A Master’s Experiments
Irving Penn at Pace Gallery, NYC
It isn’t often that a creative master is revealed to be talented in another form of art, but we do have examples. Jacques Henri Lartigue was a skilled painter, but he was made famous because of his photography. Serge Gainsbourg was a painter, but found success in music. Although best known for his images of Paris, Eugène Atget was also an actor and painter. Now we learn that Irving Penn also had a secondary practice in a new exhibition at Pace Gallery in New York.
This exhibition marks the first time these works have been publicly shown, and it adds an extra layer of surprise to a body work that already seems like a departure for Penn. These works are mostly abstract or abstracted figurations, and the tone and light are subtle, unlike his crisp photography. Painted in washes and layers, warm earth tones dominate the palette, along with hints of deeper colors like aubergine and black. The press release cites the influence of artists like Giorgio Morandi and Henri Matisse, and this connection is quite clear. These paintings have a certain roughness and humility that recalls early European modernism, and it makes one wonder if these pantings were a release from the clean and technical precision of his photography.
Although different, these paintings actually mirror Penn’s photographs in some regards, too. These are all carefully composed works with intricate interactions between forms. They often place an emphasis on the still life genre as well. A focus on composition and still lives could also describe any number of shoots he had done for Vogue. Most importantly, an exploration in texture is key in both Penn’s photography and painting. Using everything from watercolor to inkjet prints to sand, these paintings have irregular and varied surfaces. Much like Morandi, Penn uses texture to create light and volume. Penn’s photographs also emphasized texture and surface, but differed in that unusual lighting and printing techniques helped achieve the image’s qualities.
Irving Penn is remembered as a photographer first (and probably always will be), but this recently uncovered body of work provides an interesting and more complete view of his creative practices. It is fascinating to see the qualities and interests Penn takes across these mediums, and those he leaves to one type of work, whether that be painting or photography. Rather than force all of his energy towards photography, Penn used painting as a way to test and experiment in ways that he couldn’t do with a camera.