UM art museum shows look at the worlds of artists and architecture

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

Two black-and-white photo shows at the University of Michigan Museum of Art are a great reason to duck into this elegant little museum on a hot summer’s day — if, that is, we get any more of those before fall closes in.

“Artistic Impositions in the Photographic Portrait,” with pictures of luminaries like Salvador Dalí and Georgia O’Keeffe, considers how a portrait is shaped when its subject is a famous artist. “Impositions” runs through Oct. 19.

“Three Michigan Architects: Part 3 — George Brigham” documents the work of the first International Style designer to build houses in Ann Arbor, starting in the 1930s. The show comes down Oct. 12.

Taking the portrait show first, the introductory label notes it aimed to parse the “layers of complexity that arise when an artist is faced with the task of representing another artist.” It’s an intriguing idea suggested by an art-history graduate student, Monique Johnson, who worked at the museum a couple years ago.

“The idea came from Monique’s dissertation,” says UMMA senior curator of Western art, Carole McNamara, “which dealt in part with the sitter’s engagement and influence on the final photographic portrait.”

Some sitters clearly brought their own artistic personalities to the party.

Take the 1948 “Dalí Atomicus” by Philippe Halsman, with its levitating chair, flying cats, jumping Dalí and wave of suspended water arcing across the frame — as madcap as anything the famous surrealist created on his own canvases.

If “Atomicus” looks to have been the result of enthusiastic collaboration, Manuel Álvarez Bravo’s 1938 “Frida Wth Globe, Coyoacan, Mexico,” seems to have been dictated by his famous subject, Frida Kahlo. In any case, Kahlo is posed exactly as we’ve seen dozens of times before — seated in a chair, glaring at the viewer.

By contrast, with the 1937 “Georgia O’Keeffe and Orville Cox, Canyon de Chelly,” Ansel Adams has caught the pair in a spontaneous moment as the celebrated painter shoots her companion a glance full of uncertain meaning.

It’s an image McNamara loves, and easy to see why.

“She’s so flirty, isn’t she?” McNamara says with a laugh, adding, “Apparently Cox was a quiet cowboy. You can feel the laser-like dynamism O’Keeffe directed at him. Is he overwhelmed? Or bemused?”

Hard to tell, but it’s a dazzling portrait O’Keeffe fans will adore.

Jumping from portraiture to architecture, the “George Brigham” show gives us a series of handsome pictures of Ann Arbor houses by the pioneering modernist.

Brigham, who taught architecture at U-M from 1930-1959, started his career in Pasadena, drawn to the West Coast by the elegant, light-filled aesthetic of architects Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler.

“What Brigham learned in Pasadena was to create concrete houses dressed up in wood,” says UMMA director Joseph Rosa, who curated the show. “He brings that to Ann Arbor, and creates a different vocabulary that’s not mid-century modern, but a 1930s aesthetic.”

Some may find Brigham’s brick interiors a little chilly, but one, the 1941 Mueschke House, boasts a living room crisscrossed with light and shadow that’s utterly gorgeous.

Highly recommended as well is Brigham’s 1950 “Leslie White House,” a breathtaking little cube that makes marvelous use of its glass doors and clerestory windows.

‘Artistic Impositions in the Photographic Portrait’

Through Oct. 19

‘Three Michigan Architects: Part 3 — George Brigham’

Through Oct. 12

University of Michigan Museum of Art

525 S. State St., Ann Arbor

11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday


(734) 764-0395