Donald Kuspit’s Review of Lynn Stern’s “Signs Half Seen” Exhibition

Lynn Stern’s Photo-Abstractions by Donald Kuspit

The first photograph was abstract, however inadvertently.  It was made by Joseph Niépce in 1826 or 1827.   Here is Douwe Draaisma’s description of it:   “The exposure time was a full eight hours.  In this way an ‘impossible’ image was created:  the opposite walls have both caught the sunlight.  The afternoon sun erased the morning shadows.”(1)  Photography was “héliographie” for Niépce, for it depended on the sun, which rose and set, began and ended in darkness.  The photograph is a blur of light and shadow, sometimes intermingling, sometimes separate.   The walls have lost their solidity; they are reduced to silhouettes.  The image is, to all effect, abstract:  “objective necessity” has been dispensed with, throwing us suddenly into the zone of “subjective necessity,” to use Kandinsky’s seminal terms.

This accidental fading and finally disappearance and obliteration of some incidental objective appearance, this evaporation of clarity into dimness—this loss of something that we know to be empirically the case, an ordinary matter of fact that we have perceived with clear eyes many times, something that is usually clear and distinct and separate from and impersonally given to us—and the simultaneous generation of a subjective appearance, a peculiarly personal, intimate presence, accidentally framed by the opposing walls—a sense of something subjective hesitantly emerging from the depths, disrupting the white surface with its blackness, both equally blank yet pregnant with ineffable, unspecifiable, unnamable yet peculiarly memorable import, as though we are looking into a grave where the remains of reality fester, making its disembodied traces oddly mournful—is the direct result of the limitations of Niépce’s dated technology.

The first photograph was the result of a failed attempt to record the view of the courtyard of his family estate of Le Gras in Saint-Loup-de-Varennes with a camera obscura.  “The low intensity of light and the blurred lens forced Niépce to use extremely long exposure times.  He did not succeed in getting enough contrast into his exposures.”(2)  In other words, the first photograph was a failure as a representation of reality– but a success as an abstraction.  Niépce’s unexpectedly “sensational,” extraordinary, aesthetically daring, bizarrely subtle and bold photograph was the unwitting beginning of abstract photography.  It made the inherent abstraction of the photographic image—its formal underpinning in the changing, dynamic relationship of light and dark, sometimes the former, sometimes the latter dominant, but always  equilibrated, sometimes eccentrically, sometimes harmoniously, suggesting that their spaces are paradoxically interchangeable—self-evident, although no one thought so at the time.  Niépce unwittingly demonstrated that, from the beginning, photography was a new mode of imaginative art not simply a mechanical way of illustrating reality.  It was not just about the “scenery,” but about organizing light and dark.  Niépce’s first photograph is a wonderful example of the dialectical imagination in unconscious action—of the innate self-contradictoriness of everything, the doubleness that inheres in everything, the conflict signaled by Niépce’s opposing walls.

Even Daguerre, who worked with Niépce until his death in 1833—they “entered into a legally sealed agreement and exchanged their data”—and was a “scenery painter with a predilection for illusionistic effects,” could not escape abstraction.  The city view was his specialty, but even his photograph of the Paris boulevard de Temple (1838) turned out to be abstract.  As Draaisma writes, “Like Niépce’s exposure with the two walls both in the sun, this daguerreotype contains almost surreal detail.  Daguerre pointed his camera at a busy Paris boulevard along which carriages were driving up and down and people were strolling.  But in the exposure the boulevard is eerily empty:  everything in motion was moving too quickly to leave any traces on the light-sensitive copper plate.  Only the man who paused for a few minutes to have his shoes shined was captured.  Those who moved remained unseen.”  Draaisma adds:  “Arguments arose later about the question of whether photographs could ‘lie.’  The first works of Niépce and Daguerre show that such a question is rather naïve:  photographs have ‘lied’ from the very beginning.”(3)  But they always told the abstract truth—the truth of light and darkness, dialectically inseparable however differently felt.  The opaque black areas of their photographs are trapdoors into the unconscious, while the white areas create the illusion that we are fully conscious of our surroundings and ourselves.

