Through May 31
Cleveland Museum of Art
11150 East Blvd.
Lee Friedlander's Factory Valleys
Through May 31
Akron Art Museum
1 S. High St., Akron
Photographer Lee Friedlander's work is a beautiful, exuberant mess. Throughout his career, which began in the '50s, his gaze has been promiscuous, taking in city and countryside, crowded streets and empty rooms, faces and naked bodies. So it's no surprise that the Friedlander retrospective at the Cleveland Museum of Art is a roller coaster ride of peaks and valleys, while the smaller show at the Akron Art Museum — focusing on industrial Eastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania — is more coherent.
Often considered one of the fathers of deceptively casual "street" photography, Friedlander was clearly influenced by Robert Frank's unflinching look at everyday America, although his own vision was less severe. After starting his career shooting jazz and blues musicians, he trained his camera on the markers of '60s America: hotel rooms, storefronts, TVs, American flags, cars, parking meters, photos of JFK and parades. But Friedlander layered his images, creating complex compositions in which one image frames another or the picture field is divided. They suggest an ambivalent view of American life that encompasses warmth, humor, forlornness and sentimentality. "Nashville TN 1963" for example, depicts a room with a TV at left showing cornball country performers — three women with giant hair and a little boy in a white tux. A mirror on a door, center, reflects the room, while at right an open door shows a littered bathroom.
He had less affinity for other subjects. A Warholian series of partygoers look like outtakes. His family portraits are run-of-the-mill, never his strong suit. His nudes work, though, neither idealized nor abstract, but very particular, with saggy breasts, thick pubic hair and mottled skin. Yet he doesn't seem to be emphasizing ugliness like Nan Goldin does. Other series, like one of found letters and words, produce an occasional stunner: In "New York City 1982," the words "Art the Rat" are scrawled on a roughly textured wall that dominates the frame in the foreground. At its base is a clutter of empty bottles. At far left is a vertical glimpse of a raw-looking street: fire escapes, grates, tenements.
In the early '90s, Friedlander switched from 35mm cameras to larger-format Hasselblads. The results were mixed. In some, the enhanced detail fights with the offhand compositions, making them seem empty. His attempts at Ansel Adams-like landscapes — like "Lake Louise, Canada 2000"— seem like exercises. But a series of Chicago's Wooded Isle effectively deploy a favorite Friedlander trick — partially or almost entirely obscuring a scene in foliage.
Friedlander's study of Ohio/Pennsylvania industrial areas at the Akron Art Museum — commissioned in the late '70s by its former director John Coplans — again makes clear that Friedlander has more affinity for scenes than people. His views of factories, bridges, trucks, railroad tracks and hillsides covered with ramshackle houses are evocative. His portraits of workers feel superficial and even gimmicky. There's an even more interesting dichotomy between the Pittsburgh area images and those taken in Cleveland/Akron/Canton. The former are much more powerful; it's clear that the hillsides of Western Pennsylvania stoked his imagination in a way Northeastern Ohio did not.