Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Seeing the World through Photograms Denver Art Museum Exhibit Showcases Artists Who Capture Mysterious Images by `Painting with Light'

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Seeing the World through Photograms Denver Art Museum Exhibit Showcases Artists Who Capture Mysterious Images by `Painting with Light'

Article excerpt

BEFORE the invention of the camera, there were photograms. The Denver Art Museum brings this neglected medium up to the minute with the comprehensive "Experimental Vision: The Evolution of the Photogram since 1919" (through March 27).

Beautiful and mysterious, these proto-photographs captured images in light on chemically treated, light-sensitive paper without the benefit of a camera. Though the medium has been used by a spectrum of important artists from its "reinvention" in 1919, there have been no major historical surveys of their work in the United States until now.

The show gives a tantalizing overview of the photogram with strong emphasis on the works of key artists, beginning with the independent experiments of Christian Schad, Man Ray, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, and Raoul Hausmann.

Moholy-Nagy, who opened the Chicago Bauhaus design school in the 1930s, brought with him Henry Holmes Smith and Gyorgy Kepes. Arthur Siegel and Theodore Rozak round out the '30s movement. The show moves into the contemporary arena with the works of Robert Rauschenberg, Adam Fuss, Robert Heinecken, Gilbert and George, Bruce Conner, and Thomas Barrow, among others.

A photogram is made by laying objects on light-sensitive paper in the dark. Then the paper is exposed to a light source and chemically set - just like a photograph.

The photogram, however, can assume quite different qualities, lending itself as it does to more abstract reproduction. As photographic paper became more sophisticated, different kinds of effects became possible. Some of the most complex pieces in the exhibition are color photograms, or collages made on color photograms.

The photogram technique was discovered in the 1830s, when scientists experimented with light-sensitive emulsions, laying leaves and lace on treated paper and exposing that to the sun. But it did not really become an art form until the 20th century when Dada and Surrealism began to surface in Europe.

The artists who worked with photograms in 1919, unknown to each other, were all looking for new modes of expression.

"It was a spontaneous uprising of experimentation and it all happened in the same year, just when Dada was getting on its feet," says Nancy Tieken, adjunct curator of the museum's Modern and Contemporary Art department.

The process itself had metaphorical implications that followers of Dada and Surrealism embraced. The form eschews the camera and therefore subverts the photographic tradition - and incidentally, the whole man-centered aesthetic tradition of Western civilization.

The photogram introduced chance operations because results were never entirely predictable. Nineteenth-century science started debates about the dimensions of space, and by the 20th century, had begun to confirm an "unseen" dimension to the universe - which undermined the old human-centered, materialist view of the world. …

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