Sunday, May 6, 2018

Lee Friedlander at NOMA

Jazz and abstract modern art can almost seem to have been separated at birth, but such details tend to be lost on most art historians. Pioneer abstractionist Wassily Kandinsky's first non-objective paintings appeared around the same time New Orleans jazz burst on the scene in the early 20th century. Jazz was the first truly improvisational Western musical idiom and visual abstraction followed suit via the work of the dadaists surrealists, including the abstract photography of  Man Ray, among others. Fast forward to the 1960s and Lee Friedlander, long legendary for his photos of  musicians, attained international fame as a great American art photographer known for his paradoxical ability to render totally realistic images that read like stark deadpan abstraction.

How can that be? For starters, Friedlander discards the optical “single point perspective” that historically defined Western painting and photography in favor of compositions based on random patterns of peripheral perception. New Orleans, 1958, top, unites his prolific local jazz documentation with his visionary abstraction in a single, strikingly evocative, image. New Orleans, 1969, above, a composition centered on a car's rear view mirror, explodes Baronne street into a kaleidoscopic articulation of office towers, taxis, bars and theaters like a visual version of Brian Eno's ambient music. If Friedlander seems to be messing with our heads, what he is really giving us is his version of the raw visual data that our eyes see before our brains start  frantically trying to process it into views that fit our preconceived ideas about the world around us.
His photos of musicians ranging from mega-hit superstars to traditional jazz legends whose national fame extended mainly to the cognoscenti, were often no less quirky, as we see in an off-stage view of Ray Charles gesturing with his hands, expressing the unfathomable. In an emotionally seismic head shot of Aretha Franklin, left, the soul diva seems to express all the ecstasies and agonies that forged her sound and enabled her to speak for so many. Legendary boogie-woogie avatar and former boxer and Yellow Pocahontas “spy boy,” Champion Jack Dupree, appears as a rugged buccaneer of back street Nola musical genius as John Coltrane visually resonates the sleekly chill aura of a recording angel of mellifluous modern jazz. In these works, Friedlander's deeply psychological affinities and contrapuntal buoyancy are eloquently on view. As Preservation Hall Creative Director Ben Jaffe once described his approach:  “You have to understand the rhythm of life to document life.” ~ Bookhardt / Louisiana Roots and American Musicians: Photographs by Lee Friedlander, Through June 17, New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park, 658-4100.