Robert Frank - Photographs New York Thursday, October 7, 2021 | Phillips

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  • "In this picture, instantly you feel the continent. The whole page is haunted with American scale and space."
    —Walker Evans, U.S. Camera Annual 1958

    In a letter to Peter McLeavey following his 1992 purchase of this photograph, Peter MacGill of Pace/MacGill Gallery wrote that the print was made in 1956 and consigned to the gallery for sale in 1989. The notations by Museum of Modern Art curator Grace Mayer and the MoMA stamp on the verso strongly suggest that this print was loaned by Frank to the Museum in consideration for the 1962 Photographs by Harry Callahan and Robert Frank exhibition. Ultimately, the image was not chosen for the exhibition and the print was returned to Frank. Very few early prints of this image are extant. In the years before the maturation of the market for photography as fine art Frank typically only made prints for specific purposes, such as for publication or the rare exhibition.


    With its iconic rendition of the American highway, US 285, New Mexico, is one of the most recognizable images in Robert Frank’s seminal book, The Americans. If The Americans is a document of Frank’s travels across the country, a journey made exclusively by car, this photograph serves as the thematic center of the book. In a larger sense, it captures the definitively American experience of being on the road and inhabits the same cultural sphere as the contemporaneous work of Jack Kerouac who provided the introduction for the American edition of Frank’s book. Kerouac, in his loose poetic prose style, described this image as follows: 'Long shot of night road arrowing forlorn into immensities and flat of impossible-to-believe America in New Mexico under the prisoner’s moon.’


    U.S. 285, New Mexico in U.S. Camera Annual 1958

    U.S. 285, New Mexico in U.S. Camera Annual 1958

     Within the context of Peter McLeavey’s collection, Frank’s photograph provides a 1950s corollary to Dorothea Lange’s image of another New Mexico highway made in the 1930s (lot 141). In the documentary on McLeavey, The Man in the Hat, he discusses these two photographs from his collection in depth, stating “I love both these photographs because both in a sense show two different sides to the quest or the voyage we all must take in life,” while noting that in Frank’s image 'the road here is more uncertain' – a view consistent with the photographer’s own complex feelings about the country.


    The remarkable selection of photographs offered in this auction as lots 139 through 156 all come from the collection of Peter McLeavey (1936-2015), the pioneering New Zealand gallerist who nearly single-handedly created the art market in that country. In 1966, McLeavey began exhibiting art in the bedroom of his flat in Wellington. Among his countrymen were artists whose work he believed needed to be seen, work that was on par with – yet fundamentally different from – that being created in New York, London, or Paris. He was driven, he said, by a desire to ‘nurture the culture, feed the culture, expose the culture to people that didn’t know about it.’ He became a vocal advocate for artists such as Toss Woolaston and Colin McCahon, among many others, creating a market for their paintings while at the same time maintaining his job at an insurance company.


    His dedication to supporting these artists is borne out by the precarious early finances of the gallery. In a 2009 interview he recounted, with some amusement, ‘The first year I worked, every dollar I earned cost me four dollars to get it. The second year, every dollar I earned cost me three; the third year, every dollar earned cost me two dollars to get it.’ In the face of this consistent, if slow, march toward profitability, McLeavey found a gallery space on Cuba Street in 1968, quit his insurance job, and became a full-time art dealer. McLeavey continued to operate out of his modest Cuba Street gallery for 40 years, ultimately becoming ‘the most important commercial gallerist New Zealand has ever had, effectively the pre-eminent publisher of modern New Zealand art in the past 50 years,’ according to Jeremy Diggle, Professor of Fine Arts, at Massey University.


    Page spread from Still Looking: Peter McLeavey and the Last Photograph, 2018

    In the 1970s, McLeavey began to build a collection of photographs. He was attracted to photography, in one sense, because it did not conflict with the work he sold in his gallery and offered an artistic experience wholly apart from his stock-in-trade. More importantly, McLeavey found he had a deep affinity for photography, and his acquisitions often resonated with memories of his childhood, during which his father’s job as a railway worker required frequent moves. His first serious purchase was Robert Frank’s View from Hotel Window – Butte, Montana, which reminded him, he said, of looking out over the rooftops of whatever small New Zealand town would be his family’s new temporary home. McLeavey’s purchases were intensely personal, and often only concluded after much correspondence with dealers half a world away. From this distance McLeavey forged fruitful relationships with Fraenkel Gallery, Edwynn Houk, and Pace/MacGill, among others. McLeavey’s collection was exhibited posthumously in the 2018 exhibition, Still Looking: Peter McLeavey and the Last Photograph at Adam Art Gallery / Te Pātaka Toi in Wellington, curated by Geoffrey Batchen and Deidre Sullivan and accompanied by a printed catalogue.


    McLeavey is the subject of the award-winning 2013 biography Peter McLeavey: The Life and Times of a New Zealand Art Dealer by Jull Trevelyan. A full-length 2009 documentary on McLeavey, The Man in the Hat, was released in 2009. The documentary includes an interview with McLeavey at his home in which he speaks with eloquence and passion about the photographs he has collected, all of which hang behind him: ‘Every photograph resonates at the deepest level within me. They’ve all been very carefully selected. They are very powerful things for me. I realized I was making a portrait of the self. That each photograph spoke to me at the deepest level of my being, about some aspect of my life, some emotional state I’d been in. They represent my parents, my childhood, places I’d been to . . . Photographs do something to me that no painting can do . . . The photograph has something very unique, and it takes me to a country, to a land, to a space within the soul where no painting can take me.’

    • Provenance

      Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York, 1992

    • Exhibited

      Still Looking: Peter McLeavey and the Last Photograph, Adam Art Gallery / Te Pātaka Toi, Wellington, New Zealand, October – December 2018

    • Literature

      Batchen and Sullivan, Still Looking: Peter McLeavey and the Last Photograph, p. 4 (this print)
      The Americans, no. 36
      Greenough, Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans, pp. 253, 469, 470, Contact no. 36
      Frank, The Lines of My Hand, n.p.
      'The Highway: Four Photographs by Robert Frank,' Current, November 1960, p. 33
      U. S. Camera Annual, 1958, p. 100

    • Artist Biography

      Robert Frank

      Swiss • 1924

      As one of the leading visionaries of mid-century American photography, Robert Frank has created an indelible body of work, rich in insight and poignant in foresight. In his famed series The Americans, Frank travelled the United States, capturing the parade of characters, hierarchies and imbalances that conveyed his view of the great American social landscape.

      Frank broke the mold of what was considered successful documentary photography with his "snapshot aesthetic." It is Frank's portrayal of the United States through grit and grain that once brought his work to the apex of criticism, but has now come to define the art of documentary photography.

      View More Works

Property from the Collection of Peter McLeavey


U.S. 285, New Mexico

Gelatin silver print.
13 3/8 x 10 1/8 in. (34 x 25.7 cm)
Signed, titled and dated in ink in the margin; a Museum of Modern Art Publicity Department stamp and annotations by MoMA curator Grace Mayer in pencil on the verso.

Full Cataloguing

$80,000 - 120,000 

Sold for $201,600

Contact Specialist

Sarah Krueger
Head of Department
+1 212 940 1225


Vanessa Hallett
Deputy Chairwoman, Americas and Worldwide Head of Photographs
+1 212 940 1243


New York Auction 7 October 2021