Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Top Photography Shows of 2010

As 2010 draws to a close, the time has come to single out those gallery and museum shows of photography that were the best of the year. In many ways, such a choosing and list making has a delicate element of photographic re-evaluation - what looked good then is perhaps less amazing now and vice versa. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, we can now see the past year's photography shows not as discrete individual units rated on their own merits in a certain place and time, but as passing moments placed on a larger scale of relative worth, part of the entire continuum of art history. Which of these shows (or artists) will matter in ten or fifty years, and which others will have faded into obscurity before we ring in the New Year? After a total of 153 in-depth photography reviews this year (and countless others visited and tactfully omitted), I certainly have some opinions on these questions.

While I had plenty of moments of awe and enchantment this year, I have to admit that as the months clicked by, I more often struggled not with too much joy, but with the concept of grade inflation: not wanting to give an endless stream of 1 STAR ratings (which some of you have complained about), and yet, not really finding enough shows that met my internal idea of something astonishing. Where were all the mind-blowing shows I was searching for?

At year's end, a total of 10 shows (a paltry 6.54% of all shows reviewed) had received our highest 3 STARS rating, given to the single best photography show on view in any given month in our restricted time-based rating scheme. Logically, this kind of system should have produced twelve 3 STARS shows (1 for each of the 12 months), but this year, somehow it didn't. Similarly, a total of 31 shows got a 2 STARS rating (20.26% of all shows reviewed). And again, the system should have produced 36 of this 2 STARS rating type (given to the next three best shows in any given month, times 12 months), but it didn't. Was I just annoyingly stingy and overly critical, or was there really a slight decline of quality and originality?
So in the spirit of sparking some discourse and thinking, I have asked myself whether any of the 2 STARS shows deserve a retroactive promotion. So I'll start by providing you will all the raw data, so you can draw your own conclusions. Below you'll find the list of the 10 shows that received 3 STARS in 2010 (in alphabetical order by artist or show title), and further down, the 31 shows that received 2 STARS, with links to the original reviews in parentheses for the "why" of each choice:


Robert Adams, Summer Nights, Walking @Matthew Marks Gallery (here)
John Baldessari, Pure Beauty @Metropolitan Museum of Art (here)
Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century @MoMA (here)
Rineke Dijkstra @Marian Goodman (here)
Lee Friedlander: America By Car @Whitney Museum of American Art (here)
The Original Copy: Photography of Sculpture, 1839 to Today @MoMA (here)
W. Eugene Smith, The Jazz Loft Project @NYPL for the Performing Arts (here)
Frederick Sommer, Circumnavigation @Bruce Silverstein Gallery (here)
Starburst: Color Photography in America 1970-1980 @Princeton University Art Museum (here)
Hiroshi Sugimoto: The Day After @Pace Gallery (here)


Uta Barth: ... to walk without destination and to see only to see. @Tanya Bonakdar Gallery (here)
Bernd and Hilla Becher, Water Towers @Sonnabend Gallery (here)
Cuba in Revolution @ICP (here)
Joe Deal, West and West @Robert Mann Gallery (here)
William Eggleston, 21st Century @Cheim & Read (here)
Lee Friedlander, Recent Western Landscape @Mary Boone Gallery (here)
Adam Fuss, Home and the World @Cheim & Read (here)
David Goldblatt, Particulars @Howard Greenberg Gallery (here)
South African Photographs: David Goldblatt @Jewish Museum (here)
Chris Killip, 4+20 Photographs @Amador Gallery (here)
Hipsters, Hustlers, and Handball Players: Leon Levinstein's New York Photographs, 1950–1980 @Metropolitan Museum of Art (here)
Looking Forward Looking Back @Pace/MacGill Gallery (here)
David Maisel, Library of Dust @Von Lintel Gallery (here)
The Mexican Suitcase @ICP (here)
Richard Misrach @PaceWildenstein Gallery (here)
Ryuji Miyamoto, Kobe @Amador Gallery (here)
Tina Modotti: Under the Mexican Sky @Throckmorton Fine Art (here)
Zwelethu Mthethwa, Inner Views @Studio Museum in Harlem (here)
Martin Parr, Luxury @Janet Borden Inc. (here)
Irving Penn, Archaeology @Pace/MacGill Gallery (here)
Pictures by Women: A History of Photography @MoMA (here)
Man Ray, Paris @Edwynn Houk Gallery (here)
Thomas Ruff @David Zwirner (here)
Lucas Samaras, Poses/Born Actors @Pace Gallery (here)
Will Steacy, Down These Mean Streets @Michael Mazzeo Gallery (here)
Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand @Metropolitan Museum of Art (here)
Paul Strand in Mexico @Aperture Gallery(here)
Thomas Struth @Marian Goodman (here)
Miroslav Tichy @ICP (here)
Wolfgang Tillmans @Andrea Rosen Gallery (here)
Twilight Visions: Surrealism, Photography and Paris @ICP (here)

