Tuesday, September 30, 2008

New Photography 2008: Josephine Meckseper and Mikhael Subotzky @MoMA

JTF (just the facts): On one side of the gallery, 21 chromogenic prints, each approximately 40x50, negatives from 2006-2008. On the other side, 5 larger than life size color portraits (each approximately 80x60), negatives from 2006. One wall, behind several of the portraits, is covered with printed color wallpaper with a silvery reflective backing. 3 mixed media installations (glass cases/shelves) and 2 additional color works (negatives from 2008) complete the group.

Comments/Context: Back in 1985, the MoMA began the process of putting on a show of new photography once a year. Each year, it has been a chance to step away from the established masters and recognized stars to explore what is happening out on the bleeding edge, and to ask some questions about how the medium is evolving and where it might be going. It's an opportunity for the curators to step out a bit and let us know what they think is important, and given the preeminence of this particular museum, we tend to pay attention.

In contrast to shows past where a handful of photographers have been presented, this year there are only two: Josephine Meckseper and Mikhael Subotzky. This structure inevitably leads to a comparison of the two (who doesn't walk out of the gallery and ask their friends which one they thought was "better"?). This is particularly hard and potentially misleading, since these two bodies of work could hardly be more different.

Subotzky's work is rooted in the traditions of photojournalism and documentary photography. His images chronicle the life in and around the Beaufort West Prison, located in a desert area of the Western Cape in South Africa. The pictures are consistently strong in their storytelling, their use of color, and their contrasts. (See installation photo at right.) I was particularly moved by the images of a surreal man in a Spider-Man mask striding through a staggering trash heap (Samuel, Vaalkoppies, 2006) and the one of a prisoner taking a nap on a bench near a wall painted to look like the desert outside (Jaco, Beaufort West Prison, 2006), but the work is well made across the board.

The intersection of the ideas of art and photojournalism has always been a puzzle for me. We now call the work of Walker Evans, Margaret Bourke-White, Weegee and many others "art", and yet virtually all of this work was done at the time in the context of commercial photojournalism. Where do these areas overlap? Is it merely a function of time and quality, such that if the images are strong and enough time goes by, the work that was once commercial is now art? Are the thousands of digital images on a documentary photographer's hard drive in Iraq today (only a handful of which were used by any major news outlet) the great art of our times?

I like Subotzky's work and I imagine he will have a long and fruitful career as a photojournalist. That said, we have seen pictures of prisons, and racism, and poverty, and helplessness before. My take away from his work is less therefore about him and more about what his work tells me about the state of the medium. My conclusion is that even in today's 24-hour news cycle, always on, YouTube world, there are still stories to tell about our world that are going unnoticed and unreported and that are worth hearing. And that even in a digitally manipulated, airbrushed and increasingly cynical environment, the truth still matters.

As you cross the gallery into Josephine Meckseper's side, a visual assault takes place. The photos are huge, the wallpaper is shiny and colorful, and the whole scene seems carefully managed. (See installation photo at left.) It would be pretty hard not to grasp the conceptual commentary on advertising and consumerism that is throughout this work (it is delivered with a sledge hammer). And yet, I didn't come away with much that I found new here. We've seen plenty of appropriation art over the years (Warhol, Prince etc.) and plenty of reworking of advertising into fine art, and while this installation did have a subtle Eastern bloc feel to it that was a little different, it just didn't seem particularly novel I'm afraid. There are plenty of references to "political" themes in the press release and wall text, but these were lost (to me at least) in the other messages being sent.

