The current photo exhibition at the Wessel + O’Conner Fine Art Gallery in Lambertville provides an opportunity to combine three topics that may have gone unnoticed individually but are of interest in combination: a fine arts gallery with a specific focus that moved from New York to Lambertville, an exhibition of a New Jersey-born photographer who has a wielded an underground-to-mainstream influence, and central New Jersey’s link to artists who participated in 1920s avant-garde Paris and later influenced museums in New York and Trenton.
Wessel + O’Conner Gallery, located 7 North Main Street, is a fine arts gallery that deals mainly with photography, something bold in an era flooded with photographic images. Two other such area galleries — the Lambertville-based Red Filter Gallery and the photographer-run collective Gallery 14 in Hopewell — make the region a center for photographic galleries in the state.
Wessel + O’Conner’s thematic focus indicates another rarity. It was named by the Advocate newspaper as one of the world’s few gay art galleries and represents established photographers who often use the male figure as subject.
The gallery — which has its own collection yet partners with agents, photographers, and other collections — offers works by photography-pioneer Eadweard Muybridge; American artists — and provocateurs — Robert Mapplethorpe and Andy Warhol; celebrity and fashion photographer Herb Ritts; photographers who created images for underground 1950s “physique” magazines (and now collected for historic reasons); and others.
Co-founder John Wessel graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago and had a career that included arts administration in New York City. William O’Conner was a Long Island-raised painter who studied at Pratt Institute and worked in alternative galleries in New York City. The two opened their first gallery in 1985 in Italy before relocating several times: Tribeca, Soho, Chelsea, Brooklyn, and then to Lambertville. Wessel died in 2011.
“My late partner got a house over eight years ago outside Carversville, Pennsylvania, as a second house. We fell in love with the area and closed our gallery in Brooklyn. It felt natural. Lambertville is an arts town. It’s an ideal situation,” says O’Conner in one of the three suites of white-walled galleries that feature the work of George Platt Lynes, currently on view through Sunday, January 11.
Though not a household name, Lynes is an influence on American photography, especially commercial images for Calvin Kline and Abercrombie and Fitch. He is also part of the Paris-Central New Jersey connection.
Lynes was born in East Orange, New Jersey, in 1907. He was the son of a lawyer who was studying at Union Theological Seminary in New York City — and later served as an Episcopal clergyman in various locations, including Jersey City and Newark.
Lynes was sent to private schools but proved a poor student, preferring to participate in the literary magazine and the camera club, where he learned the fundamentals for his career.
When he graduated from the Berkshire School in 1925, the future photographer lacked the required coursework to enter college and accepted an invitation from his Paris-based aunt to continue his studies there.
In Paris Lynes’ interests and family members brought him into the circle of American expatriate writer and influential salon organizer Gertrude Stein. There he engaged in artistic pursuits and was influenced by surrealist American photographer Mann Ray, among others. Stein’s group, incidentally, also included Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
For the next several years, Lynes moved between New Jersey and Europe, working in New York City in bookstores, opening his own in Englewood (where he began displaying his photographs), and cultivated professional and personal circles.
That included art dealer and critic Julien Levey, who exhibited Lynes’ works in his New York gallery, garnering commissions for Lynes from several influential magazines, including Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, and the luxury goods department stores Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue.
Lynes also received a prestigious art commission when he was asked to create images for a new ballet company founded by Lincoln Kirstein and George Balanchine — the company would later become New York City Ballet.
Lynes’ ballet photographs show the two veins of his work. One series captures the edges of Balanchine’s choreography — clear bursts of abstract designs and the tension between dancer and space — for promotion and artistic record. They are considered some of the best dance photographs ever taken.
In the other series Lynes uses the nude male dancers as an artistic end in itself. And it is the idealization of the male body — sometime placed in myth-influenced ballet scenes and sometimes in stark and spare abstract worlds — that became Lynes’ artistic focus. The male nudes were also the source of his influence, with critics noting Lynes’ clean, graphic, and classical compositions.
“He took all those techniques he learned in fashion — how to make jewelry look fabulous and used them to make nude men look fabulous — using back illumination in a way that couldn’t be done naturally,” says O’Conner.
Lynes kept this artistic work mainly private up to his death in 1955. “There was no market for male nudes at the time,” says O’Conner. However, the nudes as well as some of his fashion and celebrity work (portraits of Katherine Hepburn, Orson Welles, and poet T.S. Eliot) are now part of large collections: the Kinsey Institute Foundation (named for the mid-20th century sexual research pioneer Alfred Kinsey) holds 2,500 works, and the Guggenheim Museum has more than 500.