As I review these two lists, now with the advantage of passing time and the resonance of memory, I am generally happy to defend how these ratings ended up; I feel like this Top 40 (41 actually) was largely the best of what was on view in New York this year - if you only saw the 3 STARS shows and nothing else, and even though these shows had their own flaws, on the whole, you would have had a pretty solid year of photography viewing. If pressed to do some fudging along the edges with the long arm of history watching, I think Joe Deal (@Robert Mann), David Goldblatt (@Jewish Museum), or Leon Levinstein (@Met) may end up being more important than I originally gave them credit for. But on the whole, I stand behind the ratings and the logic/rationale the supports each of them.

The harder question to answer is whether my conclusion that 2010 was a less than stellar year for photography was actually a commonly held perception among gallery patrons, museum goers or collectors. Perhaps this community of readers saw the world differently, and the breath taking high points you experienced were more consistent than mine. I think great shows take us outside ourselves, providing excitement and inspiration, challenging our accepted ways of thinking, and hopefully educating us in broad and unexpected ways. I think many of us that haunt galleries and museums are relentless seekers, looking for those stimulating ideas that jolt us into new and unexpected mindsets. But unfortunately, regardless of whether the work was vintage or contemporary, black and white or color, I just don't think that there was enough of the ground-breaking, durably original, idea-rich, radical boldness on view in 2010 that would normally keep my mind buzzing for days.

This apparent minimum of greatness does not however dampen my overflowing enthusiasm for photography in all its myriad and ever-changing forms. Perhaps we are in a short-term, temporary lull, waiting for the gathering of now-unformed ideas into authentically new visual vocabularies. Hopefully 2011 will bring all those mythical shows to New York that I have been impatiently waiting for, the work having been caught in the backwaters of scheduling and slot filling. Against the backdrop of nearly two centuries of photographic history, I'm sorry to report that 2010 didn't show us as much as I had hoped for, but my standards and aspirations for the medium are perhaps unrealistically high. But with the New Year comes a clean blank slate, and the opportunity to be surprised and amazed all over again.

1 comment:

Microcord said...

To me in Tokyo, what a puzzling list this is.

When I look in the photobook section of a bookstore, I always see names of photographers that are new to me (together of course with the greats and the bores). When I look through a list of shows here, most of the names are new to me. But when I look at this list of yours, virtually every name is familiar to me.

Still, for three stars you're expecting, inter alia, a high "level of scholarship that accompanies the exhibit". I went to four shows just today, of which only one was a disappointment; none had, or needed, any level of scholarship whatever.

The best of the four (and the best I've seen in months) was by somebody I'd never heard of. (Which is hardly my fault, as he's published no books and frankly is rather obscure.) I've no idea how much his prints are going for, or even if he's interested in selling them. If they were for sale, I've a hunch that I could buy the lot for less than what you say one "small individual print" by Sugimoto costs.

If I were in NYC, I'd want to know about shows such as the one I saw today.