‘Painting and Other Things’

Irving Penn: Paintings, Apparation, 2018

A 104-page hardcover catalogue with 47 illustrations, including 39 full-page reproductions, featuring the first scholarship on Penn’s painting practice, with essays by writer and curator, David Campany, and legacy program manager at The Irving Penn Foundation, Alexandra Dennett; with afterwords by Arne Glimcher, Pace Gallery founder, and Peter MacGill, Pace/MacGill Gallery founder.

Produced by Sandra M. Klimt, Klimt Studio, Inc. and designed by Malcolm Grear Designers, the catalogue is printed by Meridian Printing with four-color separations by Martin Senn.

It is published September 2018 by Apparition, an imprint of The Irving Penn Foundation, in association with Pace Gallery and Pace/MacGill Gallery.

An exhibition was on view at Pace Gallery, 32 East 57th Street from September 13–October 13, 2018.


Irving Penn,  Untitled, 1987 

Platinum-palladium print, ink, watercolor, gum arabic, and dry pigment on paper 

24 15/16 × 19 7/16 in. 






Painting and Other Things

David Campany

This book, and the accompanying exhibition at Pace MacGill Gallery are that rare thing, an opportunity to see for the first time a major body of work by a major artist. Drawn from the archives of the Irving Penn Foundation, it will surprise and prompt many to reconsider what they thought they knew about this celebrated and enigmatic image-maker.  Seen together, these paintings (the description is playfully misleading, as we shall see) amount to a startlingly original achievement. That they were produced in private, away from the bright spotlight that fell upon Penn’s photographic work, is a humbling revelation.

Irving Penn worked through those decades in which modern experimentation and the dissolving of artistic boundaries seemed to run in parallel with that other version of the modern that was insistent on clarifying and separating media. The distinctions between the so-called ‘fine arts’, ‘graphic arts’ and ‘applied arts’ meant little to Penn: he moved consummately between techniques and operated in whichever contexts his curiosity and creative ambitions required.  And yet, Penn’s work is distinguished by a painstaking attention to the qualities and properties of all the materials he used.  He was a modernist is the fullest sense.

In 1984, after forty-five years of sustained creative work, Irving Penn was the subject of a major retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. It was a crowning moment, no doubt. Not just for Penn himself, but for the then still embattled idea that great photography can be occasioned by any context, whether a magazine commission or personal project. The show toured the United States and then Europe, finishing in 1989. But what might an artist do after such an exhibition?  How to come to terms with being at once a figure from the past – a figure from one’s own past, even – and a contemporary artist with a vital future?  Another twenty-five years of output at the highest level would follow for Penn, but a retrospective does prompt a kind of reckoning.

The account of Penn’s very public career tends to focus upon the illustriousness. Few living photographers ever receive as much admiration and respect as Penn did. Nevertheless, the compass that had guided him was entirely his own, and quite internal. Despite his high profile longevity as Vogue’s prime photographer, despite exhibiting his work globally, and his continuous photographing of the major personalities and fashions of his day, Penn was a deeply private man. His artistic goals had nothing to do with glamour or accolade, and they remained steadfast.

Artists rarely arrive fully formed but many discover quite early what will become their aesthetic principles. For his retrospective, Penn had been obliged to look again at all phases of his work, right back to the beginnings. Although he had destroyed his earliest paintings, he had preserved a substantial set of works on paper made between 1939 and 1942. He had been drawing quite productively since 1936, the year he enrolled for study in Alexey Brodovitch’s Design Laboratory. Indeed it was with earnings from more commercially minded illustrations, published in Harper’s Bazaar(where Brodovitch was art director), that Penn was able to buy his first camera.

The drawings that he preserved are precise and complex. Many resemble collaged amalgams of scientific instruments and organic parts. Each is its own baroque-cubist entity, floating near the centre of a white or simplified background. It’s unclear exactly why the young Penn felt compelled to make these. He had been an avid and attentive consumer of art, via books and magazines as much as museums, and the drawings do have distinct echoes of the work of artists as diverse as Heironymous Bosch, Francis Picabia, Giorgio de Chirico, Max Ernst, Fernand Léger, and Alexander Calder.  They even resonate with the arcane bio-technics of Marcel Duchamp’s allegory in glass, The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even, 1915-1923.

Lucid, a little strange, and compelling in their formal confidence, the drawings are of a piece with just about everything Penn made subsequently. To underscore this, two were included in his MoMA retrospective, along with a further pair made around 1978-80. This was just enough to widen the public assessment of Penn’s achievement, but not so wide as to confuse an audience still getting used to the complexities of photography as art.

