Vivian Maier: The Color Work at Howard Greenberg Gallery

Art Scene

Vivian Maier: The Color Work at Howard Greenberg Gallery

Photographer Vivian Maier (1926–2009) emerged from obscurity in 2013 to much fanfare. Primarily introduced to the wider public through a tour of official selections on the international film festival circuit, the documentary film, Finding Vivian Maier, reached cult status with its 2015 Oscar nomination. The film, along with countless gallery and museum exhibitions, successfully situated Maier in the historical canon of legendary photographers.

Self-Portrait, Chicago, February, 1976. © Estate of Vivian Maier, Courtesy Maloof Collection and Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

The story of how her Maier’s was uncovered was well suited for the big screen. In 2007 a random guy buys a box of negatives at auction for $380, and unbeknownst to all involved, the box holds a treasure trove of iconic street photography made by a reclusive nanny. The box in question included 100,000 negatives, 700 rolls of undeveloped color film, and 8mm and 16mm movies.

Location and date unknown. © Estate of Vivian Maier, Courtesy Maloof Collection and Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

The exhibition, Vivian Maier: The Color Work, features work from this collection and showcases several photographs that are on view for the first time. It includes images shot between 1950 and 1980 on the streets of Chicago and New York. Maier seems to use color as a cue for composition in her photographs. In many cases, color acts as the defining element of figures and gestures that populate Maier’s image frames. Colors interact with one another, while simultaneously directing the viewer around her compositions.

Chicago, 1972© Estate of Vivian Maier, Courtesy Maloof Collection and Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

Whether it is a focal point or supporting character, Maier uses the language of color to vivify her subjects. While reds and blues appear most often, the use of grey tones from city streets and buildings often acts as a deftly used neutral backdrop in her images.

Chicago, 1956© Estate of Vivian Maier, Courtesy Maloof Collection and Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

While serious and debonair city dwellers are included in Maier’s color work, another ephemeral recurring element appears in others: humor. One image features a close-up of two intensely tanned backs of a topless elderly couple, as they peer through a stone fence at a city pool.  Another captures the back view of three legs. One leg, a man in light blue pants, and the other two, a woman with one calf in a white cast with a blue heel peeking out at the bottom, while her other leg is encased in nude pantyhose and a red kitten heeled shoe. Another image captures the lower torso, legs and derriere of a man as he slides through a large, vibrant green, boxwood hedge fence. This touch of voyeuristic, sneaky humor seems to suggest that Maier had a rich and textured private life; a stark contrast to characterizations by those who knew her as a private and closed person.

Chicago, 1962© Estate of Vivian Maier, Courtesy Maloof Collection and Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

Vivian Maier: The Color Work is on view at Howard Greenberg Gallery through 1/5/19.