Lynn Stern’s Veiled Still Lives and Ghosts are all but pure abstractions:  there is indeed the ghost of an object behind the veil.  Sometimes it seems dramatically present—even more so than the objects in Morandi’s still life paintings, which turn objects into insecurely pure forms.  At other times it is completely hidden but felt, if only in the rippling of the veils, the drapery that covers the object—sometimes a skull, suggesting that her works are memento mori—with its strange glory.  Stern pushes towards total abstraction, and realizes it in many of the works, for the surface of the veils seem to become the picture plane.  They are in motion, sometimes rhythmic, more often arrhythmic, but always conspicuously flat, however tonally modulated the flatness.

Stern is not interested in creating scenic illusions, as Niépce and Daguerre were—although in her early photographs she turns areas in Central Park into abstract illusions, treating space as though it was an independent entity, and sometimes treating flowers as pure forms—but in the esoteric truth of the unconscious.  Like the best abstract paintings, her abstract photographs are “mystical,” that is, afford a numinous experience.  They are liminal, that is, exist on the threshold between the seen and the unseen, even the scene and the “obscene,” for the objects behind her veils are obscene by reason of being dead.  What we see in a photograph suggests what we don’t see, the world beyond the photograph, and we never see the death lurking in it, the death that is always obscenely implicit in the scene, inherent in every object—a still life is always a dead life.  Stern shows it to be the abstract truth of life, as Holbein does in the obscenely abstract anamorphic image of the skull tucked into the worldly scene of The Ambassadors, 1546.  But Stern makes the nothingness latent in it manifest, dwelling on that nothingness—the dark emptiness, casting its shadow on the light, infiltrating the light, subverting  it–with morbid fascination.  She is drawn into the darkness even as she desperately holds on to the light.   Stern’s photo-abstraction holds its own against abstract painting, and is often more insidiously sublime.

Her surreal veils have an uncanny resemblance to the reflections in Pierre Dubreuil’s Pair of Spectacles, ca. 1928-33, and an oblique relationship to the surfaces in Jarmir Funke’s Abstract Photograph, 1929-29 and Edward Steichen’s Time-space Continuum, ca. 1920.  Her photographs have a direct relationship with Christian Schad’s Schadographs, Man Ray’s Rayographs, and Lazlo Moholy-Nagy’s Photograms, and perhaps above all to Alfred Stieglitz’s Equivalents (all their “experimental” photographs were made between the world wars), for his clouds seem like a prelude to her veils, which are more conclusively, cunningly, and conspicuously abstract.  Her refined, unnerving photographs are the historically inevitable grand climax of more than a century of experimental photography.


(1)Douwe Draaisma, Metaphors of Memory (Cambridge, UK:  Cambridge University Press, 2000), 112

(2)Ibid., 111

(3)Ibid., 114



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Exciting Lynn Stern News!

The Lynn Stern Archive has just been acquired by the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson. The Center for Creative Photography is the largest institution in the world dedicated to the promotion, exhibition, and documentation of North American photography. Here Stern’s archive will be in the company of the archives of Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, Frederick Sommer, W. Eugene Smith, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Garry Winogrand, and many other exemplary photographers of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries.

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Lynn Stern “Signs Half Seen” Opening March 1st

We are pleased to announce the upcoming exhibition of Lynn Stern’s recent work, Signs Half Seen at our gallery located at 16 East 79th Street on the second floor. The opening will take place on Thursday evening, March 1st, between 5 and 8pm. The exhibition will be on view through April 12th.

Signs Half Seen will comprise selections from three recent series of Stern’s work – Beyond Bones, Full Circle, and Ghost Circle. The show is a stunning culmination of her accomplished photographic career over the past three decades.

Over this period she has had eight gallery shows and five museum shows nationally and internationally. Her works are included in eleven public collections and there are five monographs on her work.

Lynn Stern’s majestic photographs are meditations on life, energy, and light, the viewer’s relationship and interpretations to luminosity and its key role in our visual language. Peaceful and meditative, yet highly intellectual and psychologically dynamic and questioning, these images put the subject of light at the forefront – a position traditionally not occupied by what many view as a supporting characteristic of photographic imagery. Light, always natural, becomes a character in Stern’s introspective photographic investigations in a way that forces the viewer to look inward and question his being in relationship to the world.

Here’s a sneak peak of a few images from the show:

“Beyond Bones 06-60,” 2006 – 2010, Archival Inkjet Pigment Print

“Ghost Circles 04-53,” 2004 – 2007, Archival Inkjet Pigment Print

“Full Circle 06-54,” 2006-2009, Archival Inkjet Pigment Print


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We received an inquiry about a bronze in our collection. I thought the response interesting and worth posting as a blog

Antoine-Louis Barye’s bronzes have been an avocation for many, many years. We have a small personal collection, which I would be glad to show you.

