William Leavitt, Luxury Items, 1974.

Art in Conversation: William Leavitt, Anni Albers, and Alexander Reed

For last Sunday’s Art in Conversation tour, Youssef and I opened a dialogue about William Leavitt’s Luxury Items (1974) and Anni Albers and Alexander Reed’s case of necklaces. Materialism, luxury, and value were central to our discussion.

I was intrigued by the simplicity of Leavitt's Luxury Items among the varied works in the exhibition Still Life with Fish: Photography from the Collection. I was eager to see what others would say about these four black-and-white photographs. I discussed this with my co-educator, Youssef, as a possibility, to which he brilliantly paired the photographs with the case of necklaces by Anni Albers and Alexander Reed in Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957

Gathering first around Leavitt's work, we asked our visitors to challenge themselves. Viewers typically look at a work for twelve seconds; we asked for 30. We encouraged everyone to stand close to the work in order to look at each photograph individually and then all four as a group. After sufficient time was spent investigating the works, we asked for first impressions. A few guests responded at once. We laughed, but were excited that everyone was so eager to share. 

William Leavitt, Luxury Items, 1974.
William Leavitt, 
Luxury Items, 
1974

There were some interesting comments. One woman shared that she focused in on the negative space of one of the photographs. The discussion moved on to the obvious subjects: the person and her jewelry. Some time was spent questioning if the same person was used for each photograph, and one person pointed out exact details of the same woman in multiple locations. We remarked on the luxurious accessories displayed, which is quite incongruous with the artist himself. Leavitt is the opposite of his interests—he lives in the Silver Lake hills only accessible by foot. He lives an under-the-radar lifestyle that is different from what he captures with his lens. He is very interested in the history and culture of Los Angeles, often building a narrative around the entertainment business and other local industries. 

To further explore the subject at hand, I asked the group to describe their perceptions of the woman based on these images. The deeper we delved into analyzing who this woman might be, the more the conversation shifted to an opposite viewpoint from the work’s title. One guest suggested the items looked like costume jewelry. Another commented that the accessories were consistently simple which indicated a woman who was sedate. This same visitor had earlier described the jewelry as opulent, and so it was interesting to see how her opinion shifted the longer she looked. We remarked on the artist’s choice to only display parts of the woman in the photographs instead of one unified whole—and what that might have communicated.

Anni Albers and Alexander Reed, Neck Piece, 1940
Anni Albers and Alexander Reed, 
Neck Piece, 
1940

To continue the conversation, we moved on to the display case of necklaces and neck pieces by Anni Albers and her student Alexander Reed. Laughter erupted from our group as they considered these works alongside Luxury Items. Immediately, the visitors remarked how they loved the selection and how quickly it allowed them to make comparisons and contradictions between the works. Considering the actual objects, the necklaces and photographs were not unlike each other: both displayed accessories that were signifiers of the time, and the group took it upon themselves to place value more so on Albers and Reed’s works.

Briefly, we gave a history of the context in which these works were created. The school spanned the eras of the Great Depression and World War II, finally closing its doors in 1957. Resources were few and far between, and everyday items were refashioned into a new function. We identified some of the items used such as paper clips, washers, and bobby pins. I pulled out a bobby pin from my hair and pointed out that while these neck pieces were made several decades ago, they are timeless and full of possibilities.

Our conversation moved to ideas of femininity and value. At the time of Black Mountain College, working-class women took on massive amounts of labor and responsibility during the war. Luxury items were unattainable in rural North Carolina. Tour goers remarked that they valued these neck pieces more than the pearls, cocktail rings, and fur seen in the prior photographs because they were made during such a tumultuous time and from such little resources. This conversation demonstrated the old adage that value is in the eye of the beholder. 

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Tags: art in conversation, exhibitions, student educators