What this tells us about the state of photography is not clear. Perhaps it is an acknowledgment that contemporary artists are more and more using the camera as one of a whole toolbox of implements to make their art, thereby blurring the lines of what "photography" is. Perhaps it is a commentary on the saturation of images that we have come to see as normal, and the undercurrents of what those images represent.
Collector's POV: Neither of these photographers fits into our personal collection in any way. But it is absolutely worth going to see this show, both to see the specific works and to understand the themes these selections represent and how the MoMA is viewing the important trends in contemporary photography.
One last aside: if you get down to the small type of this exhibit, you'll notice that this show was made possible by JGS Inc. I recently had a chance to sit down with the folks behind JGS and hear about all the projects they are up to. One way to think about JGS is that it is a "post collecting" endeavor. While they started as photography collectors, they have moved beyond the hunt for particular images to an all encompassing support of contemporary photography. They are no longer looking back to the past, they are focused on the future, and that future includes sponsoring exhibitions, supporting the creation of artists books and DVDs, and the building of their amazing virtual destination, the Forward Thinking Museum. Bricks and mortar curators out there should take heed; these folks are out in the unexplored territory, figuring out how technology impacts what a museum might be in the 21st century (and guess what, it isn't a touch screen kiosk in the corner of the gallery). And when they go from 35 or so "floors" of photography exhibits in their museum to 500, they will be reinventing how the Internet generation thinks of photography.
Rating: * (1 star) GOOD (rating system defined here)
Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
New York, NY 10019

Monday, September 29, 2008

Auction: Photographs, October 14, 2008 @Christie's

The last of the photography sales at Christie's New York this season is the various owner sale on October 14th. This is the catch all sale, with photography from all periods and styles. At least that's what it used to be. There are a grand total of two (2) 19th century lots in an entire sale of 258 lots, so clearly, the 19th century isn't much of a priority at Christie's at this point. (I will admit however that these two lots are among the top valued lots in the sale; perhaps it is a "skim the cream" approach.) There are also a handful of recent lots that should have gone in the Contemporary Photography sale, but somehow ended up here. Save these exceptions, this is a standard 20th century sale (without a lot of truly great material), from top to bottom. The total estimate for the sale is $7587000. Here's the breakdown:

Total Low lots (high estimate $10000 or below): 63
Total Low estimate (sum of high estimates): $528000

Total Mid lots (high estimate between $10000 and $50000): 158
Total Mid estimate: $3519000

Total High lots (high estimate above $50000): 37
Total High estimate: $3540000

So, as usual, the top end will drive the ultimate success of the sale. There are only 6 lots with a low estimate below $5000, further proof that like Sotheby's, Christie's is willing to give up the bottom of the low end to Swann, Phillips and others (save for the grab bag low end sales they do from time to time off season). The photographers with the most lots in the sale are the usual suspects:
  • Ansel Adams (31)
  • Irving Penn (17)
  • Henri Cartier-Bresson (13)
  • Harry Callahan (12)
  • Diane Arbus (11)
  • Brassai (11)
For our particular collection, the following lots are of interest to us:
  • Lot 204 Ansel Adams, Nasturtiums, Oceano, California, 1951
  • Lot 267 Harry Callahan, Chicago, 1949
  • Lot 268 Harry Callahan, Dearborn Street, 1948
  • Lot 288 Edward Weston, Tina, 1923
  • Lot 294 Margaret Bourke-White, The George Washington Bridge, for Fortune, 1933
  • Lot 398 Walker Evans, Chicago, 1946
  • Lot 404 Berenice Abbott, Murray Hill Hotel Spiral, from Park Avenue and 40th Street, 1935
  • Lot 407 Harry Callahan, Detroit, 1943
  • Lot 416 Southworth & Hawes, Flowers, c1852
  • Lot 422 Edward Weston, Elbow, 1935
The Weston Elbow is the single best image in the sale, from my point of view. This is the first nude of Weston's that seems to me to clearly be a precursor to Brandt. The Southworth & Hawes floral is clearly a rare piece, given that so few floral daguerreotpes were made.

October 14, 2008

20 Rockefeller Plaza
New York, NY 10020

Friday, September 26, 2008

Auction: Contemporary Photography, October 13, 2008 @Christie's

In previous posts about the Contemporary Art sales several weeks ago (here and here), we touched on the idea that the market would likely evolve to separate the contemporary and vintage photography into two distinct sales, given the overall growth of the market and the differences in the people buying the two types of work.

Christie's has finally made the decisive step of building their auction season around this concept: they have a various owner vintage sale, a various owner contemporary sale, and a single owner sale. (Christie's has also clearly taken the "volume" route, but that's a separate point to be covered at some point in the future.) Phillipe Garner and Josh Holdeman started down this road when they were over at Phillips. When few were interested in contemporary photography, they took some risks and carved out a niche for themselves (which Phillips has since fumbled). While some might criticize that they were pumping up work that wasn't ready for the secondary market, it is intriguing to see that these guys who were the innovators are continuing to push the market to its eventual place of equilibrium.

