.

The desert provided the subject for another major photographic series, the minutely observed landscape. These nearly monochromatic, horizonless images are flush with geological and botanical details, and yet even from a modest distance they read as near-abstractions.

Sommer's cosmopolitan background perhaps prepared him for the sophisticated aesthetic vision that, after meeting Edward Weston, he chose to express through photography.

Born in 1905 in Italy to Swiss and German parents, he grew up in Brazil. As an adult, he spoke four languages - German, Italian, Portuguese, and English.

He studied landscape architecture at Cornell University in the mid-1920s, and subsequently settled in the United States in 1930. By 1938, he had decided that photography should be his medium, in large part because of its ability to capture and present a wealth of visual information.

Sommer also used photography to document work in other media, such as collage. One such work is Durer Variation of 1966, which he created by accordion-folding several reproductions of Durer prints (which he took from a book on the artist), overlapping them, and then recording the result as a silver print.

Sommer sometimes "drew" by cutting elaborate abstract figures into paper and preserving these delicate designs as photographs. Two of his ink drawings demonstrate his attempts to tease musical expression out of images that resemble musical notation.

Throughout the exhibition, from sensitive portraits of his wife to a grotesque picture of a gangrenous foot, one encounters dualities of existence that fascinate Sommer, such as beauty and ugliness, life and death.

Disparate subjects are consistently related by a refined sense of selection and design. This quality makes the Sommer show the most stimulating and satisfying of the city's many current photography offerings.

"Sound: Print: Record." This exhibition at the University of Delaware explores the synergy between music and visual art in the work of many African Americans. The theme is vividly typified by Philadelphian John E. Dowell Jr., a composer and musician whose prints translate musical impulses into visual equivalents in the way that Sommer did with drawings.

Organized by Julie McGee, curator of African American art for the university museums, "Sound: Print: Record" is a relatively small show of 35 items, mostly photographs (19) and prints (10) in various media. It presents two principal threads, the primary one being photographs that document performers.

The complementary theme, explored by artists such as Dowell, Ellington Robinson, Paul Keene, and Curlee Raven Holton, affectionately celebrates black musical culture.

The photographs, from P.H. Polk in the 1930s to Ming Smith, Onikwa Bill Wallace, and Frank Stewart in the 1980s and '90s, are mostly journalistic, although in several cases the artist has enhanced an image with hand-coloring or through montage.

The prints, a single painting, and several mixed-media works more effectively stand alone as art because they do not depend so much on the celebrity of subjects such as Miles Davis and Sun Ra.

Perhaps the works that most effectively define McGee's thesis are Odeon by Philadelphian Terry Adkins, a color print of 36 record labels that honors black music and particularly recording companies, and After an Afternoon, Whitfield Lovell's stacked assemblage of 37 vintage radios that play three soundtracks, one of which is Billie Holliday singing.

Lovell's piece points up the principal difficulty of doing an exhibition like this one. It's primarily about music, so a viewer needs either vivid imagination or rich personal experience to bring the material to life.

Photo collection sold. A premier photography collection assembled in Philadelphia over many years by Harvey S. Shipley Miller and J. Randall Plummer has been sold.

Or rather, 88 of the 118 lots offered by Christie's auction house last month sold for a total of $1,832,625, including the 10 percent buyers' premiums.

The highest price paid was $350,500 for a quarter-plate daguerreotype portrait made in 1850 by Philadelphian Marcus Aurelius Root. Another image by Root, of his infant son posed on an American flag, brought $74,500.

Both Miller and Plummer serve on the prints, drawings and photographs committee of the Philadelphia Museum of Art; Miller is also a trustee.

Since 1975, they have given to the museum or helped it to acquire more than 800 photographs. According to the museum, they donated photographs almost every year between 2000 and 2006.

Art: Sommer Time, Art and Music

The Frederick Sommer exhibition continues at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th Street and the Parkway, through Jan. 3. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays and to 8:45 Fridays. Admission is $16 general, $14 for visitors 65 and older, and $12 for students with ID and visitors 13 to 18. Pay what you wish first Sunday of the month. Information: 215-763-8100, 215-684-7500 or

"Sound Print Record" continues in Mechanical Hall at the University of Delaware in Newark through Dec. 6. Hours are noon to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays and to 8 Thursdays. Free admission. Information: 302-831-8037 or