The Museum of Modern Art in New York recently showcased photographer Nicholas Nixon’s most famous series, “The Brown Sisters,” group portraits of his wife and her three sisters taken annually over several decades. Although intended as a tribute, that show had the effect of narrowing the museum-going public’s view of Nixon’s art.
This career survey studiedly excluded “The Brown Sisters,” though Nixon’s wife, Bebe, appeared in it affectingly several times, both alone and with him. “Nicholas Nixon: About Forty Years” delivered on the promise of its title’s ambiguities. It comprised work dating back to the mid-1970s, whose variety shows an artist probing for images or frames of reference to evoke an individual’s, a family’s, or a society’s historical moment. These included portraits of intimates and strangers (including Robert Sappenfield and His Parents, Dorchester, Massachusetts, 1988, from Nixon’s harrowing series of photographs of AIDS patients), studies of persons so young or so old we can only tentatively distinguish male from female, cityscapes, and slivers of domestic architecture.
Nixon hews to Walker Evans’s plain visual fact in images such as View from Washington Street, Boston (2008). But his recurrent cropping of faces and bodies suggests we all live under pressures of potentially disfiguring representation unknown to our ancestors.
A version of this story originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 90.