There are a total of 93 lots up for sale, with a total high estimate of $2352000 (plenty respectable). The sale breaks down as follows:

Total Low lots (high estimate of $10000 or lower): 23
Total Low estimate (sum of high estimates of Low lots): $162000

Total Mid lots (high estimate above $10000 and below $50000): 63
Total Mid estimate: $1650000

Total High lots (high estimate above $50000): 7
Total High estimate: $540000

So this is a solidly mid range sale, which makes sense. Another interesting statistic: just under 40% of the lots are 21st century images (defined as a negative with a date of 2000 or later). The more this percentage gets pushed up, the more this category will separate itself from the vintage work.

Here is a short list of the artists with the most work in the sale. The reason I put this here is to keep thinking about who we are putting in this new bucket of contemporary photography, and what that might say about where the medium is going. Here's the list:

  • Peter Beard (7) (as an aside, who collects this work?)
  • Vik Muniz (4)
  • Nobuyoshi Araki (4)
  • Zoe Leonard (4)
  • Edward Burtynsky (3)
  • Louise Lawler (3)
  • Annie Leibovitz (3)
  • Sally Mann (3)
  • Ryan McGinley (3)
  • Hiroshi Sugimoto (3)

For our particular collection, here are a few lots of interest:

  • Lot 18 Naoya Hatekeyama, LW 23502, 1997-2002, for our industrial genre
  • Lot 27 Bernd and Hilla Becher, Water Tower, Trier-Ehrang, Germany, 1982, for our industrial genre
  • Lot 59 Chuck Close, Calla Lily, Sunflower and Hydrangea, 2007 for our floral genre

And here are a couple more that don't fit in our collection, but are still terrific:

  • Lot 21 Alec Soth, Hotel, Dallas City, Illinois, 2006
  • Lot 74 Izima Kaoru, Tominaga Ai Wears Prada, 2003

If Christie's has a successful outcome with this sale, and builds on it for the next round of auctions in the Spring, it may well build a durable and permanent advantage over its competitors in this category. It will be interesting to watch.

Contemporary Photography
October 13, 2008

20 Rockefeller Plaza
New York, NY 10020

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Eye, Mind, Spirit: The Enduring Legacy of Minor White @Greenberg

JTF (just the facts): 51 black and white images, displayed in the main gallery and the book alcove. (See installation photo at right.) Most are 9x7 (or reverse), with some larger 11x14 (or reverse) images and a handful of 4x5 contact prints. The exhibit is a mixture of vintage and later prints, with negatives starting in the late 1930s and continuing up through the early 1970s.

Comments/Context: When we consider the pantheon of great 20th century photographers, Minor White certainly deserves consideration. He made some of the century's signature images, in a style that was clearly all his own and with a level of craftsmanship that set the bar for the generations that followed. Beyond his picture making, he was a respected curator, a writer, a founder and editor of Aperture, and a teacher.

And yet as we look at this fine exhibit in 2008, it is easy to forget what a polarizing and controversial figure White was (and still is for many). For his adherents (and there were many), he was a spiritual guide, a high priest of the inner self, merging Zen Buddhism, the philosophy of Gurdjieff, and other mysticisms and metaphysics into an encompassing world view that began and ended with self consciousness. His approach was a complete break with virtually all of the traditions of photography, including the importance of subject matter. His students were on a serious journey of awareness, using photography as a tool for deepening their own personal understanding. His pictures took them to places they had never been before, and opened their eyes to new ways of thinking about image making and themselves.

For his detractors (and there were many as well), he was a dangerous quack, brainwashing his students into revering him as a god, and stifling any thoughts and opinions that deviated from his controlling mind set. Back in the early 1970s, many writers (including critic A.D. Coleman) passionately and ruthlessly dismantled White, calling him arrogant and anti-creative, marking his teachings insulting and offensive to the individuality of artists. The work of his followers was discounted as second rate knock-offs of the master (which was the point in a cult, after all). In today's context, White would have been placed in the New Age section, with dreamy music and incense, surrounded by Buddhas and self help books.

