Visual Arts

At Boca Museum, photographer Arnold Newman’s lens reveals softer side of celebrity

Igor Stravinsky photograph by Arnold Newman. From the exhibit “Arnold Newman: Masterclass” at the Boca Raton Museum of Art through July 3.
Igor Stravinsky photograph by Arnold Newman. From the exhibit “Arnold Newman: Masterclass” at the Boca Raton Museum of Art through July 3.

Arnold Newman was a Miami Beach rags to sort-of-riches story, a perennially broke scrapper who came from nowhere and eventually photographed everyone — from Pablo Picasso to Truman Capote — while serving as a ballyhooed adjunct to the glitterati, working for magazines like Fortune, Life and Vanity Fair.

In 1938, unable to scratch together the tuition at the University of Miami, he dropped out and went to work in the dime-store art trenches of commercial portrait studios, shooting up to 10 portraits an hour in Philadelphia and West Palm Beach at 49 cents a pop. Newman longed for the glittering prizes snagged by iconic photographers Edward Steichen and Man Ray, and his big break came in Philadelphia when he was discovered by photographer Alfred Stieglitz and Beaumont Newhall of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

The “Arnold Newman: Masterclass” exhibition at the Boca Raton Museum of Art is the first comprehensive exhibition of Newman’s work since his death in 2006. Organized by the international Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography and the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, the exhibit’s first East Coast stop is at the Boca Raton Museum of Art.

Stieglitz and Newhall had arranged for a small gallery exhibition for Newman, but his big A-Star-Is-Born moment, as so often happens, didn’t pan out immediately.

In 1946, Newman opened his own shop: any snowbird schlub and his wife could amble into Newman’s studio and have their portrait taken. In the same era, Newman was also beginning to enter the glossy universe of magazines: for a 1946 magazine assignment, Leonard Bernstein was captured by Newman in a rehearsal studio, all penetrating eyes looking up through a tangle of dramatic made-for-conducting hair.

Magazines gave Newman the luxury of time for his portraits, and “Masterclass” — curated by independent photography curator William A. Ewing – captures Newman’s aesthetic with a telling Newman quote on a gallery wall, “There are many things that are very false about photography. You must recognize this, and build on it, and then maybe you’ll have art.”

Newman would take up to 50 photographs of individual subjects, make minor adjustments in each shot, and crop them to achieve hard-edged portraits. One of his most iconic photographs, a 1946 portrait of conductor and composer Igor Stravinsky at his piano, is so tightly framed that Stravinsky is nothing but a tiny sad head in the lower-left corner of the photo. In the image, an open grand piano looms above Stravinsky’s head, as if he’s about to be crushed by the burden of his own genius.

Though he chafed under the tag of being considered the “father of environmental portraiture,” Newman’s work drew power from shooting subjects in their homes or workplaces. As a young man, Newman fell in with a group of photographers under the sway of documentary photographer Walker Evans, who rose to acclaim with his work for the Farm Security Administration during the 1930s.

The “Searches” section of the “Masterclass” exhibition includes Newman’s images of weathered African-American men on decrepit porches in West Palm Beach shotgun shacks, bleak photos that could pass for Alabama at the height of the Depression. Newman’s photos echo Evans’ work, but the images are a long way from equaling the master’s reach.

Newman had much better luck with portraits of the glitterati, his natural stomping grounds. In another 1946 portrait, Gore Vidal is young, handsome and full of hope, a long way from the bloated horror of his later career.

Marilyn Monroe, admittedly, could not take a bad photo, but Newman’s 1962 portrait is a real gem, with Monroe looking beat and tired, all bedraggled hair and doom. In 1968, he shot Georgia O’Keefe at her Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, with O’Keefe sitting at an outdoor easel, framed by the scull of a mountain ram and the infinity of the New Mexico horizon.

The “Fronts” segment of “Masterclass” is signaled by another Newman quote on the gallery wall, “There is a big blustering front, and most people have it — until you overcome it, or compensate for it.” Newman did his share of hacking out a living, photographing executives for annual company reports and tycoons, including a 1963 photo of Alfried Krupp, of the noted German war-mongering family.

The writer Ayn Rand, circa 1964, is captured smoking and is, as was her wont, scary-looking. In a 1977 portrait of Truman Capote, the master of gossip-as-literature mimics the controversial 1948 author’s photo taken for his book Other Voices, Other Rooms.

In the 1948 photo, Capote is depicted as an erotically charged young sylph, languidly dreaming of glory on a coach. By 1977, Capote is alcoholic and overweight, lolling on another couch in another room and gleefully demolishing his youthful poses.

In the “Rhythms” section of “Masterclass,” the artist John Sloan — known for elevating ordinary urban squalor to visual poetry — is framed by elegant drapes in a 1941 photo. For his 1951 portrait of Salvador Dali, Newman used the same trick he’d employed with Stravinsky, with Dali cowering in the lower left corner of the frame.

Thankfully, Newman’s portraits lack the pitiless evisceration of celebrated photographer Richard Avedon, who might have had a cruel romp with some of Newman’s subjects. Newman’s 1978 photo of Cecil Beaton, for instance, is pure generous joy. A dolled-up Beaton is captured in a stately drawing room, holding a cane at a jaunty angle: in the photo, Beaton is allowed to be depicted as he thinks of himself, the buoyant grand old party of fashion and art.

In the end, Newman was simply a nice guy, and there’s always room in the world for the good-hearted.

COMING TO THE MORIKAMI

Also in Palm Beach County, the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens in Delray Beach offers a refuge from the often grossly uncivilized South Florida. Two new exhibitions opening on June 10 fully embrace the cultivation of Japan.

“Shadows of the Floating World: Papercuts by Hiromi Moneyhun,” encompasses a selection of Moneyhun’s three-dimensional paper constructions, an exploration of the traditional woodblock prints of courtesans in the Japanese brothel district, the long-gone “floating world.” Moneyhun’s use of paper cut creations, normally reserved for landscape scenes, twists the clichés of the “floating world” and reveals the quiet servitude of the courtesan life.

The exhibit “Transcending Forms: Japanese Bamboo Baskets” draws from the Morikami’s collection and examines the evolution of bamboo baskets, once used for fishing, Buddhist rituals and tea ceremonies. In the 1950s, Japanese artists began to use the medium of bamboo baskets as a platform for contemporary art.

“Transcending Forms” includes the work of such artists as Torii Ippo, Yamaguchi Ryuun, Nagakura Kenichi and Shochiku Tanabe. All the artists have turned bamboo baskets into pure sculpture, with Tanabe creating sculpture from tiger bamboo that’s as natural and beautiful as tiger bamboo itself.

If you go

What: “Arnold Newman: Masterclass.”

When: Through July 3.

Where: Boca Raton Museum of Art, 501 Plaza Real, Boca Raton.

Info: Closed Monday. $12; 561-392-2500, www.bocamuseum.org.

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What: “Shadows of the Floating World: Papercuts by Hiromi Moneyhun” and “Transcending Forms: Japanese Bamboo Baskets.”

When: June 10 to Sept. 18.

Where: Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens, 4000 Morikami Park Rd., Delray Beach.

Info: Closed Monday. $15; g561-495-0233, www.morikami.org.

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