Berenice Abbott. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman. Negative c. 1930/Distortion c. 1950
By Lew Schwartz, ASX NYC, February 2013
There are a few ways to view “New Visions,” and, unfortunately the heady text that introduces the show on the wall outside the galleries is not one of them. Synthesizing 250 works of 90 artists spanning over a hundred years of practice, movements and continents is not something the average viewer will accomplish in a single visit. Indeed, a boast of this sort makes the show sound like an incredible intellectual and aesthetic bargain. However, let the buyer beware. The list of movements, “Dada, the Bauhaus, Surrealism, Constructivism, New Objectivity, Conceptual and post-Conceptual art” makes every photographic practice from Man Ray on fair game for inclusion. Not that this is bad, but barring a more extensive set of on-the- wall gallery notes, it’s hard to see what connections we are to draw from work to work. What I suggest is first to take in the museum’s current prime offering, “Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925.” Its thesis is that abstraction, as an artistic tool, swept the world and became a prevalent mode of artistic expression during the years 1910–1925. Carry your ideas and observations with you and you can see how it grabbed hold of photography, too. Its permutations become clear as you move through “New Visions.”
The show is organized, roughly, by chronology and ideology, and photography’s organic, straight mode is dissected into the various ways in which it has become a tool for large, multimedia, postmodern works. In the first gallery there are well known images, sharp focused, abstract nudes from Edward Weston and the optimistic, industrial observations of Sheeler (Criss-Crossed Conveyors, 1927) and Strand (From the Viaduct 125th Street, 1916). These are countered by Man Ray’s playful metamorphosing of negative/positive images, still and cinematic, to reveal the unconscious, erotic side of the classical nude, modeled by Kiki de Montparnasse (Le Retour à la Raison and Torso, 1923). Bernice Abbot makes an amusing, surprisingly Avant-guard comment on this male dominated field with her fractured, cubist self Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman (c. 1930). Make special note of the Rayographs, which suggest the x-ray like interior of things and psyches.
Take this surface vs the unconscious dialect, and deconstruct the sunny American ethos a bit. Can massive industrialization provide for our needs? What happens to the individual in the process? There are no human figures in Sheeler’s work, and human presence is indicated only by shadows in Strand’s. This dichotomy and the need to resolve it informs much of the European photography in the next gallery.
The photographers and artists of the New Objectivity presentes their vision through observation and documentation. The explicit criticisms and political ridicule employed by the Dadaists and Surrealists were abandoned so as to avert official condemnation. Photography had to “see” the benefits of these new societies, but it also had to see into and through them in order to remain a viable artistic tool. August Sander took individual people as his subjects, however they are enumerated by class and profession, categorizations rejected in America. The inescapability from this matrix of social immobility was indicated serially; it can extend its scope, but upward movement is limited. Sander’s project spanned many decades and several volumes before he gave it up. From his first exhibition, Face of Our Time, the Bricklayer’s Mate (1928) stares back at us and defies our concern for his crushing load. Curator Roxana Marcoci reminds us that Sander’s work invites multiple, close readings by including The Right Eye of My Daughter Sigrid (1928), a little known work of his. Sigrid’s patient right eye watches us and the bricklayer impassively. We are reminded that no matter how objective photography seems to be, viewing is always an interpretative activity. This exhibition might have been better served, however, if more of Sander’s project were included. It had and continues to have a major impact on the photographers presented later in the exhibition and on photographic practice in general.
Man Ray. Torso. 1923
Charles Sheeler. Criss-Crossed Conveyors, River Rouge Plant, Ford Motor Company. 1927
German Bauhaus practitioners László Moholy-Nagy and Albert Renger-Patzsch further adapt photographic practice to illustrate what an egalitarian society can achieve and, at the same time, begin to criticize ideologically driven progress for its demands for conformity and depersonalization. Renger-Patzsch’s architectural studies ambivalently illustrate the benefits of affordable, unadorned housing for the people. Structures are massive and warn of the dehumanization of mass production. As the mechanized cities of Europe grew, increasing anonymity eroded identity and sexuality. Claude Cahun performs one of her multiple identities in a self portrait where her ‘self’ is actually a temporary creation hidden by mask and costume for the benefit and deception of the viewer (Untitled, c1928). In a hugely under appreciated work, Hans Bellmer creates collages of multiple photographs of a near life sized, sexualized child doll of his own construction. Using tropes of impossible positions, dismemberment, and sometimes depicting himself as voyeur, he takes the new society’s demands for physical and gender ideals heavily to task. Departures from the proscribed norm are, sarcastically, depicted as grotesque, dehumanizing, perverse, and inevitible (The Doll, 1936). The private individual no longer exists; conformity rules the public and civic life, the body and soul. A final chapter to this period of German dissolution was written some years later by the Bechers in their on going document of abandoned industrial buildings, all the products of the inhabitants of Sander’s universe. As small scale, regional steel production gave way to large, centralized industrial centers, these buildings and the craftspeople who constructed them became unnecessary; there is not a single person in any of these pictures (Cooling Towers,1980).
The Russian revolution made even harsher demands on the arts. Their photographers were charged with furthering the goals of the revolution, and the concept of art for and by the individual ceased to exist in the theory for the new culture. Artists evolved new, highly coded strategies for their expressive needs. How to affirm revolution for the masses and observe the stranglehold of repressive leadership? El Lissitzky’s incredible photomontage, The Constructor (1925), is aptly the lead work figured in the museum’s pamphlets and website; it is the centerpiece for the entire exhibition. It recapitulates the visual strategies of the earlier works, overcomes photography’s addiction to surfaces and fairly anticipates, with one exception, the works which follow. It features an earlier Self-Portrait (1914) combined with the text “XYZ” in a left panel and over printed with a second photograph of a hand, extending from his right eye, gesturing toward the text and holding a graphic designer’s compass. These images are overlaid with Mondrian-like, geometric bars suggesting relations between the other elements which are well defined, but reconfigurable. Here is man the hero, existing internationally, beyond words or text, looking to the future, designing himself and his own new world with his mind.
What I consider to be the exhibition’s exploration and development section, in which the uses of photography are mined expressively, concludes with Mel Bochner’s witty Misunderstandings. The quote I like best is:
I want to reproduce the objects as they are or as they would be even if I did not exist.
In this Escher-like construction, neither images nor photographers are necessary; the concept is everything.
The remainder of the show illustrates how the medium is used contemporarily. Photoshop notwithstanding, artists have studied this period well and mastered its observations and techniques. It seems, however, that Jules Spinatsch’s Panorama: World Economic Forum, Davos (2003) breaks new ground. The wall sized print and multimedia installation in the last gallery is constructed from thousands of surveillance images: stills and videos, taken by hidden cameras during the 2003 World Economic Forum. It comments on how much our perception, time, and reality are fragmented and casually re-composited by capital and power. This is all the more bitter and breath taking when you recall the innocence of another unannounced camera, that of Cartier-Bresson in Images à la Sauvette (not on view) 60 years earlier.
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(All rights reserved. Text @ ASX and Lew Schwartz, Images @ and courtesy The Museum of Modern Art, New York.)