Andre Kertesz is photography's man of the hour, and not a minute too soon. At 90, he is being celebrated in a major traveling exhibition (now at the Chicago Art Institute), a show at Susan Harder's New York gallery and, locally, in a large and immensely satisfying parade of images surveying his work from the '20s through the '80s. All this after early success in Europe, 30 years of near-obscurity in New York (while paying his bills with commercial assignments) and another two decades of building a reputation that now ranks him among a handful of the best living photographers in the United States.

Like that of most major photographers, Kertesz's fame rides on a few images--"Chez Mondrian," a masterfully orchestrated shot of an artist's house that tells volumes about the abstractionist who lived there; "Satiric Dancer," a lovable picture of a woman cavorting on a couch, her twisted pose echoed by a male statue, and some wonderfully lyrical bird's eye views of Washington Square. They're all on display, looking as good as ever, along with dozens of other pictures of nearly equal, if not surpassing, resonance. The survey covers works from his native Hungary, Paris and New York, plus "Distortions" of nudes and recent Polaroid still lifes.

The proof of Kertesz's staying power is that the star attractions fade into the firmament as we find something special in nearly every picture. It might be the circular rhythm of park views from his Greenwich Village high-rise apartment, the shadow of a photographer, the bald-faced poignancy of a child's expression or fleetingly Surreal visions, instantly recognized by all city dwellers who have an ounce of imagination. Kertesz has breadth--from spare abstractions of utilitarian objects and their shadows to complex city scenes--but he is also consistently gentle. He doesn't need to travel to exotic places to discover magic; his visual poetry thrives on ephemeral aspects of the ordinary.

At bottom, Kertesz is an incurable romantic with no desire for treatment, but he never smothers his subjects with affection. Ever the observer, never the intruder, he has learned to get close to things by keeping his distance. (Susan Spiritus Gallery, 522 Old Newport Blvd., Newport Beach, to July 6.)

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