Eventually — after social movements and growing awareness regarding human sexuality — Lynes’ work was rediscovered, and as Allen Ellenswieg, a critic who writes about homoerotic photography, notes, “People like Robert Mapplethorpe, Bruce Weber, and Herb Ritts all investigated the history of male imagery. In their work, the male body is rediscovered for its plastic, sculptural quality. Platt Lynes pointed the way in that direction.”
But it was more than pointing. The controversial Mapplethorpe noted that Lynes’ nudes inspired an entire series of his own. Weber, who wrote an introduction to a Lynes book, shows a direct influence in his sexually charged Abercrombie and Fitch photos. And celebrity and Calvin Kline fashion photographer Ritts said that Lynes gave him the freedom to make daring requests to models.
“I think he was a great photographer,” says O’Conner, pointing to a crisp and bold black-and-white male nude against a stark background. “I can’t believe it was done 60 years ago.”
The Wessel + O’Conner exhibition consists of a few dozen works, mainly silver and platinum prints that demonstrate Lynes’ various approaches: classical, surrealism influenced, and a moody expressionism using shadows and light (such as the photo of a young Yul Brenner, who had taken to modeling for artists while building his acting career).
Yet it is the clothed portrait of farmer, philanthropist, art collector, and New Jersey official Lloyd Wescott that deepens the Paris-New Jersey connection.
Lloyd Wescott was not an artist but the brother of novelist Glenway Wescott. Lynes met Glenway and his lover/companion, Monroe Wheeler, in Paris, where they become lifelong friends and sometimes lovers.
The three returned to New York City in the mid 1930s — where Wheeler would become the first director of exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art and later a trustee. They later moved to a farm in New Jersey.
The farm belonged to Lloyd and his wife, Barbara Harrison, another American in Paris. She and Wheeler had established the arts press Harrison of Paris, creating special editions that involved cutting-edge artists (such as American sculptor Alexander Calder). She had also moved back to New York, where she continued the press for a short time.
The Wescotts had been raised on a farm in Wisconsin, and Lloyd parlayed his background into a series of successful ventures, including artificial breeding of livestock.
After Paris and New York, he and Harrison moved to New Jersey, eventually settling on a farm in lower Hunterdon County. Glenway, Wheeler, and Lynes were provided living and work spaces, making the farm a gathering place for New York and international artists.
An internet search will produce paintings and photographs by prominent artists of the farm and its occupants, including a pastoral of Lloyd and Barbara.
In the 1960s the Paris-influenced New Jerseyans began to influence Trenton.
Lloyd Wescott — who was named chair of the New Jersey State Board of Control of Institutions and Agencies — and Harrison became active with the New Jersey State Museum when the institution was redefining itself, creating an art collection, and moving into a modern new building.
In addition to being part of an influential circle of artists who would advise and sometimes attend Trenton functions, Lloyd Wescott and Harrison were known art collectors, and their involvement helped the museum establish the foundation of the important collection that can be seen there today. It was also during that time that the state purchased several pieces of public art, including the Calder sculpture that stands in front of the State Museum.
Harrison continued her museum involvement until her death in 1977, when a publication noting influential Hunterdon County women made the following assessment: “A noted collector of fine works of art, Barbara Wescott’s appointment to the advisory council of the New Jersey State Museum proved to be the turning point in the museum’s existence. Prior to her influence, the museum was largely ‘a collection of arrowheads.’ It was her knowledge, taste, and love of fine art that propelled the museum forward in its quest for a collection that would distinguish the state museum.”
Lloyd continued his involvement with the museum’s collection, and his death in 1990 — a few years after the deaths of Glenway and Wheeler — ended that direct link between Trenton, the region, and an important creative period in Western cultural history.
When the presence of the Wescotts, Lynes, and Wheeler is combined with other Paris expatriates connected to the region — George Antheil, the Trenton-born avant-garde composer of the celebrated “Ballet Mecanique” and the subject of poet Ezra Pound’s book “George Antheil and the Treatise on Harmony”; Sylvia Beach, the Princeton minister’s daughter who opened the Paris bookstore Shakespeare and Company and printed James Joyce’s “Ulysses”; and Princeton University student and “lost generation” chronicler F. Scott Fitzgerald — a surprising and naked truth surfaces: Central New Jersey influenced and was influenced by the modernist movement in Paris.
And the reminder was brought to the surface by a small exhibition of an adventurous New Jersey photographer in a specifically focused former New York City gallery now in Lambertville — all something that the Paris-New Jersey artists would appreciate.
George Platt Lynes, Wessel + O’Conner Fine Art Gallery, 7 North Main Street, Lambertville. On view through Sunday, January 11, open Thursdays through Sundays, noon to 5 p.m. For more information or to see images from this and other exhibitions, visit wesseloconnor.com.