Frederick Sommer: Visual Affinities
In the span of an extraordinary career, Frederick Sommer worked in a variety of media—encompassing drawing, painting, photography, collage, and writing. Although celebrated for his achievements in photography, the artist was interested in the broadest spectrum of creativity. It was this inquisitiveness and his understanding that “everything is shared by everything else; there are no discontinuities” that ultimately materialized in his works. Sommer engaged the world formally, harvested its chance gifts, decontextualized and recombined images and objects to highlight unlikely visual affinities. His exploration of the boundaries between representation and abstraction and his interest in a wide range of expressive mediums would inform his six-decade career. Visual Affinities, Ricco/Maresca’s second one-person Sommer exhibition in collaboration with Bruce Silverstein, presents a selection of work that reflects the variety of expression in the artist’s practice: from photography, ink on paper and “glue color” drawings (pigment suspended in hide glue), to his “musical score” works.
Born in 1905 in Angri, Italy, Sommer was raised in Rio de Janeiro and exposed to art, nature, and landscape architecture at an early age. Fluent in five languages, he drew creative sustenance from a broad variety of original sources. The ideas of Goethe, Burckhardt, Kant, Hegel, Spinoza, Croce, Nietzsche, Liebniz, Schelling, Darwin and, later, Alfred Jarry, Wittgenstein, Benjamin, Bertrand Russell, quantum physics, the Japanese Shinto tradition, and much more, were all of importance to him. In the late 1920s Sommer traveled to the United States, graduated from Cornell University, married fellow graduate student Frances Watson, worked on municipal design projects back in Brazil, and was diagnosed with tuberculosis, all by the age of 25. The treatment period for his illness included a stay in Switzerland, bracketed by travels through Spain, Italy, and France. In 1935, he relocated to Prescott, Arizona, where he would reside for the next 60 years (eventually passing at the age of 93).
In 1936, after a visit to Edward Weston, Sommer began to use a 8 x 10 view camera. By then, the artist was utilizing various painting and drawing techniques and photographing in earnest. In 1940 he visited Charles Sheeler in New York. In 1941, on a trip to California, he met Man Ray, Peggy Guggenheim and, most importantly Max Ernst, with whom he began an important friendship. This was clearly a period of great growth for Sommer, who further drifted toward the pursuit of the avant-garde, and whose work bridged the influences of surrealism and abstract expressionism. After viewing a display of original musical scores in a music library in Los Angeles, he began to formulate his own surrealist theories correlating graphic design to the sound of musical scores, noting: “One thing I became convinced of, and that has proven to be quite the case: that only the really great composers … are the ones who have good looking scores.” Beginning in 1941, Sommer created his own scores typically rendered through the intuitive “automatic” process initiated in his other works, always in a single session and exploring the concept that a beautifully rendered score might yield music of corresponding quality.
Concurrent with the fruitful decades of his photographic work (1930s-1950s) Sommer experimented with creating “glue color drawings” on the black interleaving sheets between photographic film, later progressing to traditional drawing paper. He added colored pigments to hide-glue, and applied it to paper with either a brush or nib. Some works are figurative, some are patterned with hard lines, and others are created with fluid forceful strokes. For Sommer, the act of drawing addressed the most fundamental problems of perception and representation, and as with his photographs and paintings, he sought to transform, unfold, and expand potential meanings of objects and forms.
In 1941, the Museum of Modern Art began its long track record of support for Sommer’s photographs with an acquisition for the exhibition Images of Freedom. Since then, the museum has included the artist’s work in 28 major exhibitions. In 1949, Sommer showed his drawings and photographs at the Charles Egan Gallery in New York, where the drawings were described by the New York Times as “first-rate design intelligence that is somewhat marred by the suggestion of Dadaist inspiration.” In 1957, after numerous exhibitions and further exploration into multiple artistic disciplines, a variety of the artist’s works in different media were exhibited together at the Institute of Design in Chicago.
Sommer’s work has been exhibited and collected by the world’s most important institutions, among them: the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), the George Eastman House (Rochester), the Institute of Design (Chicago), the J. Paul Getty Museum (Los Angeles), the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts (Boston), the Museum of Fine Arts (Houston), the National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.), the Center for Creative Photography (University of Arizona), the Nelson-Atkins Museum (Kansas City), the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Princeton University Art Museum, the Rhode Island School of Design (Providence), the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian Institution (Washington, D.C.), the Maison Européenne de la Photographie (Paris), the Tokyo Fuji Art Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museum (London).