For Penn himself, revisiting the drawings after so long was probably not a revelation, but it was certainly an affirmation that his artistic sensibility had formed in his youth, and was not rooted in any particular medium. Moreover, the fact that he became a photographer primarily could be said to bear this out. While photography is a medium in its own right, its affinities with the other arts are particularly close. Photography can be pursued as drawing by other means, as painting by other means, as sculpture, theatre, performance, and even writing by other means. Indeed, any and every photograph will impinge upon one or more of the other arts in some way. When photography attempts purity, it is often empty. As a distinct métier, it may demand a deep commitment but it permits free exchange and dialogue across the arts. Perhaps for Penn there was something in the process of assembling a retrospective that restated this idea. In 1991 he recalled:

Some time after a museum retrospective, feeling emptied, I began to draw, then to

paint, tentatively picking up threads dropped forty-some years before. Pleased with the

new freedom, I found inside myself accumulated forms, enjoyed arbitrary color, the

touch of the brush, the flow of pigment, the slowness and privacy. I worked this way for

two or three years of weekends and vacations.[i]

What was to emerge, slowly at first, was a large corpus that Penn came to call paintings but really comprised mixed media works of his own very particular concoction. In her essay for this book, Alexandra Dennett details Penn’s working process but even the list of materials used indicates the unusual approach: platinum-palladium print, ink, watercolor, gum arabic, and dry pigment on paper.

What we see are tightly arranged shapes made from black lines, filled with colour. The shapes are sometimes geometric, sometimes organic, occasionally figurative but always definite and purposeful. There seem to be moments of chance in the distribution of shapes and colours, but the overriding feeling is of order and harmony. As with everything Penn made, the pleasurable first response is the gateway to a more complex engagement. Moving in to take a closer look, we see there is variation within each colour. There are variations in the surfaces too, with moments of high sheen in counterpoint with roughness. The black lines do not quite look drawn or painted, but they do not look printed either, not in any familiar way.

Paintings. One can understand Penn’s preference for the simple name. Terms such as ‘mixed media’ or ‘hybrid’ conjure up a kind of art that is messy or even anti-medium in its conception. ‘Photo-painting’ sounds even more confused, and Penn’s attitude could not have been further from this. These works are clearly the product of an artist highly attuned to his materials and processes, and for all their variety there is a unity and purpose of vision here.

To come in close to any artwork, to enjoy and study it, is to contemplate something of its making, but this is not something Penn’s paintings divulge too quickly. Their origin is too peculiar for that. To begin with, how were those black lines achieved? Penn had various methods. One was to cut out white pieces of card, overlay them, photograph them on lithographic film, which eliminated the mid-tones, and then platinum-palladium print the negative onto thick photosensitized paper, which he stretched perfectly flat over sheet aluminium. Later, Penn made digital scans of his outlines, and printed via inkjet. Almost nothing in the final result will reveal these processes to the untrained eye. The application of paints and pigments may be fathomed more readily. There is little evidence of brush strokes. The coloured liquids appear to have been pooled and held by the black lines as if they were boundaries. A thin masking tape must have been used, and with great care, each colour applied and left to dry before the next.

It is usually photography that is the inscrutable art form, the least willing to reveal its genesis. In a photograph everything is in plain view and yet it feels like an immaculate conception that happened somewhere else, in front of the now-absent subject. Penn relished this, guarding closely his lighting and printing techniques, and mastering them all.  Through being at least partly photographic, his Paintings retain something of this enigma. There they are, resplendent and generous, but with their own mystery.

Of all the great modern photographers, Penn is the one most notable for having a draftsman’s sense of line. Whatever he produced, in whatever medium, formal perfection was grounded in precise, elegant and assured lines. For example in his portraits, faces wrinkled by time and experience, are framed by those famously bold and sinuous outlines. The viewer’s eye inspects the faces, and appreciates the binding shapes that Penn has apprehended with his camera just so. Likewise, in his still life photographs and nudes, the details recorded with such nuance inhabit shapes delineated with supreme poise. Little surprise that Penn and his art director at Vogue, Alexander Liberman, frequently made sketches in order to plan the photographs Penn was to take. Those sketches concentrated on line, and blocks of tone and colour, leaving photography to do the detail work that is its forte.