So now, more than 30 years after his death, how do we take the measure of this work, perhaps putting aside some of the back and forth of earlier days? As we walked around the exhibit, I was struck time and again by the pure technicality of these prints. A few of these are some of the most beautiful gelatin silver prints I have seen; the blacks are deep, the tonal range is subtle and nuanced, and the detail is astonishing, even if you can't make out the subject matter. These are not works that will function in our attention deficit age; they are the opposite - they require (and reward) a surplus of attention. I remember hearing a story about White's workshops, where he would put a matted image on a music stand and then force the group to meditate over the work for something like 20 minutes or more. Placed in that context, you can begin to understand what he was getting at with these images.

The show at Greenberg is well orchestrated and diverse. I was particularly intrigued by the print Abstraction, 1947, which to me was that singular image that showed White breaking from his previous mode of trying on the styles of other photographers (shown in half a dozen early works) to really finding his own voice. It is not necessarily a great image, just one that shows the transition to his eventual mature style. The images from the Sound of One Hand series are among the best, with a handful of other standouts sprinkled around the room. I think there are a significant number that are not nearly as strong and fail the test as stand alone images (they still however have value in showing his aesthetic more fully).

Two other shows at the gallery also help to fill out the picture on White. The first is a section of 16 images by White's followers, organized with the help of photographer John Goodman, shown in the two study rooms. While there are some decent images here, these works certainly feel derivative. There are also a handful of portraits of White near the end of his life by Abe Frajndlich, in the back gallery. These images really show what a character White was, with his shock of albino white hair and his androgynous looks; a little creepy I must admit.

Collector's POV: The lack of consensus on White may be part of the reason his work has not joined the others from the same period on the never ending price escalator. There are those who continue to love his work, but they are a relatively small audience; the rest of the world has forgotten the controversy, but isn't particularly moved by the pictures that remain. That said, with some smart targeted marketing by the gallery, this show is full of red dots; there clearly are enough White lovers out there to sell out the show. Prices range from $6000 to $45000, with most of the work near the lower end of the range.

Since White wasn't particularly focused on specific subject matter, he doesn't fit very well into our personal collection. That said, he did do some amazing flowers in a short period in the late 1950s. We have one in our collection (here) and it bears all the hallmarks of his amazing printing prowess. You have to get up close to see it, but it is a truly marvelous picture.

In sum, whether you fall on the positive or negative sides of the legacy of Minor White, this is a show worth seeing, as it seems unlikely that this many high quality pictures will be gathered together for an exhibit for a very long time. By the way, there is also a fine book on the exhibit, available at the gallery, with essays by Peter Bunnell and Nathan Lyons.

Rating: *** (3 stars) EXCELLENT (rating system defined here)

Eye, Mind, Spirit: The Enduring Legacy of Minor White
Through October 18th

Howard Greenberg Gallery
41 East 57th Street
Suite 1406
New York, NY 10022

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Michel Szulc-Kryzanowski, The Early Sequences, 1977-1982 @Mann

JTF (just the facts): 20 works, each comprising between 2 and 7 images in a series, together mounted on a 20x28 sheet and framed. Negatives ranging from 1977-1982; the prints are vintage. In editions of 25. (see installation shot at right.)

Comments/Context: I have to admit right up front that prior to walking into the gallery, I had zero previous knowledge of the work of this photographer. My experience with conceptual photography is relatively limited, dominated by the work of Robert Cumming (whom I like quite a bit), with a smattering of early William Wegman, John Pfahl, Duane Michals, and a few others thrown in for good measure. So while I have admired this work from afar, keep in mind my general ignorance in these matters as we move forward here.
Like the artists mentioned above, Szulc-Kryzanowki's work uses visual tricks and sleights of hand to force us to consider the nature of the medium of photography and of time in particular. These works are playful and surprising, and even though they are staged to generate their desired effects, they seem much less self conscious and earnest than other conceptual work. Perhaps this is a result of their outdoor settings and use of natural materials (shadows, mountains, sand, sticks, surf etc.) as the subject matter of his experiments with angles, perspective, and time dilation. Perhaps the series form lends itself to a single, more simple theme (and variation) being explored. Regardless, there really isn't a weak series in this whole group, and together they provide a clear and novel point of view.

