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New Collection At Kansas City's Nelson-Atkins Shows Photography's True Grit

Nan Goldin
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Photographer Nan Goldin's 'Nan and Brian in bed in kimono, NYC' is one of the pieces in The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art's 'The Big Picture.'

They’d been promised “gritty expression.”

But the two dozen members of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art’s Society of Fellows who’d gathered at the southern tip of the Bloch Building did not appear in search of any such thing. Just past the end point of “The Big Picture,” the Nelson’s recently opened showcase of photos from the Hall Family Foundation, the smartly dressed patrons sipped wine and listened to cocktail jazz.

Soon, portable stools were issued, and a microphone was handed to Keith Davis, the museum’s senior curator of photography. For this Thursday evening “Gallery Jam,” he would walk his guests through a handful of “Big Picture” images related to the Beat Generation, including a couple of Robert Frank photos and Allen Ginsberg’s portrait of Jack Kerouac nestling with William S. Burroughs.

Vouchsafing the grit was Kansas City poet Glenn North. His first reading, next to a pair of enigmatic photos by Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member and National Book Award-winning writer Patti Smith, was Smith’s “Rape.”

“I'll never forget how you smelled that night,” North recited, “like cheddar cheese melting under fluorescent light.” And then the part about the condom — “Now don’t squirm” — and then the rude rest of it. A couple of faces involuntarily mimed cheese going slack as the larger group applauded.

Credit Patti Smith / The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Patti Smith's 'Tolstoy's Bear, Moscow,' 2016.

Smith’s “Tolstoy’s bear, Moscow” is only a few years old, whereas the Ginsberg dates to 1953. Both come encoded with handwritten text, exposing their shared aesthetic DNA: the American grit that runs through photography from the mid-20th century on.

Photographers of other nationalities take their places among the textbook-ready names in “The Big Picture,” but the show’s own unhumble subtitle — “A Transformative Gift From the Hall Family Foundation” — showcases American artists and settings, and the American evolution of the form.

The foundation, which transferred ownership of the Hallmark Photographic Collection to the museum in 2005, three years ago gave it $10 million and sent Davis and fellow photography curators April Watson and Jane Aspinwall to market.

Davis jokes that he came with the first gift, 13 years ago. By then, he’d spent a quarter-century amassing the photo collection at Hallmark, which he joined in 1979.

“Hallmark knew from the start, more or less, that this would be for the community,” he says.

Ten million dollars buys a lot of photos — about 800, in this case — and the 100 or so photos in “The Big Picture,” curated and overseen by Aspinwall, draw heavily from these recent acquisitions.

Uncluttered and logically organized as it is, the exhibition imparts a kinetic urgency with the dates alone. Over and over, the numerical fine print on the walls starts with 2015, 2016 or 2017. There’s the sense that you’ve only just missed helping put away the goods after an epic shopping trip.

“There are always great things out there to get,” Davis tells KCUR of the museum’s spree. “We added significantly to our European avant-garde works of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, for instance.”

Necessarily, household names show up in “The Big Picture.” Frank and Smith and Dorothea Lange behind the camera; a very recognizable Susan Sontag in front of it, unforgettably rendered by the late Peter Hujar.

Credit Peter Hujar / The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Peter Hujar's 'Susan Sontag,' 1975.

“Every generation has to discover the same historical names on their own terms, in their own way,” Davis says. “The canon is not built out of concrete. It’s an evolving, flexible structure. It’s a matter of acknowledging the famous names and savoring the pictures by a host of other names, each of whom has something to contribute. We want the space to be a landscape of discovery.”

Among the most familiar images is Alfred Eisenstaedt’s 1928 portrait of a tuxedo-clad Marlene Dietrich. The Nelson owns it now, along with the rest of a folio the artist brought to the States when he fled Nazi Germany in 1935.

“I am fascinated by the story and that the photographs serve as a time capsule of such a formative moment in German history,” Aspinwall writes in a signed “Curator’s Pick” note on a placard next to the Dietrich.

Virtually every image in “The Big Picture” delivers a similar temporal jolt, the feeling of an art form recognizing itself anew behind masks of trend and technique and across generations. Arresting 1850s works by Jesse Whitehurst and Silas A. Holmes exemplify the eerie, unrestful stillness of salt photography, the earliest paper method. Nearby is Gustave Le Gray’s ghostly, beautiful 1857 albumen print showing a French cavalry.

Credit Gustave Le Gray / The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Gustave Le Gray's 'Cavalry maneuvers, Camp de Chalons,' 1857.

A few more steps away, Diane Arbus makes a different point about militarism in another “Curator’s Pick.” Of “Child with toy hand grenade in Central Park, NYC,” a 1962 gelatin silver print (acquired, the note says, from “local collectors), Watson observes that the photographer is capturing post-World War II American prosperity “poised to explode amid the social and political turbulence of the Vietnam era.”

By then, you’ve passed W. Eugene Smith’s deep-focus black-and-white photo of a hellish Iwo Jima firefight, and you’re almost ready to glimpse Richard Mosse’s impossibly vivid “Everything Merges With the Night,” a 2015 shot using Kodak Aerochrome. That discontinued infrared film finds the chlorophyll in live vegetation, resulting in a psychedelic, Wonka-vision safari.

Credit Richard Mosse / The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Richard Mosse's 'Everything Merges With the Night,' 2015.

Shouting from an otherwise colorless line of images along one wall is a Nan Goldin self-portrait, showing her with an ex-boyfriend. The hues suggest a vacation sunset illuminating bare skin, but the setting is a skid-row motel room and the mood is grim resignation. This man, famously, will hurt Goldin. This and other pictures in her series, she said in 2011, are meant “to be about every man and every relationship and the potential of violence in every relationship.” (Now don’t squirm.) “I think the wrong things are kept private,” she added.

The promise of visual candor is a primal allure of photography. “The Big Picture” answers Goldin's craving for it, and develops ours.

"The Big Picture," through October 7 at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak Street Kansas City, Missouri 64111; 816-751-1278.

Scott Wilson is a writer and editor in Kansas City. Contact him at editorscottwilson@gmail.com.

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