New art often comes with a backstory, which can be useful in helping identify a point of entry into otherwise-enigmatic work.
The genesis of Daniel Arsham's sculpture at the Fabric Workshop and Museum is particularly dramatic, to the point where the story implants itself so firmly in the viewer's consciousness that it biases one's evaluation of the artist's efforts.
Arsham makes sure this happens by including in his installation, "Reach Ruin," a sculpture incorporating sound, light, and music that re-creates a cataclysmic event and his enduring memory of it.
The event was Hurricane Andrew, one of the most powerful and destructive storms in U.S. history, which struck Florida in late August 1992. ("Reach Ruin" is an anagram of the word hurricane.)
The adolescent Arsham rode out the tempest in a fortified closet of his family's home, emerging later into a landscape of twisted and shattered debris.
The piece that re-creates the sound and fury of Andrew, sort of, is Storm, a jagged cavity in a free-standing wall that resembles a grotto or a giant geode. As one approaches, a motion sensor triggers flashing bursts of light that simulate lightning, the rumbling of thunder, and a blast of wind, accompanied by a recording of Mozart's Requiem.
This hurricane in miniature is a relatively pallid evocation of the real thing, especially in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, but it does create a context for the more imposing part of the installation, a cluster of what appear to be broken and eroded columns and two figurative sculptures.
The massive columns are square in cross-section; in fact, they mimic the dimensions and appearance of a structural pillar in the gallery.
Their broken and eroded ends are covered with granules of shattered plate glass, in several shades of green, that has the texture of rock salt. Conceptually, the columns reminded me a bit of Chinese scholars' rocks.
They represent Arsham's theme of architectural destruction that so traumatized him as a boy. There's little sense of regeneration here, but there is a suggestion of how humans might reflect on their powerlessness in the face of titanic natural forces, and the randomness of both destruction and personal survival.
This aspect comes in the form of two seated figures, cast from the artist's body in glass and resin, and seated on horizontal column sections. Perhaps Arsham intends these figures as symbols of hope, which they might be if they weren't emotionally neutral.
Taken as a whole, the conflation of Storm, cast figures, and shattered columns feels cluttered. The theme might have been more cogently expressed if done more economically, perhaps with half as many elements.
One floor below, one can contemplate the residue of a dance performance in which Arsham collaborated with choreographer Jonah Bokaer in a piece called Occupant. Four dancers, seen in a projected video, trace chalky circles and arcs on the gallery floor using sculptures of cameras cast from plaster.
The tracings, washed in blue light, record deliberate and graceful arabesques that resemble the abstractions of painter Robert Mangold. Even without the dancers, Occupant generates a mood of serene tranquillity and repose. It's an environment that invites lingering.
On the ground floor, Arsham offers two figures of a different sort. Hollow Figure, ingeniously molded from a sheet of resin-impregnated fiberglass, suggests a person being enveloped by architecture, i.e. a collapsed wall. Wrapped Figure, a man apparently being swallowed by the gallery wall, is even more explicit, if less poetic.
These two sculptures, but especially the Saint-Gaudens-like Hollow Figure, embody layers of symbolism and metaphor lacking in the more elaborate installation upstairs. Had I seen only these two, I would have been satisfied.
Dorothy Norman's legacy. The Alfred Stieglitz Center was established at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1968, largely through a gift from Dorothy Norman, philanthropist, photographer, and the great man's protegee and companion from 1929 until he died in 1946.
Norman gave the museum hundreds of photographs by Stieglitz, herself, and others, as well as money to support a program of exhibitions and acquisitions. Forty-five years later, the museum's photography collection has grown to more than 30,000 prints representing the entire history and scope of the medium. It's one of the premier photography collections in any American art museum.
To make this point, the museum has put out a representative selection, ranging from an 1850s daguerreotype to mid-1950s images from Robert Frank's book The Americans and beyond.
The 19th-century section is especially impressive; the museum owns prints by many major photographic pioneers and by famous documentarians such as Gustave Le Gray and Felix Beato.
The core of the exhibition focuses on Stieglitz himself - his "equivalents" and cloud studies, although nothing of his wife, Georgia O'Keeffe - and on Norman, who emerges here as a competent photographer in her own right, if not an inspired one.
She portrayed her mentor, and he did likewise with her. He photographed his Manhattan neighborhood from the Shelton Hotel, where he lived with O'Keeffe; she photographed the harbor at Osterville on Cape Cod. His tutelage is evident in the way she framed her shots.
Aside from them, the modern-contemporary period receives proportionately less attention than the 19th century. One of the more striking images, and one of the few in color, is a 1985 view of the Salton Sea in Southern California by Richard Misrach, who exhibited at the museum in 1987-88.