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4 black and white photographs hung on a gallery wall
11 black and white photographs hung on a gallery wall

Lee Friedlander Framed by Joel Coen, installation view, Luhring Augustine, New York, NY

When a photographer is as astonishingly prolific as Lee Friedlander, the challenge is never to find enough worthy pictures to look at or to celebrate. In fact, the very real problem is to somehow cut his seven decades of uniquely masterful output down into something we can visually comprehend and digest in one visit to a gallery or in one flip of a photobook. And so, for the most part, aside from a few sprawling museum retrospectives over the years, Friedlander’s abundant production has generally been narrowed to more manageable subject matter themes or discrete projects. The list of such edits is wonderfully wide ranging and eclectic: views from car windows, TV screens, nudes, desert landscapes, shadowed self-portraits, monuments, floral stems, chain link fencing, shop window mannequins, portraits of his wife Maria, apple trees, mountain scenes, city parks, jazz musicians, factory workers, fashion shows, and vernacular signs (just to name a few), and even when we do this, there are still more potential categories and motifs to apply to Friedlander’s voluminous archive than we can ever really possibly hope to explore in full.

An alternate approach to what we might playfully call the “Friedlander problem” is to have the art world curators, gallery owners, and scholars (as well as the artist himself) step away from table and let someone else take a crack at finding a new (and maybe even unique or unexpected) entry point into the material. At its worst, this “celebrity curator” idea turns into a thinly veiled (and often painfully dull) exercise in self promotion or crass salesmanship, where the famous person chooses some favorites and we accept their selections simply because the chooser is a celebrity. But at its best, particularly when the celebrity is an artist of some kind him or herself (and therefore with a professionally-honed aesthetic point of view of his or her own), something much more interesting can take place – one artist re-interpreting the other, like a musical collaboration or a remix.

This show matches Friedlander with Joel Coen, the Academy Award-winning director of No Country for Old MenFargoThe Big Lebowski, and other memorable films. Given the dark, offbeat perspective found in many of Coen’s movies, it seems plausible and even likely that he would have an affinity for Friedlander’s eye, so conceptually the pairing seems apt. And as it turns out, there was more than just a superficial meeting-of-quirky-minds connection that took place between the two artists.

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