“First, and emphatically, I accept the flat plane of the picture surface as the primary frame of reference of the picture.”—Aaron Siskind, “Credo,” 1950
Although he started his career as a documentary photographer, Aaron Siskind (American, 1903–1991) quickly became known for his abstract photographs. Socially and professionally close with many of the Abstract Expressionist painters in his native New York, Siskind created photographs in dialogue with painting, attempting to find a new language for photographic depiction that could transform an object into an image, a description into an idea. Across a decades-long career, his work explored what he called “the drama of objects,” imbuing forms with animism and rhythm.
Siskind spent two formative decades in Chicago, from 1951 to 1971, teaching at the city’s famed Institute of Design and mentoring generations of photographers. His relationship with the Art Institute of Chicago stretches back to 1955, when he was given a one-person show; the museum began consistently collecting his work the following year.
This exhibition, featuring 100 photographs drawn exclusively from the Art Institute’s extensive holdings of Siskind’s work, examines some of his most influential abstract photographs and series. Beginning with Siskind’s new attention to the power of a single object in the 1940s, the presentation continues through formally graphic series such as barely touching rocks in Martha’s Vineyard, seaweed shapes on sand, and divers silhouetted against the sky at Oak Street Beach. The show culminates in increasingly flat and abstract images of walls with peeling and dripping paint, including a series in homage to the painter Franz Kline. Twenty-five years after Siskind’s death, this exhibition demonstrates his ongoing relevance for a new generation of photographers embracing abstraction.