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For any institution, a million-dollar gift is a cause for celebration. But at the Miami Art Museum (MAM), Charles Cowles's donation of 101 photographs from his noted private collection has left honchos turning cartwheels. The gift represents the largest donation of artwork in MAM's ten-year history.
Cowles, whose collection tops off at around 1000 pieces, invited MAM to cherry-pick which works it wanted. As a result, the institution will permanently house some of the best-known images taken by some of the most renowned photogs in the history of the medium.
The works are on display in "Modern Photographs: The Machine, the Body, and the City Gifts from the Charles Cowles Collection."
"The 101 works represented here are invariably amongst the most important, the rarest, and the most beautiful that Cowles has acquired over more than 30 years of collecting," acknowledged MAM director Terence Riley.
The exhibit spans the evolution of photography in the 20th and 21st centuries, from a 1901 self-portrait by Edward Steichen to a portrait of a young boy in a Berlin park snapped by Rineke Dijkstra in 2000. Photographers represented include Berenice Abbott, Diane Arbus, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, Andre Kertesz, Robert Mapplethorpe, Duane Michals, Man Ray, Aleksandr Rodchenko, Andres Serrano, Cindy Sherman, Andy Warhol, Garry Winogrand, and others.
Arranged intelligently to allow each piece, regardless of its scale, to seduce on its own, the exhibit is remarkable for its variety. Thematically it focuses on depictions of the metropolis, modern machinery, and the human figure.
MAM invited Andy Grundberg to assist with selecting the works from Cowles's collection and to serve as the show's guest curator. Grundberg, who is the administrative chair of photography at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, D.C., has written about the medium for nearly three decades, including ten years as photography critic for the New York Times.
During a recent afternoon, the exhibition spilled over with patrons cheerfully comparing some of their favorite pictures on display.
Near the entrance, a photo taken by Hans Namuth in 1950 captures Jackson Pollock hunched over a canvas stretched out on the floor of the barn he had converted into a studio near his Long Island, New York home.
At the time, Namuth was a photography student who had been intrigued by Pollock's style of abstract painting. The young photographer's image of the artist holding a paint can in one hand while he slings the pigment with the other, all while sliding like a dancer around the canvas, is a knockout.
Nearby, two photos of Andy Warhol, taken nearly twenty years apart, offer a contrasting look at the artist. Dennis Hopper's 1963 portrait depicts a pre-fright-wig Andy holding a lily in front of his face. Next to it, the iconic popster appears in drag, donning platinum bangs, lipstick, and eye shadow in Christopher Mako's Altered Image series, executed in 1981.
An early example of Cindy Sherman's landmark Untitled Film Stills series features the artist as a career girl. In Untitled Secretary, a sepia-tone silver print from 1978, Sherman appears to be moonlighting in front of an old-fangled typewriter in what looks like an ad for a temp agency yanked from a vintage magazine.
Even though he is known for his large-scale public sculptures, an unusual self-portrait by Jonathan Borofsky seems to suggest that, in a material world, one becomes a cipher whose identity is reduced to the lowest common denominator. In a riveting large black-and-white closeup, the artist glares steely-eyed at the spectator as he points to his forehead. His body is freckled in a sequence of random numbers.
A couple of photos taken almost 75 years apart powerfully distill the exhibition's tribute to mechanistic marvels.
Margaret Bourke-White's gelatin-and-silver print USS Akron, World's Largest Airship (1931), depicts the blimp in a hangar as it dwarfs antlike spectators. It's shown here framed in duraluminum, the material used in the girder construction of the behemoth.
Not far away, Edward Burtynsky's gorgeous c-print Shipyard #11, Qili Port, Zhejiang Province, China, snapped in 2005, depicts the skeletal frame of a supertanker as its prow soars above a row of acetylene torches and a phalanx of workers' bicycles.
Ted Croner's Taxi, New York Night is another attention grabber. The modest gelatin silver print from 1949 depicts the phantom chassis of a cab on rain-slicked asphalt as it streaks in front of apartment buildings where several windows are dotted with light to suggest a constellation.
The Big Apple's Flatiron Building shows up in a shot by Rudy Burckhardt, and a dizzy angle on Times Square by Weegee, best known for his crime photography, gives the impression it was snapped from a peephole.
The curator places a series of nine medium-size c-prints of swimming pools photographed by Ed Ruscha in 1968 next to a small photo of a diving board jutting across the rippling, sun-dappled surface of another pool snapped by David Hockney nearly a decade later.
In fact the show is packed with so many compelling images it's nearly impossible to fully experience all the work in one visit.
One of the more memorable works is Manuel Alvarez Bravo's 1934 picture of a murdered striker in Mexico City whose bloodied corpse lies in the dirt, facing the sun.
Diane Arbus's 1965 portrait of a Puerto Rican woman with a faux beauty mark penciled on her cheek is eye-catching, as is Garry Winogrand's picture of a couple cradling chimpanzees dressed in winter coats at the Central Park Zoo.
Perhaps the most amazing picture on display is a photo of Salvador Dali, almost lost on a wall near the back of the space, where more than 50 pieces are hung salon-style, floor-to-ceiling, unlabeled.
Dali Atomicus, taken by Philippe Halsman, is one of the most reproduced photographs of all time. It depicts the painter, a chair, a stream of water, and three cats suspended in midair in Dali's studio.
This picture and the others surrounding it are from Cowles's personal stash and are not part of his gift to the museum. Rather they serve as an example of how Cowles prefers seeing his collection "with all its planned and unplanned complements and contrasts."
"Hey, I know that man," a middle-age guy blurted as he motioned to his family to check out the flying surrealist. "I think he's famous," answered his teenage son.