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The Newman family

From left: U professor Eric Newman with his mother, Augusta Newman; his wife, Janice Gepner; and his father, Arnold Newman.

The art and the artist

The Weisman Art Museum displays its gift of Arnold Newman portraits through July

By Pauline Oo

April 23, 2008

Arnold Newman was legendary. He pioneered the "environmental" approach to portraiture, capturing people in settings that reflected their personalities and pursuits, during the rise of the picture magazine. He photographed Picasso at his studio in France, composer Igor Stravinsky sitting at the piano, poet Langston Hughes in Harlem, Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office, and even Otto Frank, father of Anne Frank, in the attic where his family hid from the Nazis for more than two years.

Through mid July, visitors to the Weisman Art Museum on the Twin Cities campus can view some of the photographs that made the late Newman one of the most important photographers of the 20th century. "The Arnold Newman Portraits: These Artists Look Like This," located in the Corridor Gallery of the museum, pairs 40 black and white photos recently donated by the Newman family with works of art by Newman's subjects from the museum's collection.

"Newman really changed the landscape of portrait photography," says Weisman curator Diane Mullin. "His photos look so much like what we see now and what we think of as a normal portrait. But the thing is, before that, back in the mid 19th century, it was uncommon. Photographers had studios and you would go there to have your photo taken."

Newman's son, Eric, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Minnesota, had offered the museum a collection of the historic photographs after his father's death on June 6, 2006. Eric Newman invited Weisman director Lyndel King to New York City to choose the photographs.

"It made sense on a number of different levels," says Newman, when asked about his donation. "I've been at the University for 17 years and I feel close to it, and my father visited me many times while I was here and we went to the Weisman Museum together. It actually is a very nice fit for his photographs because Weisman's strength is in the 20th century American art. The museum has a great collection of paintings by some very important artists, like Georgia O'Keeffe. And these are the people my father photographed. He was also friends with many of them."

Arnold Newman was born in 1918, one of three sons of a clothing manufacturer. He attended the University of Miami for two years, studying painting on scholarship, but dropped out when the cost of college was too much. He moved to Philadelphia to pursue portrait photography. In 1946, he relocated to New York City and opened his own studio. He married Augusta Rubenstein in 1949, and they had sons Eric and David.

Note: When visiting...

Only about half the Arnold Newman collection is up in the Weisman Art Museum right now. They will be replaced with the other photographs after mid May. "A lot of them are vintage prints, really, truly some of the first versions printed by Newman himself," says Diane Mullin. "And to prevent them from getting damaged, because there's a lot of light in that corridor in the summer time, we're swapping them out."

Also, some of the Newman portraits don't have artworks next to them. Not to worry, says Mullin, you can find the related paintings on the walls some place else in the museum. The reason for this, she explains, is that there was a better place for the artwork light-wise or for people to step back farther to view them. "But none of the photographs are without [an accompanying piece of art] in the museum," she says.

"My parents lived in an apartment in the Upper West Side near Lincoln Center for over 55 years," says Eric Newman, also a University Distinguished McKnight professor and an inductee of the Academic Health Center's Academy for Excellence in Health Research. "The buildings on that street were built for artists and had studio rooms that were 18 feet high with a northern light, which is favored by artists. My father's studio, where he worked, was on the same block, just two doors away."

In his 60-plus years of photography, Newman wasn't just a portrait photographer. His portfolio included documentary views of poor neighborhoods, landscapes, still lifes, and collages. He was also an art aficionado with a collection "built up by swapping prints for works by his subjects, who have included Mondrian, Ernst, Leger and de Kooning and nearly every other heavy hitter in the Modernist line," reported the New York Times in 2000. "If he wanted to photograph someone, he would ask," says his son, Eric. "Or he'd arrange to make it happen." For example, when he was traveling through France in 1954, Newman made a point of stopping by the house where Picasso lived and introduced himself. He ended up photographing the artist at least three different times after that. So, what was it like growing up with a famous father? "It actually was quite normal, although we often had prominent people stopping by to visit the house," says Eric Newman. Marilyn Monroe popped by once for dinner because a houseguest, poet Carl Sandburg, knew her. And does he have his father's photography talent?

"I take a lot of movies and pictures through microscopes, and I actually have work featured on seven or eight covers of scientific magazines," says Eric Newman, who assisted, or rather, dragged around bags and put up lights, at a few of his father's photo shoots during his teens. "Other than that I really have no artistic talents. I take snapshots, but they're not good photographs."

To watch a slide show of Arnold Newman's photographs narrated by his son, Eric Newman, see University of Minnesota Foundation.

The Weisman Art Museum is open Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free.

Newman at the annex In March 2007, the Weisman Art Museum unveiled designs for a major building expansion created by Frank Gehry. The expansion will add about 11,000 square feet to the museum, including a gallery for works of art on paper and photography. Weisman curator Diane Mullin says the Arnold Newman collection will be frequently exhibited in that new space. The museum plans to start construction this year and open in 2009.