Collector's POV: The works are priced between $4500-7500. My particular favorites include the series of smaller and larger sand dollars held in a hand, the footprints in the sand, and the surf at different times in the same place.
I very much welcome the fact that we can have a diversity of viewpoints in the New York gallery scene, so that we are not bogged down with the same ideas rehashed again and again. This show isn't like anything you've seen recently, and even if it isn't what you collect, I am certain that you would find this show thought provoking and entertaining, and overall, well worth your time. It is a good reminder to get beyond comfortable images and expand your experience of all kinds of photography.
Rating: * (1 star) GOOD (rating system defined here)
Michel Szulc-Kryzanowski, The Early Sequences 1977-1982
Through October 18th

Robert Mann Gallery
210 Eleventh Avenue
New York, NY 10001

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Auction: Photographs by William Eggleston from the Collection of Bruce and Nancy Berman, October 13, 2008 @Christie's

Following up on the white glove sale of Diane Arbus prints from the Berman collection last spring, a second single artist sale from the same collection has been organized for this season, focused on the work of William Eggleston. The sale material spans his entire career, with negatives starting in the mid 1960s and continuing up through 2001. All the work is in color.

There are a total of 60 lots in the sale, with a total high estimate of $2191000 (the sum of the high estimates of all the lots).
  • In the Low range (high estimate $10000 and lower), there are 8 lots with a total high estimate of $63000
  • In the Mid range (high estimate above $10000 up through $50000), there are 43 lots with a total high estimate of $938000
  • And in the High range (high estimate above $50000), there are 9 lots with a total high estimate of $1190000
Given this generally elevated set of prices, it is interesting to note that 39 of the 60 lots in this sale are later prints (only 21 vintage, as defined to be within 2 years of the negative date), and that the gap between the prices of vintage and later (the multiplier if you will) is very difficult to discern, as the prices are all overlapping, depending on the image quality. This is evidence that the Eggleston market is strong, and I think there will be some big prices realized here on specific lots.

Although clearly an important photographer, Eggleston doesn't fit particularly well into our subject matter driven, black and white collection. Here are a handful of lots that we do find of interest:
  • Lot 114 Untitled (Arizona) 2001 is a group of artificial flowers and could go in our floral genre
  • Lot 132 Untitled (Memphis, Tennessee) 1979 is the Used Tires gas station image and could fit into our industrial genre
  • Lot 140 Memphis 1971 is the green shower image, which doesn't fit anywhere but is an amazing image regardless (even if it is a later print)
  • Lot 150 Untitled 1971 is the Peaches sign and could fit our industrial genre
Photographs by William Eggleston from the Collection of Bruce and Nancy Berman
October 13, 2008

20 Rockefeller Plaza
New York, NY 10020

UPDATE: read the entertaining back story to the sale here.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Masao Yamamoto, Kawa = Flow @Yancey Richardson

JTF (just the facts): 12 black and white images, approximately 9x7 or reverse, in editions of 20, framed in the main gallery (see installation image at right.) Also, on one wall and corner, an installation of 22 black and white images, of varying small sizes (see installation image below right.)

Comments/Context: In contrast to the current Times Square aesthetic in contemporary photography (large, colorful, and shouting at you from the wall), Yamamoto's show reminds us of the wonder of the special and personal. The Nakazora installation in this exhibit has images so tiny (as small as 1x1 inches) that you are forced to go up extremely close and get involved in the work to even see what is going on. What you discover are simple moments that seem private or interior: snow, waterfalls, trees, Mount Fuji, animals. And while these images are individually unrelated, they interact and work together well to evoke a sense of contemplation and peacefulness. The larger images in the show come at this same idea from a slightly different viewpoint, where tress and waterfalls, or cherry blossoms, or mountains and fog come together to portray one evocative moment (rather than a series of smaller pinpoints). Either way, Yamamoto's point of view comes through clearly.