In Penn’s Paintings, the drama of line and fill is even more emphatic. Blackness frames the colors in which we can see little particles of pigment and detritus. Having floated free, they are now fixed like flies in amber.  Each particle is a miniscule instance of chance or chaos, taking its place in a framework of order. This is a little like the scattered silver halide grains of photographic film, which react according to the patterns of light that chance upon them within a bounded field. And again the resonance with Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare is striking.  For several months in the early stages of this work, dust was permitted to accumulate on a sheet of glass in the Duchamp’s studio on New York’s Broadway. On the glass were mysterious shapes traced out in metal filament. The accumulated dust was a visual embodiment of contingency and duration.  With a translucent varnish, the dust was then fixed in key places, trapping time the way a photographic exposure might. Eventually the glass would be stood on end, permitting light to pass through. Although they are on paper, Penn’s Paintings give this impression too. They resemble stained glass windows, in which the minor imperfections enhance the beauty and fascination. And more prosaically perhaps, they recall colour transparency film, with its rich colours and black borders, which Penn had known so intimately for years. Were these paintings and kind of photography by other means? Yes and no.

One of the key distinctions to be made between painting and photography concerns the sovereignty of scale and material. Ordinarily, a painter does not paint their painting and then decide how large it will be. Nor does the painter paint and then decide upon the substrate and surface quality.  Those decisions are integral to the making. A painting is painted at the size it is, and with its materials.  In photography however, there is image capture, and then there is output. Output may vary, and Penn was of a generation that understood and explored this extensively. Not only was he familiar with all manner of printing techniques, he understood thoroughly the transformative stages involved in getting a photographic image into the world in different ways. And once there, it belongs there. Indeed a photographic reproduction belongs wherever you put it. It inhabits whatever place, scale and material it is given. In a profound way, this promiscuous and chameleon-like quality is what made the medium so modern. Back in 1950 Penn had noted:

For the Modern photographer the end product of his efforts is the printed page, not the photographic print.[ii]

By 1964 however, he was less convinced:

The printed page seems to have come to something of a dead end for all of us. It is the main thing we’ve headed for, for so many years. Now, the printed page degenerates in quality.[iii]

Penn continued to work for magazines, through the years of ‘degenerate’ page quality to emerge in the digital era that saw printing improve dramatically, even though the eclipse of paper by screens was already well advanced. The beginning of this eclipse is what Penn was sensing back in the early 1960s. It was around this time that he underwent a shift of attitude, slightly away from the applied arts to which he had dedicated himself, towards the fine arts.[iv] Photography has always had a foot in both, but for Penn the shift involved seeing the crafted work, perhaps the singular and unique work, as the ‘end product of his efforts.’  He was not alone. Many of his photographic contemporaries felt the same way.[v] And of course the dislodging of photography from the centre of culture was also what began to boost its position as art within the museum and the gallery.

So Penn’s ongoing work for the page took its place alongside a more conscious self-understanding as a fine artist. By 1968 he had involved himself in the laborious but rewarding technique of platinum-palladium photographic printing. He returned to negatives that were often decades old, bringing out their latent potential to make extraordinary new images. Ever the perfectionist, progress was as slow as standards were high. That year, MoMA presented the thematic show Photography and Printmaking. Penn was not yet prepared to exhibit his platinum-palladium work. It was first seen in public in 1975, with small exhibitions in Turin, London and then MoMA.  From here onwards, Penn maintained a personal programme of exploratory fine printing while keeping up his work as a fashion, still life and portrait photographer.

The unique and the multiple. The handcrafted and the machine tooled. The sovereignty of scale and material; and the infinite variation. These tensions (if indeed they are tensions) informed Irving Penn’s artistic vision in fundamental ways, but it was perhaps in the Paintings that they found their most satisfying resolution. For in truth these works are photographs, paintings and drawings. They are singular in some respects and multiple in others. They are mechanical and hand made. Fixed in size, yet potentially variable.  Penn could print those black line compositions at any scale he liked, in any number, on any paper surface. He could reverse them. He could print them hard or soft. And he could test out his variant color combinations on the different templates.  Quite how this working method came to him is unknown. Given the great range of his technical skills, his appetite for problem solving and his virtuoso visual intelligence, it makes perfect sense that he would eventually come to a kind of art that would bring it all together.

