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Irving Penn: Archæology

October 28, 2010–January 15, 2011

32 East 57th Street, 9th Floor, New York, NY


Installation Views

Selected Works

NEW YORK, September 2, 2010 – Pace/MacGill Gallery is pleased to present Irving Penn: Archæology, featuring over twenty platinum still lifes made between 1979 and 1980. One of the most prolific and respected photographers of the twentieth century, Irving Penn (1917-2009) is recognized for his six-decade career consisting of commercial, editorial and personal work. Whether an innovative fashion image, striking portrait or compelling still life, each of Penn's pictures bears his trademark style of elegant aesthetic simplicity.

The photographs on view comprise what Penn deemed his "AR" or Archæology material, and have not been seen extensively or considered carefully in recent years. The exhibition marks Penn's thirteenth solo show at the gallery and is accompanied by a catalogue with an essay by Dr. Colin Eisler, Robert Lehman Professor of Fine Arts at New York University. An exhibition preview will be held on Wednesday, October 27th.

A distinguished practitioner of the still life, Penn embraced the genre from the outset of his photographic career. His first foray was published on the cover of Vogue Magazine at the suggestion of Condé Nast art director Alexander Liberman in October 1943, and by 1947, Penn was producing a multitude of editorial still lifes for the printed page. In the early 1970s, however, Penn progressively dedicated more time to his private, uncommissioned work in which he abandoned the lavish elements of his magazine still lifes to make clear, powerful pictures of unexpected miscellaneous detritus.

Penn's archæology pictures investigate the visual intrigue of seemingly inconsequential debris and junk -- plumbing fittings, steel fragments, bolts and bones -- in the exquisitely executed medium of platinum. Dedicated to the art of meticulously handcrafted prints, Penn is reputed to have spent nearly 50 hours on the production of a single platinum print. He reflected on this work in his 1991 book, Passage:


For some years I had been accumulating scraps of material that obsessed me: bits of glass, metal, and bone; a human cranium; old sewing machines; a variety of dusts. In 1979 I acquired an early twelve-by-twelve-inch banquet camera and had it altered. . . We made thirty-two negatives between 1979 and 1980. The platinum prints themselves however took a year of work.


Rich in tonal distinction and elemental in construction, these photographs demonstrate Penn's deep regard for the print as a physical object, as well as his extraordinary ability to create striking compositions with the most unsuspecting of materials. As John Szarkowski wrote in the catalogue accompanying Penn's 1984 retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art, New York:


Until now it [Penn’s work] has demonstrated for photography in our time what must be relearned by most arts in most times: that the apparently inconsequential can be redeemed by artistic seriousness; that a plain vocabulary is the most demanding; that high craft is the just desert not only of monuments and ceremonial vessels, but of the ordinary baggage of our lives.


Penn's photography has been the subject of numerous exhibitions worldwide. Recent exhibitions include Irving Penn: Small Trades at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (2009-2010) and Irving Penn Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, London (2010). His work can be found in both domestic and international museum collections, including the Art Institute of Chicago; Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Moderna Museet, Stockholm; the Morgan Library and Museum, New York; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Penn has published multiple books of photographs: Moments Preserved (1960); Worlds in a Small Room (1974); Inventive Paris Clothes (1977); Flowers (1980); Issey Miyake (1988); Passage (1991); Still Life (2001); A Notebook at Random (2004); Photographs of Dahomey (2004); as well as 2 books of drawings. Monographs of his work include: Irving Penn (1984); Irving Penn: Master Images (1990); Irving Penn: A Career in Photography (1997); Dancer (2001); Earthly Bodies: Irving Penn's Nudes, 1949-50 (2002); Irving Penn: Platinum Prints (2005); Irving Penn: Small Trades (2009); and Irving Penn Portraits (2010).

Irving Penn: Archæology will be on view from October 28, 2010 through January 15, 2011. A press preview will be held on Wednesday, October 27, 2010 from 10:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m., with an opening reception from 5:30 - 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, October 28, 2010.

For more information about Irving Penn: Archæology or press requests, please contact Nicollette Eason at Pace/MacGill Gallery, 212.759.7999 or For general inquiries please email

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