Collector's POV: The framed images range in price from $1400-2400, with the eagle priced at $5400. The entire installation can be had for $9000, or it can be purchased as any number of subsets, ranging from $2000-3000, depending on the number of prints included. While there aren't any images that fit into our particular collection, I very much enjoyed this show and can recommend it as an antidote to an overdose of noisy contemporary photography.

Rating: * (1 star) GOOD (rating system defined here)

Masao Yamamoto, Kawa = Flow
Through October 18th

535 West 22nd Street
New York, NY 10011

Hiroh Kikai, Tokyo Labyrinth @Yancey Richardson

JTF (just the facts): 7 prints, displayed in the Project Room. All later prints, from negatives in the 1970s/1980s, printed 16x20 in editions of 20. (installation shot at right.)

Comments/Context: This is an intimate show in one small room, focusing on Kikai's city scenes from Tokyo. Kikai's excellent portraits from Asakusa were recently on display at the ICP show of contemporary Japanese photography (read review here), so it is interesting to see another set of his work to get a better feel for his overall approach. Unlike the sometimes stark and severe geometries of the New Topographic photographers of a generally similar time, Kikai's city images are clearly in the humanist tradition, even if they are filled with telephone wires and building forms. While there are no people in the pictures, there is clearly a warmth and interest in the lives of the inhabitants. Imagine mid career Kertesz had spent time in Tokyo and you'll get a flavor for this work.

Collector's POV: The images are priced at $4400 each, which seems reasonable, even if there isn't much secondary market for his work and these are later prints. I particularly enjoyed the staircase image from Wakabayashi and the windows as eyes image from Shakujiicho.

Rating: * (1 star) GOOD (rating system described here)

Hiroh Kikai, Tokyo Labyrinth
Through October 18th

Yancey Richardson Gallery
535 West 22nd Street
New York, NY 10011

Friday, September 19, 2008

Out of Town Gallery Shows (Volume 1)

With the new fall season upon us and the auction catalogues showing up on our doorstep on a daily basis, the posts in the next few weeks will be filled with gallery show reviews and auction previews. As such, I wanted to make sure that a few shows going on in other places around the world don't get lost in the shuffle. So here are a handful of gallery exhibits that we would enjoy seeing if we were lucky enough to be in their towns (all are open now):

Lucien Herve @Michael Hoppen Gallery, London
Through October 11th

William Christenberry @Hemphill Fine Arts, Washington, DC
Through October 25th

Alec Soth, Dog Days, Bogota @Stephen Daiter Gallery, Chicago
Through October 25th

Garry Winogrand, The Sixties @Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco
Through November 1st

Gotz Diergarten, METROpolis @Kicken Berlin
Through December 2nd

As always, if you're a collector and have seen any of these shows, give us your thoughts in the Comments section.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Auction: Blanc et Demilly, October 13, 2008 @Millon et Associes, Paris

My first interaction with the Millon auction house in Paris was a few years ago during the big Brassai sale. Getting comfortable with an unfamiliar foreign auction house always has its questions: can I get a condition report in English and will it be reliable? will payment be a hassle? what about packing and shipment? will they do a good job or will I have to try to manage it from afar? I can say from experience at that sale that Millon, while perhaps not world class in its service, is perfectly adequate and you can have comfort that buying from America can be done with a minimum of effort on your part. If you can speak French, life will be even easier.

Coming up on October 13th, Millon will be selling a huge group of images by Blanc and Demilly, consigned by various family members on both sides. Blanc and Demilly are best known for their images of the people and streets of Lyons in the 1930s. This sale spans their entire career together, from the mid 1920s to the mid 1950s, including their commercial work. As such, there is a staggering array of subject matter in this sale: city scenes, portraits, nudes, still lifes, flowers, travel photos, surrealism, street photography etc. Sizes generally range from 9x7 to 24x20, with some large exhibition prints thrown in as well. With a total of 603 lots up for sale (virtually all vintage prints), there is truly something for everyone.

A quick check of the estimates also shows that this sale is very reasonably priced. There are only 2 lots with high estimates over $7500 Euros (the equivalent of approximately $10000, the cutoff used in other auction posts on this blog), and an amazing 552 lots have a high estimate of $1000 Euros or less. So there are plenty of bargains to be had here, even if the estimates are artificially low to entice bidders.

