Local Art Collector Walks Us Through an Exhibition of Stolen Encounters

We spent what felt like the last sunny Saturday of Fall walking through the without a word exhibition at Polygon Gallery with art collector Bill Wu…

without a word is a selection of photographs, all black and white, from the private collection of Bill Wu. The show brings together 32 international artists – historically important photographers working in the 20th Century – with a theme of stolen encounters.

The exhibition is a thoughtfully curated selection of maybe quarter or a fifth of Wu’s vast art collection, which also includes painting and sculpture. Wu describes himself as having a hoarder’s instincts, displaying his collection in his home with art on the walls, on the floor and behind the couch rather than tucked away in storage.

Manuel Alvarez Bravo, El Ensueño (The Daydream), 1931. gelatin silver print (printed later)

Our first stop was in front of the photograph that started it all: Mexican artist Manuel Álvarez Bravo’s El Ensueño (The Daydream), 1931. The image captures a young woman, leaning against a railing, in her own thoughts. When Wu saw this piece up close some forty years ago at the Witkin Gallery in New York, he knew he had to have it. He just loved it. “What sold me was the little triangle of light” in the otherwise common image.

“I see something; it’s always love at first sight. There’s always been an attraction; I love the black and whites…the tone.”

Many of the photos on view—like The Daydream, works by Philip Jones Griffiths, William Claxton—Wu learned of through exhibitions at Presentation House Gallery (now Polygon Gallery), followed by his own research. An avid traveller, Wu acquired many works during layovers in New York while en route to Paris.

But one work found on eBay was Robert Doisneau’s L’Innocent, 1949, an image of a man in a beret staring matter-of-factly at a stark white cow’s head while in line at a meat market. Wu commented that this was a common scene in France at this time. “Some people would be freaked out by this, but I just love it. It’s so pure. Every time I come home, it just takes my breath away.”


What sparked his love of photography? “It just started. I see something; it’s always love at first sight. There’s always been an attraction; I love the black and whites…the tone.”

without a word includes an international cross-section of portraits from Fan Ho’s street scenes of Hong Kong in the 1960s to Shelby Lee Adam’s portraits of Appalachian kinfolk in the 70s. Included are artists from Bulgaria, Spain, Mexico, France and the United States. There are some finds like a black-and-white Fred Herzog—Dreamer, 1957—, an unusually large-sized portrait by Mike Disfarmer—a photographer who took ‘penny portraits’ of rural Arkansas families. Above all, these are works that make Wu happy.

He knows every single work on view; every artist, in-depth; and credits the old, established photography galleries in New York for sharing their knowledge with him. In an email, Wu described the Witkin Gallery as “one of the early pioneers to exhibit black and white photography as art. Evelyn Daitz, who ran the gallery after Lee Witkin passed away, was the one who guided me into buying the Bravo. The image sold itself but it was Evelyn’s knowledge and tutelage about The Daydream that cemented the purchase. She told me to go with my instincts and to trust my taste and my ‘eye’ when selecting my photographic purchases and I’ve followed that tip ever since.”

It’s a treat, in turn, to have the collection shared with us. Asked what advice he would offer to an aspiring collector, he answered simply: “Buy what you love.”

without a word is on until November 3rd at The Polygon Gallery.

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