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Review: Harry Callahan's elegant abstractions of nature

August 13, 2012|By Leah Ollman
  • Harry Callahan's 1943 "Sunlight on Water" at Marc Selwyn
Harry Callahan's 1943 "Sunlight on Water" at Marc Selwyn (The Estate of Harry Callahan,…)

One day in 1941, Harry Callahan had a conversion moment when he was out photographing weeds in snow. In the few years that he had been making pictures up until then, he had focused on tone and texture, but that day the light was soft and without shadow, and what appeared on the ground glass of his view camera were calligraphic lines against an unarticulated field. "Nature Abstracted," at Marc Selwyn, gives a fine sampling of the exquisite landscape imagery Callahan made after that day, which (as he later recalled) "opened a whole new way of seeing for me."

Nature everywhere draws itself, something Callahan recognized once the land's plains turned in his mind into planes for composition. He played with multiple exposures, layering images to poetic effect, but in most of the pictures here he relied on what presented itself, in terms of light, shadow and reflection, heightening contrast as needed to emphasize line and rhythm. These intimate little gems parallel and in some cases pre-empt the epic gestures of abstract painters of the '40s and '50s--Kline, Pollock, and especially Twombly.

A series of prints of sunlight on water are beautifully simple, small black planes drizzled with restless white squiggles. Spine-straight reeds in water soften into wavy lines after seamlessly melding with their own reflections. And those grasses in snow are breathtakingly pure, just slender black scratchings on the pristine page of the earth.

Marc Selwyn Fine Art, 6222 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 101, (323) 933-9911, through August 18. Closed Sunday and Monday. www.marcselwynfineart.com

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