We actually already own one print by Blanc and Demilly, here. In my view, if you enjoy the work of Doisneau and Brassai, or the Paris work of Kertesz, Bing, and Man Ray, or the Marseille work of Krull, you should definitely take a close look at this sale. While perhaps not as consistently accomplished as those mentioned, there are images buried in this pile of lots that might fit your collection.

The entire sale can be seen online from the link below, and there is a fine, hard backed catalogue also available.

Blanc et Demilly
October 13, 2008

Millon et Associes
Paris Drouot Montaigne
15, Avenue Montaigne - 75008 Paris

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Vik Muniz, Verso @Sikkema Jenkins

JTF (just the facts): A total of 23 works, 9 "backs of paintings" in the main room, and 14 "backs of photographs" in the back room (see installation photo at right.) Editions of 3 for the backs of paintings and editions of 6 for the backs of photographs. All dated 2008.

Comments/Context: If we use a narrow definition of the word "photographer", I'm not sure that Vik Muniz would be included. Over the past 20 years of so, he has used a dizzying array of materials to make his images, and photography has been one of his tools in producing final works. However he gets categorized, his work has been consistently thought provoking, especially if you take the time to get beyond the initial novelty of his approach and media (sugar, chocolate, diamonds, caviar, etc.).
The works in this show are physical copies of the backs of famous paintings and photographs. As you look at these works up close, you can see that they have been painstakingly recreated, down to every last nick, scratch, smear, and dent, with real residues of glues, labels, ink stamps and marking crayons. One might call them sophisticated trompe-l'oeil; one might also call them forgeries. While the "physicalness" of the paintings is amazing, I was drawn more to the works representing photographs. These works were intriguing in several ways (in my opinion).
Firstly, these works challenge you to reconsider the idea of the photograph as an object, rather than as an image or a subject. The backs remind you of the tangible quality of photographs, and of their use in magazines, newspapers and exhibitions. In this digital age, we have already evolved to be wary of the truth of the photographic image; these works make you wary of the truthfulness of the object itself, even when it all "looks right".
Second, it is clear that Muniz has gone far beyond the appropriation art of the 1970s and 1980s. Unlike, for instance, the Sherrie Levine of Walker Evans' Alabama tenant farmers, which appropriates the image itself, these works appropriate the backs. Rather than an end itself, the appropriation seems to have been a starting point for reconsidering the image. Indeed, much of Muniz' work could be said to have started with an external image, that was then put through the filters of the artist's mind, only to come out the other end as something recognizable as related to the original, but wholly different.
Finally, I think the backs ask us something about how memory works. I found myself looking at each image and trying to conjure up the front (the recognizable image) in my mind. While I got most of them to some degree, I was amazed at which of the details of any one of the images might have stuck in my mind. And then I got to wondering if it was the original image that I remembered, or some later appropriation of that image that was in my memory. That really made my head spin.
By all means, swing by and take a look at these pieces, if only to make you mind work a bit.

Collector's POV: The backs of paintings are priced between $75000 and $90000 based on size. The backs of photographs are $16000. These don't even remotely fit into our collection in any way, but they sure are mind boggling.
By the way, as flower collectors, we have been on the lookout for any of the series of still lives that Muniz did in the late 1990s of artificial flowers (another testing of the limits of truth). If anyone has one or knows where to find one, please do let us know.
Rating: * (1 star) GOOD (rating system defined here)
Vik Muniz, Verso
Through October 11th

Sikkema Jenkins & Co.
530 West 22nd Street
New York, NY 10011

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Silverstein Photography Annual @Silverstein

JTF (just the facts): 57 total images, representing the work of 10 contemporary photographers, chosen by museum curators, shown through a series of rooms, all the way to the back of the gallery space. Here's a list of the photographers (with the number of images by that artist in parentheses) and the curators who selected them:

