Frederick Sommer: Choice and chance structure art and nature

orig. published March 8, 2011 CityArts

By Melissa Stern
“Where a thing is, is more important than what it is.” This undated quote by the artist Frederick Sommer sums up neatly his lifelong aesthetic. A man of restless artistic energies and profound curiosity, Sommer roamed the artistic landscape working in photography, drawing and collage throughout the middle and latter half of the century, until his death in 1999. He brought to each medium his conviction that visual elements in the world could be de-contextualized and rearranged in ways that were viscerally satisfying, as well as intellectually challenging.
This huge show of Sommer’s work encompasses both Ricco/Maresca and Bruce Silverstein galleries, each a noteworthy venue in its own right. The show focuses mainly on Sommer’s extraordinary work in collage. A smattering of photos and a fascinating dollop of vernacular scientific objects neatly bookend this thoughtfully curated selection.

“Untitled, 1944,” by Frederick Sommer.

A surrealist of the old school, Sommer worked with what looks like 19th- and 20th-century medical and scientific books, painstakingly cutting and rearranging “parts” into the most elegant of compositions. Chance and the natural order of objects were his guiding forces. This was a man with an impeccable and innate design sense. His collages are rigidly formal in presentation; each is precisely positioned on a black or neutral background, like a scientific or medical presentation. But their subject matter manifests a kind of refined creepiness that leaves the viewer unsettled and oddly guilty, a little like watching a scientific peep show. Recombined body parts—both human and animal—bits of mechanical and biologic illustration and architectural detail are combined seamlessly into elegant, surrealistic, collaged Frankenstein monsters. This work is easy to shrug off if one passes through too quickly. But given a little time alone in an empty gallery, it will deeply move you.
There are numerous works that stand out, some for their simplicity and others for their complexity. “Untitled (Mappa Mundi)” is nearly 40 inches around, a swirling hallucinatory mass of animal, vegetable and mineral. It is like looking into someone’s mind and seeing the collective bits and pieces of image that live there.
Personally, I prefer the visually (but by no means psychologically) simpler pieces. They’re almost all titled “Untitled,” so it’s challenging to single one out and describe it. Suffice it say that Sommer is able, with a few small, perfectly placed combinations of image, to create two-dimensional “life forms,” each elegant and provocative in its own delicate way. Frederick Sommer was a master of the ambiguous object, and this is an exhibition that allows the viewer to become immersed in his universe.

Through April 2, Ricco/Maresca Gallery, 529 W. 20th St., 212-627-4819, and Bruce Silverstein/20 Gallery, 529 W. 20th St., 212-627-3930.

“Untitled, 1944,” by Frederick Sommer.

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