With these bronzes I have always focused on early casts and the quality of the bronze, what the French call the “belle epreuve”.   Barye had a long career and some very difficult times.   He was meticulous in the execution of his pieces but not a sound financial manager, the net result of which was the bankruptcy sale of his studio in 1848 to pay his debts.  Other bronze foundries bought his models with the “droit de tirage” (right of casting) and then continued to cast the pieces.  In 1875, in his estate sale, the same thing happened with many of the pieces purchased by Barbedienne who continued to cast well into the 20th century.  Keep in mind that the concept of the bronze as a ‘limited edition’ comes in the 20th century.  Perhaps the first that I am aware of is the sale of Degas’ bronzes after his death in 1918; the editions were limited to 22.

I bought this bronze with the French dealer – Philip Brame. His family had a most distinguished collection of Barye bronzes.  Important to know that this piece came from the collection of Fabius Freres, also one of the great names in this field and the go-to source for early pieces… (See below).  Philip passed away several years ago and, frankly, the bronze got mixed up with my collection and we never really tried to sell it. Only recently did we become aware of that and Rebecca put it on ArtNet the day before you saw it.

What is special about this piece is the marking and the patina — both indicate the direct involvement of Barye. Early on he decided to number his casts and did this for awhile until he got pushback when some of his popular pieces got to #90 — at which point he stopped. In the casts that he did himself there is sharpness in the cast that comes from the re- carving of the wax before casting

There was a cast of the mate to our piece, “Lion Devourant Une Biche”, not to compare with ours in quality, at Sothebys,  November 23, 2010 — lot 33 that brought  $11,868.

This was not numbered and is obviously a much later cast.

More recently, October 26, 2011 Sotheby’s had the important sale of the Fabius collection.  Most of the pieces were early casts and brought appropriate prices. A very comparable piece to ours — JAGUAR DÉVORANT UN AGOUTI, sold two times. Lot 272, the bronze marked #1, brought $35,000 while lot 279, Marked #20 brought $17,715. A small elephant brought over $1,000,000.

The Fabius auction shows that the market is intelligent and does distinguish … good, better, best – and that there are ‘real’ collectors out there.

Many years ago I started to deal in Japanese prints but stopped because people couldn’t understand the market. The thing was that the great artists would make a wood block and print it exquisitely, often with mica. Later, if it was really popular, they would recarve the block and sell more and so on. There was a steady degradation in quality but it was always the same image. So why, clients would ask, does one sell for $20,000 and the other for $2,000? They didn’t see the difference.

In 1975 Jeanne Wasserman, at the Fogg Museum in Boston, made a show called “Metamorphoses in Nineteeth Century French Sculpture”.  It focused on Rodin, Barye and Carpeaux.  At the time, we had a large collection of Carpeaux bronzes.

We lent a number of pieces to her show. The point of the show was CHANGE ……… how the works of all of these artists degraded with time from sharp intelligent conceptions to, in many cases, the equivalent to a kids camp sculpture made from a bar of soap.

I wish that there were more exhibitions that contrasted GOOD, BETTER, BEST as an exercise for the eye of the collector.

Albert Sacks book The New Fine Points of Furniture: Early American: The Good, Better, Best, Superior, Masterpiece, first published in 1950 and subsequently redone illustrates the point, if on a different subject. It is a standard for every collector in that field.

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Huguette Caland at auction October 2011

We were delighted to see the results of the recent sales in the Middle East of Huguette Caland’s works on the eve of her exhibition opening at our gallery in New York November 2nd.

Caland’s mixed media on canvas piece, Summer of Mr Hulot on the Mediterrean brought $62,500 at Christie’s Modern and Contemporary Arab, Iranian, and Turkish auction this week in Dubai.

And at Aayam Auctions in Dubai, Caland’s Untitled metal wire sculpture brought $36,000.


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Upcoming Exhibition – Huguette Caland “Under Cover” – Opens November 2nd

We are very excited to announce Huguette Caland’s upcoming exhibition at Peter Findlay Gallery opening Wednesday November 2nd from 6 till 8pm. The show will run through Thursday December 8th.

