Friday, October 16, 2009

Surface Tension: Contemporary Photographs from the Collection @Met

JTF (just the facts): A total of 50 works, in mixed frames and mats, hung in a single divided gallery on the 2nd floor of the museum. This group show includes images from 27 photographers, ranging from 1843 to 2008, all drawn from the permanent collection of the museum. (Marginal installation shots at right.)

The following photographers have been included in the exhibit, with the number of works on view in parentheses:

Anna Atkins (1 book, in case)
Marco Breuer (1)
Andrew Bush (17, in single case)
Miles Coolidge (1)
Tim Davis (1)
Robert Demachy (1, in case)
Walker Evans (1, in case)
Roger Fenton (1, in case)
Lee Friedlander (1)
Tom Friedman (1)
Adam Fuss (1)
Ann Hamilton (1 video)
Pertti Kekarainen (1)
Anselm Kiefer (1)
Jungjin Lee (1)
Christian Marclay (1)
Chris McCaw (1)
Daido Moriyama (1)
Vik Muniz (1)
Giuseppe Penone (7)
Eileen Quinlan (1)
Gerhard Richter (2)
Miguel Rio Branco (1)
Lucas Samaras (1)
Aaron Siskind (1, in case)
Frederick Sommer (1)
Wolfgang Tillmans (1)

Comments/Context: The group show now in view in the contemporary photography gallery at the Met is yet another in a string of thematic "idea" shows that began when the galleries were first opened a few years ago. Drawn from the permanent collection, this effort gathers together a wide range of works that touch on the concept of the surface of a photograph, and the inherent contradictions of capturing optical depth in a two dimensional medium. It also explores all kinds of surface manipulations, and the various process techniques used across the ages to create images on photosensitive paper.

While this subject has already received plenty of attention (and is a continuing area of exploration and experimentation for many photographers), this is a solid, if less than memorable show, with plenty of excellent unexpected examples and a good mix of the abstract and semi abstract. I particularly enjoyed Christian Marclay's massive cyanotype of unspooled cassette tape, Tom Friedman's horizontally stretched stripes, Andrew Bush's trompe l'oeil envelopes in frames, and Adam Fuss' photogram of squiggling snakes.

I guess my sense of unease with this show comes not from the show itself (which is generally well crafted), but from the feeling of the missed opportunity it represents. These thematic shows are altogether too safe; while they bring together some worthwhile contemporary work and educate viewers about current areas of activity in the medium, none of the exhibits has really taken a stand or shown us something wildly new - they are always appropriately diverse and inclusive. What I'd really like to see in this contemporary photography space is a series of more relevant solo shows that highlight the work of mid career contemporary photographers who matter. While I realize the hallowed halls of the Met are not the place for extreme risk taking, I think there are plenty of contemporary photographers who have earned a small show at the Met, and this space is the perfect venue for highlighting some rising stars.

Collector's POV: For our particular collection, the Anna Atkins book of algae cyanotypes from the 1840s would be the best fit; we continue to chase Atkins images whenever they surface, but haven't caught one just yet for some reason. Both the Marclay and the Fuss are superb, but neither really matches our existing genres.
Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)
Transit Hub:
  • Christian Marclay: White Cube site (here)
  • Andrew Bush, Envelopes (here)
Through May 16th
1000 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10028


Anonymous said...

Personally, I love these exhibitions for what they are... If you are looking for something "wildly new" don't look to the met....

Shannon Johnstone said...

I think you have an excellent point about featuring some contemporary photographers. Thanks for your review. I look forward to seeing the exhibition next week.