It is telling that Penn noted that part of what he was enjoying in the making of these works was “arbitrary color.” The combinations of hue in the Paintings certainly suggest something accidental but they still feel carefully selected. How did he arrive at this? Was it truly arbitrary? Was it calculated to give that impression?  Whichever it was, a taste for the arbitrary is a consistent thread in Penn’s work. It softens his formality. However, arbitrary colour was not something he had really contended with until he embarked on his Paintings. It could be that he came to it through careful observations of the increasingly haphazard colour schemes of the post-war cityscape. Penn had a deep admiration for the photographer Walker Evans who, in 1958, had produced a striking photo-essay for Architectural Forum, titled ‘Color Accidents’. Evans used his camera to pick out chance combinations he encountered on the streets of Manhattan. “The bitter colors and ironic forms splashed and molded on many an old door or torn wall have their own way of arresting attention,” wrote Evans in his accompanying text. “The pocks and scrawls of abandoned walls recall the style of certain contemporary paintings, with, of course, the fathomless difference that the former are accidents untouched by the hand of consciousness […] Lest the buildings of tomorrow engender no patina whatsoever, certain nicely encrusted objects may well be recorded now. Decorative design itself […] is surely being threatened by the forces of speed and utility.”[vi]

Arbitrary color is a symptom of hectic modern progress. To harness it for artistic ends is to contemplate it at a distance, to refer to the crazed tempo of life, and even to enjoy it, but without being entirely complicit with it.  Like Evans, Penn held himself at a remove from the forces of speed and utility, and like Evans he managed to do this while working for magazines with breathless turnover and relentless schedules.

The modern artist has to choose whether to be absolutely of their time, as Charles Baudelaire famously declared, or to step back from that edge. This is a particularly pressing choice for photographers, whose medium cannot help but record the present moment, and whose source of livelihood often makes them beholden to their time, to the new and the now. In their different ways, Penn and Evans made work with a cooler, less pressing sense of the moment.

One can make painting speak directly of its own time.  It can be pursued as a kind of reportage or commentary; and it can incorporate fragments of the day, in the way the Cubists used pieces of newsprint, for example. But in general, the urgency of the moment does not impinge upon painting the way it can upon photography, and this may be part of the reason why painting remains so attractive to photographers.[vii]  Evans painted American vernacular scenes in a folksy, faux naïve manner that had existed almost unchanged for over a century. Penn’s paintings could have emerged at almost any point in the history of modern art.  They could be at home in many art movements and eras.

In 2004 Penn included a personal ‘Tree of Influence’ in his publication A Notebook and Random.[viii] It is a remarkably revealing diagram, with as many roots below ground as there are branched above. The names ‘Brodovitch’ and ‘Liberman’ appear prominently on the trunk. There is a loose chronology, with the names below older than those above, but what’s most striking is that those below are primarily painters (among them Matisse, Morandi, Arcimboldo, Léger, Uccello) while those above are photographers (Evans, Atget, Cameron, Cartier-Bresson, Brandt, Sander and Nadar are all there). So one could read the tree in terms of painting being the foundation that allows photography to flourish.   But of course roots and branches and leaves are part of the one living organism, and they all need each other, and Penn’s tree is best thought of in this way. What one learns from current art reshapes how one appreciates the affects of the art of the past.

In the end of course, ‘art history’ does not really exist out there, in some concrete linear fashion. It lives in the minds of those who are interested in it, and influenced by it. The mind, particularly in its artistic obsessions, has little sense of time. Irving Penn pursued his Paintings at weekends and on holidays, beyond obligation, when time and chronology meant little. They were made with the urgency and determination with which he made everything, yet they restate and reflect upon his essential interests, which were in effect timeless.  Late in life, there was clearly something Irving Penn needed to explore with these works. New ground, certainly, but also his first principles.  So we should not be surprised to find they belong to no order, but his own.

[i]  Irving Penn, Passage: A Work Record  (New York: Knopf, 1991), p. 10

[ii] Penn made this remark at the symposium What is Modern Photography?, held at the Museum of Modern Art in 1950. It was then published in American Photography magazine, March 1951.

[iii] Irving Penn, in Eugenia Parry Janis and Wendy MacNeil, eds.,  Photography Within the Humanities, Addison House Publishers, Danbury, New Hampshire, 1977.

[iv] The first significant sign of this came in 1960, when Penn published Moments Preserved, moving his images from the pages of ephemeral magazines to a solidity of monographic book.

[v] The closest parallels may be with Brassaï and Walker Evans. Evans retired from magazine work in 1965, just as his standing as an artist was beginning to be recognized widely. Post-war, Brassaï worked for Harper’s Bazaar but as he recalled, “after 1965 it changed and I didn’t do any more because they don’t have the same conception of things.” See ‘Brassaï with Tony Ray-Jones’, Creative Camera, April 1970.

[vi] Walker Evans, ‘Color Accidents’, Architectural Forum, January 1958.

[vii] “Drawing is a haven from the real world that belongs to the camera.” Irving Penn, Drawings (New York: Apparition, 1999), unpaginated.

[viii] Irving Penn, A Notebook at Random, Bulfinch Press, New York / Boston, 2004, p. 107.

  • Copyright © 2023