Entitled Under Cover, the show will feature a selection of new paintings and sculptures. The paintings began as an artistic exploration and reflection on Cervantes’ Rocinante in Don Quixote. Rocinante wins over the reader’s heart not by exuding all the traditional characteristics of a literature horse but by displaying trustworthy-ness, loyalty and a good heart and soul. From there, Caland takes off on her own artistic meditation on the mystical and mysterious Rocinante.

To wet your palate, take a look at the first two pieces we received:


Stay tuned for more Caland information on the formidable woman behind these gorgeous works and make sure to mark your calendars.

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David Gilhooly’s “FrogFood” – A look into the work of a California Contemporary Ceramic Artist

Food has long been the focus of artistic examination, whether it has adopted the form of still life or larger than life scale sculptures ala Claes Oldenberg. However David Gilhooly surely takes his own unique approach. For close to a decade, Gilhooly crafted sculptures known as Frogfood – life size ceramic foods in which he inserted frogs into each and every dish. You name it, he’s done it!

Frog Burger?  Check it out below!

Frog Burger, Glazed Ceramic Sculpture, 1975 


Or maybe you were more in the mood for a Peppermint Sundae?



Frog Peppermint Sundae, Glazed Ceramic Sculpture, 1978

The obvious question I am sure that pops into your head at this juncture, is why frogs? Sure some people have a very peculiar obsession with all things frog related, but was this Gilhooly’s motivation?


His froggie exploration actually begun in somewhat of an accidental fashion. While in school at UC Davis, Gilhooly and a few classmates often competed to create the most outlandish ceramic mugs that still maintained their functionality. The mug that started it all had a mushroom as a handle and a group of frogs below. Gilhooly says, “I also put one in the bottom of the cup itself unknowingly tying myself to a joke that went at least as far back as Babylon.” – The flood gates were open now!

Gilhooly went on to create a FrogWorld with inhabitants like Frog George and Martha Washington and FrogMount Rushmore to name a few. In the alternate FrogWorld universe, there were gods and goddesses, wars and marriages.  Historical characters from different eras interacted and created the most fabulous imaginary universe.  Frogfood evolved out of FrogWorld as a concept of being a FrogStore or FrogSupermarket and actually being all one piece because the inhabitants of FrogWorld would obviously have to eat.

Are you curious to see our selection of FrogFood? You can either come into our gallery and indulge in a variety of FrogFood delicacies or feel free to check them out on our website –

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Memorial Day Weekend Hours

We will be closed as 4pm Friday May 27th through Tuesday May 31st at 1:30pm.

We hope you have a wonderful Memorial Day weekend and a great start to the summer!

Please feel free to email us at or ring us with any questions, 212-644-4433, otherwise we look forward to seeing you in the gallery soon!

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Saturday May 7th

Peter Findlay Gallery will be open from 1 to 4:30pm so please come in and visit our group show featuring works by Norman Bluhm, Salvador Dali, Jean Dubuffet, Sam Francis, Pablo Picasso and more.

We hope to see you in the gallery tomorrow!

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Steve Perrault’s New Paintings

Last week we had a wonderful surprise! A large box arrived from Steve Perrault containing two of his new large format paintings. They are spectacular.

For most of his artistic career, Perrault has painted in two size formats – 28 x 36 inch canvases and 30 x 40 inch pieces. Rarely did he go larger. Then two years ago, Perrault was commissioned to create a work that was 56 x 42 inches, larger in scale than any of his previous works.

In this expanded scale, his work broke free and a new visual language emerged. The Imagined image became wonderfully abstract, lightness shone through and created a world which seemed to surround us. Steve’s recent works on this larger scale achieve a presence in a room that is large beyond their size.

Currently we have three of his larger canvases available in our 79th street space and will have another five in time for Steve’s solo show in October. Between now and October, Steve plans to not only finish the remaining works for his show but also move from Oregon to Pennsylvania.  This is a happy day for him – imagine a man who paints his blue paintings of sunshine living in a land where it always rains. We look forward to having Steve back on the East Coast.

"State of Life," 2009, Acrylic on Linen, 42 x 56 in.

"True to Self," 2011, Acrylic on Linen, 56 x 42 in.

"Self assurance," 2011, Acrylic on Linen, 42 x 56 in.

Reproduction does not do these paintings justice. To see their true beauty, we invite you to come visit us and Steve’s works at 16 East 79th Street on the 2nd floor. We are open from 1:30 to 5pm weekday afternoons or by appointment.

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