Arnold Newman: a must-see Master Class

Jennifer DeCarlo | Punto di vista

Arnold Newman: Master Class, currently on display at the San Diego Museum of Art, marks the first major exhibition of the photographer’s work since his death in 2006.

Newman’s prints seem to be made of the very thread of 20th century culture. The works are iconic and capture some of history’s most interesting personalities, including politicians, businessmen, sports players, scientists, artists, writers, musicians, and other celebrities.

"Monroe" by Arnold Newman (Courtesy jdc Fine Art)

“Monroe” by Arnold Newman (Courtesy jdc Fine Art)

Basic and profound, minimal and selective, Newman’s works open the stories of their subjects like books. Whatever they include is not only important, it’s intended; for the devil is in the details, and we can tell the most about people from the things they surround themselves with.

We find musicians before their instruments, artists in their studios with their work or implements of creation, scientists at their black boards or among papers, museum directors in their private salon, a test-pilot suited-up before his jet, politicians under colonnade, businessmen in rooms full of the trappings of power, and the stories go on and on.

Newman never misses setting the stage. This characteristic developed into his personal calling card and became a practice credited to him – environmental portraiture. Though Newman was not fond of the title, the description was on-mark, and the act of situating the sitter in their space reveals not only occupation, but infers accomplishment, sheds light on personality, and exposes the inner qualities of figures.

"Warhol" by Arnold Newman (Courtesy jdc Fine Art)

“Warhol” by Arnold Newman (Courtesy jdc Fine Art)

Newman is so known for his portraiture that it may be fair to say it overshadowed most of his other explorations. This show of more than 200 works, 10 from the museum’s permanent collection, was careful to include some of Newman’s lesser-known works that in context prove critical to his most celebrated.  Beyond portraiture the show includes architectural studies, still-lives, and street scenes, as well as contact sheets, manuscripts, correspondence, records, and magazine tear sheets.  All of this evidence opens new avenues of perspective onto Newman’s oeuvre.  This choice allows for rediscovery of a master and the chance to gain fresh insight into the artist, his development, and practice.

We are indeed surprised by some of the early 1940’s pieces, like Violin ship: patterns on table, reminiscent of some of the Cubist’s studies; Studio still life, a geometric back-drop that feels draft-like; and Philadelphia, a simple street scene with a crooked sign post that may even foreshadow the later New Topographical movement.

In works like these we sense a pause in our own viewing as if we are waiting for a figure to appear. They reveal a strong sense of composition, framing, and balance of space and substance. They are charged, active, and full. This potency strengthens in the later portraiture, but seems subtle, as if the foil to the depicted, whomever they may be. In other experiments, we find Newman engaging the torn, the abstract, and the fragmented. These appear in his contact books and in photo-collaged portraits of Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) and Andy Warhol. The exhibition asks us to see the work anew and reexamine everything we thought we knew about Arnold Newman.

Arnold Newman: Master Class is on exhibit at the San Diego Museum of Art, located at 1450 El Prado, in Balboa Park, through Sept. 8. For more information, visit or call 619-232-7931.

Jennifer DeCarlo is the owner/director of jdc Fine Art, a contemporary photography gallery in Little Italy.  She can be reached at


Leave a Comment