One of Gutmann’s recurring themes, since he first began work with photography in 1933, has involved death and mortality. Several of the pictures he considers his most important address this theme directly. Among those in the forthcoming exhibition are Death Stalks Fillmore, 1934, in which a heavily veiled woman walks an urban street with the presence of an apparition; Hat and Rope, 1939 and X Marks the Spot Where Ralph will Die, 1937. The death imagery in Gutmann’s work can be humorous, is often ironic and sometimes surprising: revealing the specter of the weightiest of human concerns amid the clutter of our daily lives.
Gutmann says of the work:
I had this fascination with death already in the thirties when I got interested in Surrealism; my obsession has been skeletons and pictures of death…and lately I have come to the conclusion that while I am getting officially older every day (though I don’t feel any older), probably instinctively I use these symbols as a kind of protection, to make myself familiar with death [so] that to me it’s nothing special.
John Gutmann, who turns ninety this May has been quietly working on the current exhibition for many years. Known as an assiduous collector himself, Gutmann will include here several works from his collection of African art, as well as graphics and other objects relating to the theme of death.
Born in Germany and trained as a painter, Gutmann took up photography shortly before he departed for the United States in 1933. With a European’s cultural background and an eye trained in the German avant-garde, Gutmann observed aspects of American culture that eluded most American artists of his time.
Gutmann has been the subject of a number of important museum exhibitions internationally, including a traveling retrospective organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1989.