Art: High school couples spiffed up for proms

Their personalities shine in Mary Ellen Mark's insightful photographs at the Art Museum.

Mary Ellen Mark's major exhibition of photographs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art 12 years ago left me wondering how she acquired her reputation as a modern American master.

The show presented photos that were essentially portraits of people who live on the margins of society. One could applaud her empathy for such people, but not the artless, almost clinical detachment of her portrayals.

Mark's latest exhibition at the museum answers my question by resolving any doubts I had that she is, indeed, an important and influential artist.

The show is called "Prom." It consists of 41 large (24-by-20-inch) Polaroid portraits of high school prom couples. Curator Peter Barberie selected them from among 127 photos in the complete "Prom" series.

These are formal portraits in the sense that the couples posed in front of a neutral backdrop (in temporary studios at the various prom sites). Everyone is dressed up, yet because Mark encouraged her subjects to express individuality, the tone of the series is relaxed and at times humorous.

"Prom" is a wonderfully insightful and aesthetically luscious project for several reasons.

The first is the theme. Having attended high school when the last Ice Age was still retreating, I was surprised that this rite-of-passage social ritual has survived and that students, by the way they dressed, still take proms seriously.

Young African American women in particular commission striking designer gowns that make distinctive and individual fashion statements. I was startled to see some girls wearing wrist corsages, which I thought went out with the Edsel.

So Mark has first of all documented affirmation of an American tradition. But sociologically we aren't looking at your grandmother's prom. Her subjects include mixed-race couples and homosexual couples, indicating how attitudes have shifted seismically since granny's school days.

Youth fashions also reveal themselves, sometimes flamboyantly. Again, African Americans are the style leaders, males no less than females. Young men dressed in white are a common sight, as are hats. Several youths sport long, shaped jackets with wide lapels, often boldly striped, that recall the "zoot suits" of the 1940s.

Many of Mark's subjects are minorities, and the tone of the series is urban rather than small-town or suburban. This is mainly because logistical requirements limited her to prom locations in large cities on the coasts, among them New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles.

(Some of the photos were made at Cheltenham High School, which Mark attended; she later earned two degrees from the University of Pennsylvania.)

The Polaroid cameras she used are large, heavy, and complex, and must be operated by professional technicians. There are only a few in the country, so she had to photograph where the cameras are based.

It's easy to be seduced by the nostalgia, the glamour, and the gaiety of prom spirit. Mark let the subjects pose themselves, and a few opted to express exuberance. But most play it straight; their expressions and postures communicate dignity, self-assurance, and acceptance of the tradition they are perpetuating.

Finally, one can revel in the lushness and precise rendition of detail that the Polaroid process produces. Mark has resisted working digitally, and in this case her loyalty to film photography pays off.

The prints - unique contact images - are black and white, with the blacks deep and velvety and the whites luminous across a narrow spectrum of hues. These prints, so laborious to make, contain a richness and depth that one doesn't always find in dots per inch.

Sean Scully. Although he was born in Ireland in 1945, and thus came of age in the postmodern era, Sean Scully is a quintessential modernist, and one of the most highly regarded artists of his generation.

He paints abstractly, in a language that might be characterized as abstract expressionism meets minimalism, in that typical canvases contain elements of both.

In 2010, Scully gave the Philadelphia Museum of Art a suite of 10 color aquatints (a type of etching) called Etchings for Federico Garcia Lorca, which he made in 2003. Now the museum has received two gifts of major Scully paintings, which means that Philadelphians can see a significant representation of his work there.

The gifts are Chelsea Wall #1 of 1999, donated by John J. Hannan, and a triptych called Iona, given by Ellen and Alan Meckler; Hannan and the Mecklers are from New York City. Both are large oils - Iona's three panels run along one gallery wall for 33 feet.

The museum has installed the two in gallery 176 of the modern-contemporary wing along with a third large oil, Wall of Light Heat of 2001, and a suite of oils on copper, 12 Small Mirrors, both lent by a private collector.

All are composed in what has become Scully's signature style, short bars of color, black, and gray-white arranged in square blocks, which in turn are juxtaposed so as to create patterns of contrasting vertical and horizontal thrust.

This is a simple formula, essentially modernist, yet it offers the potential for a profuse variety of combinations and effects of color, light, pattern, movement, and spatial illusion. Bright underpainting that peeks between the blocks enhances all these elements.

This strategy generates the beauty, subtlety, and appeal of Scully's painting, which is especially effective in larger canvases.

The paintings bow to minimalism in the way they build on repeated patterns created from standard elements, the colored bars, but they're modernist in their textural brushwork and their sensitivity to color interactions.

Scully favors minor-key colors in the red-orange end of the spectrum, combined with black, or near-black, and gray-whites. The two side panels of Iona, for instance, are essentially monochrome, beautiful harmonies of stone colors.

The multi-panel work 12 Small Mirrors shows how Scully's method encourages experimenting with combinations and juxtapositions, particularly patterns that suggest mirror images.

Although a small exhibition, this latest installment of the museum's "Notations" series, which addresses contemporary art, provides a rich contemplative experience and an opportunity to appreciate a master tactician of abstract theory and practice.

Auth show extended. The James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown has extended to Oct. 21 its retrospective exhibition of editorial cartoons by Tony Auth, discussed here on Aug. 12.


Art: Two at Art Museum

"Prom: Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark" continues at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th Street and the Parkway, through Oct. 28. The "Notations" exhibition of paintings by Sean Scully continues through February. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, to 8:45 p.m. Fridays. Admission is $20 general, $18 for visitors 65 and older, and $14 for students with valid ID and visitors 13 to 18. Information: 215-763-8100 or