Connoisseurs and neophytes alike will find ample rewards for stopping in to see “Hand-Picked: Selections from the Buhl Collection,” a carefully curated exhibition of photographs and, surprisingly, sculpture at the Southampton Art Center. 

The “hand-picked” 111 photographs and 33 pieces of sculpture on view are from the internationally renowned Henry Mendelssohn Buhl collection, chosen and hung by Buhl with his curator Ryan Russo from 10 times that many available in the collection. Among them are major works by Lewis Hine, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Horst P. Horst, Mary Ellen Mark and other canonic figures.

For photography insiders who may be familiar with Buhl’s greatest hits from previous shows at the Guggenheim, Sotheby’s and the Parrish Art Museum when it was on Jobs Lane (in 1997), the news here is the recent addition to Buhl’s repertoire of the sculpture, including small but evocative pieces by Picasso, Rodin, Nauman and Botero.

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"Untitled (Hand Pair) No. 1" by Bruce Nauman, 1996. White Bronze, White Enamel, 5.5 x 4.5 x 16.5 inches. Courtesy of Southampton Arts Center.

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What is it about hands? The hand as subject for drawing, painting, carving and modeling is the summit of the technological challenges posed by life studies and portraiture. It is often the bridge too far for even an accomplished artist. In an iconic self-portrait with his mother, Arshile Gorky scrubs the hands into a white cloud of abstraction. Matisse, Monet, Manet and even the consummate draughtsman Degas sometimes used a blur, giving up the effort in surrender.

Among the great virtuosi who caught the hand on canvas, the ones who rise to the top are Raphael, Leonardo, Rembrandt, Ingres, Parmagianino (with the aid of a convex mirror), Vermeer and Michelangelo. They share that rare mimetic gift for mirroring the near-miraculous subcutaneous architecture of joint and tendon as well as the endless permutations of skin and nail. It is no wonder the camera has an edge in this manual contest.

In the “Hand-Picked” exhibition, one of the breathtakingly detailed works is the Mary Ellen Marks portrait of the age-lined hands of Louise Bourgeois, emerging from blackout shadow into white light of such power that an orthopedic hand surgeon could begin an operation.

Buhl’s first purchase for the collection, in 1993, was a large Stieglitz print of Georgia O’Keeffe’s hands holding a thimble. Pursuing the thematic line of the hand of the artist, the strangely amorphous, fleshy hand of Willem de Kooning in Dan Budnik’s portrait hangs beside a similarly smooth white hand captured by Alfred Eisenstaedt when Winston Churchill flashed a “V for Victory” sign at a Conservative Party congress in Liverpool in 1951.

These two works hang side by side on the long wall of the main gallery, the high point of the exhibition for me, alongside the portrait of Luis Bonfa’s hands by the late Alberto Rizzo. Across the way, viewers should be sure to see the work of Edward Mapplethorpe, the brother of Robert and a superb artist who is now best known for his extraordinary portraits of children on their first birthdays.

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"Luis Bonfa's Hand" by Alberto Rizzo, 1980, printed 1995. GSP, 17.75 x 13.5 inches. Courtesy of Southampton Arts Center.

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The show shifts into dramatic gear in the smaller, darker confines of the rear space, dominated on one wall by the cruciform South American Journey by Tetsu Okuhara. The contrast with the crisp, clear presentation in the long main gallery is jarring at first, and some viewers may prefer the brighter light to the crepuscular atmosphere here. Others will no doubt appreciate the intense and complex emotional engagement of the Okuhara collage, hundreds of tiny images of hands, arms, mouths and eyes surmounted by a pair of hands holding a heart but dominated by a pair of eyes at the center reminiscent of Man Ray.

With a vertical element more than six feet tall and extending its patibulum five feet across, it is, for better or worse, an inescapably dominant object in the exhibition. The backstory adds to the effect: Born in Los Angeles in 1940, Okuhara and his family were interned in a Colorado camp during World War II. He studied art in Chicago, experimenting with the techniques of David Hockney and Sol LeWitt; both are influences on the mosaic-like array of photographs in this altar-like work.

Some of the effectiveness of South American Journey, which has some sculptural features, is derived from its large scale, an aspect that lends power to some of the sculptures in the show as well. But the most notable objects in the exhibition are in the atrium, where they are set on low pedestals in low light. An ancient Roman bronze hand grasps the hilt of a sword. A fantastically twisted hand by Rodin. A hand and sleeve modeled crudely in plaster and varnished to an amber tone by Picasso in 1947. These three small works belong together aesthetically and art historically.

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Anonymous, "Roman bronze hand holding the top of a sword, the hilt," 1st Century A.D. Bronze, 12 x 4 x 7 inches. Courtesy of Southampton Arts Center.

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"Main avec Manche (Hand with Sleeve)" by Pablo Picasso, 1947. Unique, Varnished Plaster, 2.5 x 3 x 9 inches. Courtesy of Southampton Arts Center.

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Picasso was fascinated by Rodin’s collection of hands and feet; Rodin had drawers full of them at the studio in Meudon, some just tiny studies for The Gates of Hell and other monumental commissions. Buhl has a great cast of Rodin’s Average Right Hand. Both Rodin and Picasso had a deep attachment to Classical sculpture, including fragments, and it was the visit to the Farnese marbles with Jean Cocteau and Sergei Diaghilev that started Picasso’s Neo-Classical period. On the one hand, this is an exhibition that embraces the entire history of photography from 1840 and the Daguerrotype to digital works made this year. On the other, it is an essay in sculptural influence.

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"Main Droite Moyenne (Average Right Hand)" by Auguste Rodin, 1885-1900. Cast 6/12. Bronze, 6 x 5 x 10 inches. Courtesy of Southampton Arts Center.

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Buhl started collecting photographs in 1993 with a bang when he purchased Stieglitz’s Georgia O’Keeffe—Hands and Thimble (1919). Together with his support of museums, Buhl’s foundation, established in 1989, is renowned for its philanthropic work on behalf of the homeless, especially through the Association of Community Employment. It is fitting that a measure of the collector’s humanitarian concern is felt throughout the show, particularly in the historically important image of The Accordion Player, made in 1908 by Lewis Hine.

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BASIC FACTS: “Hand-Picked: Selections from the Buhl Collection,” curated by Henry Buhl and Ryan Russo, is on view June 3 through July 23, 2017 at the Southampton Arts Center, 25 Jobs Lane, Southampton, NY 11968. southamptonartscenter.org

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