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Abstract Addition

This year, the VMFA doubled the size of its photography collection by adding the work of 20th-century photographer.

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Aaron Siskind was a major figure and pioneer of abstraction in photography.

“More than any other photographer, his work demonstrates the shift from social documentary and street photography of the 1930s to the abstract work that dominated photography after World War II,” explains the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ chief curator and deputy director for art and education, Michael Taylor. “He was also a great teacher and mentor to countless photographers of the next generation.”

When the Aaron Siskind Foundation decided to dissolve, it looked for an American art museum willing to care for, interpret and display the foundation’s core collection of Siskind’s photographs, which numbered in the thousands. It also had to be capable of administering the foundation’s annual fellowship prize.

In yet another reminder that it’s not just Richmonders who realize what a phenomenal institution the museum is, the Aaron Siskind Foundation awarded this major gift to the museum, citing its demonstrated commitment to photography and its outstanding fellowship program.

The transfer of the collection was completed on Jan 1.

Museum Director Alex Nyerges compared the gift to the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s acquisition of key sets of Paul Strand’s photographs or the National Gallery of Art being given the photographs of Alfred Stieglitz.

Victor Schrager, president of the foundation, announced the gift by noting that after a national search, it was delighted to “find that the visionary leadership, ambitious plans for the future, and commitment to carrying on Aaron Siskind’s legacy made VMFA the ideal choice as the new and permanent home for the collection and administration of the Siskind Prize.”

The gift includes the core collection of 4,062 photographs, which represents the artist’s finest works from every series and period of his career, as well as approximately 3,900 duplicate prints that will be donated to other museums in cities and places where Siskind lived and worked and countries he visited at the end of his career.

Significantly, the breadth of the body of work more than doubles the size of the museum’s existing photography compilation.

“The Siskind collection transforms our holdings in photography by giving us a key set of all of his best works,” Taylor says, adding “VMFA will now be a destination and study center for Siskind that will attract scholars and visitors alike.”

By the 1950s, Siskind’s work had become widely associated with the abstract expressionist movement thanks to his acclaimed abstract photographs of the walls of buildings enlivened by peeling paint or the remains of torn posters. His photographs were a counterpart to the work of Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and other painters of the New York School and were shown alongside their paintings in a series of exhibitions in New York between 1947 and 1951.

At the time, photography rarely achieved equality with painting as a fine art, but Siskind’s success in the broader New York art scene signaled an important advancement for the medium. Siskind taught at several art schools, retiring from the Rhode Island School of Design in the late 1970s. He made photographs until he died in 1991.

Now, the foundation’s gift signals a major advancement in the museum’s continuing commitment to the fine art of photography.

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