At Smart, Siskind’s writings reveal The Thing Itself

In the Smart Museum’s new exhibit, the combination of the artist’s writings and art works gives viewers a feel for what Siskind was trying to convey in his photographs.

By Kate Shepherd

Getting into an artist’s head is a challenge for all art enthusiasts, amateur and professional alike. Examining the artist’s writings, then, can be one of the easiest ways to understand his work.

In the Smart Museum’s new exhibit Aaron Siskind: The Thing Itself, the curators effectively mix Siskind’s work and writings into the exhibit. The combination gives viewers a feel for what Siskind was trying to convey in his work.

Siskind’s writing is the show’s greatest strength, because it illuminates photographs that might be meaningless to an audience unfamiliar his work. As a photographer, Siskind changed the traditional use of the medium by incorporating Abstract Expressionism into his work. Siskind emulated the popular post–World War II movement by photographing ordinary objects and manipulating their traditional appearance to challenge the viewer’s eye. By changing the traditional image of the photographed object, Siskind creates a disconnect between the photograph and “the thing itself.”

Abstract Expressionism still baffles viewers today because the meaning of the work is not as straightforward or clear as the works of many artists from previous movements, like Realism. Siskind’s work is no exception: His photographs are as enigmatic as the works of other Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.

Siskind was interested in challenging viewers’ eyes and minds by introducing them to a new view of an everyday object in nature, architecture, or a famous site. Most of his photographs focus on items found in nature or architectural objects, shot from an unusual perspective.

In many of Siskind’s photographs, the subjects are unrecognizable to the viewer. He named the works after what the image depicts, so the viewer has some idea of what he is trying to convey. In this way, Siskind manipulated traditional views and opened viewers’ minds to new perspectives.

One of the most interesting photographs in the exhibit is “Chicago.” Taken in 1949, gelatin silver print is completely unrecognizable as any traditional image of Chicago. The photograph depicts a thick black swirl with several markings on and around the image. According to Siskind, however, it is Chicago.

Fully appreciating the work of an Abstract Expressionist is a challenge because it requires a lot of thought. The meaning of Siskind’s work does not jump off the print. If the exhibit did not incorporate as many of Siskind’s own thoughts about his work, it would be very difficult for any audience to understand. Not every audience will enjoy Siskind’s art and the Smart’s exhibit, but it is innovative enough to be interesting for photography and contemporary art enthusiasts.