  • Olivia Arthur (8) - Noriko Fuku, Kyoto University of Art and Design & John Jacob, Inge Morath Foundation
  • Raphael Dallaporta (10) - Francois Hebel, Les Rencontres d'Arles
  • Isabelle Hayeur (2) - Ann Thomas, National Gallery of Canada
  • Guillaume Herbaut (10) - Agnes Sire, Foundation Henri Cartier-Bresson
  • Rick McKee Hock (6) - Charles Stainback, Norton Museum of Art
  • Rob Hornstra (4) - Frits Giertsberg, Netherlands Fotomuseum
  • Gaston Zhi Ickowicz (5) - Nissan Perez, Israel Museum
  • Orrie King (6) - Elisabeth Sussman, Whitney Museum
  • Oliver Sieber (3) - Bodo von Dewitz, Museum Ludwig
  • Darren Sylvester (3) - Daniel Palmer, Monash University
Comments/Context: One of the reasons that Bruce Silverstein has risen to the top among the gallery owners who entered the photography business in the last 10 years or so is that he's brought new, fresh enthusiasm to vintage work that has been overlooked/forgotten and more generally, that he's willing to take some risks. The Silverstein Photography Annual is an example of doing things differently, and it brings his gallery a whole bunch of ancillary benefits, even if he doesn't sell a single piece. Think about it: he gets to broaden his relationships with key curators across the globe (who may be buyers of other work in the future), he gets to support a bunch of quality contemporary photographers (who will talk up his gallery to other artists), and he brings in a bunch of new people into the gallery to see the work (who might not already be clients). Indeed, everyone in the food chain wins in this project (Silverstein gets the benefits above, plus any sales, and the curators and photographers get much needed exposure). So as an idea, this show gets high marks all the way around.

As for the art itself, the group is solid, if uneven, as one might expect. All of it is well crafted work (it wouldn't be in the show if it wasn't); the harder question is whether any of it is ground breaking, or whether it has a point of view that we haven't seen before. To my eye, there were three standouts:

  • Isabelle Hayeur's images of model homes seem to be descendants of Robert Adams and Joel Sternfeld. They combine a commentary on how we choose to house ourselves, with an undercurrent of wry irony. The image (Catherine, 2007, above right) of the starter castle, with the Mercedes in the garage and the pumpkins carefully placed on the doorstep, could just as easily have come from Greenwich, CT.
  • Raphael Dallaporta's still lifes of land mines are quite startling, especially when arrayed in a larger group (as they are in the show). The contrast of the objects and their purpose is thought provoking (BLU-3/B, United States, 2008 above right).
  • Darren Sylvester's Just Death is True, 2006 (below right) is a terrific stand alone image, reminiscent of Cindy Sherman. I didn't resonate with the other work by this artist as much, but it is hard not to be drawn in by this large scale work when you see it.
Collector's POV: The work in this show is all generally attractively priced, ranging from $1350 on the low end to $6450 on the high end for single works (there are a couple of series that are selling for more in total, but are less on a per image basis). Since these are emerging artists, buying this work is likely either betting on the future or falling in love. If you're the kind of person who likes to sift through lots of different kinds of work in search of hidden treasures, then this is a show for you.

Rating: * (1 star) GOOD (rating system described here)

Silverstein Photography Annual
Through October 11th

Silverstein Photography
535 West 24th Street
New York, NY 10011

Monday, September 15, 2008

Joel Sternfeld, Oxbow Archive @Luhring Augustine

JTF (just the facts): 13 large scale color landscapes, approximately 5' x 7' each, shown in the entry, front, and two back rooms of the gallery. (see installation shot at right) In editions of 3, plus 2 APs. Negatives from 2005-2007, prints from 2008.

Comments/Context: It's been more than 20 years since Joel Sternfeld produced the work for which he is best known, the series of unexpected, paradoxical, and surprising work from American Prospects. The word most associated with these pictures is "ironic", as exemplified by the image of the firefighter picking out a pumpkin while a house burns in the background.

One of the interesting challenges for the mid-career artist is how to get beyond the work that made you famous; how do you continue to innovate, without repeating yourself or becoming bored. Often, this means heading deeper into more personal territory and taking some more risks with images that are less obviously appealing to the "market" that has developed around the early work. So if you go to this exhibit hoping to find a repeat of American Prospects, you will be left puzzled. But if you go without preconceptions, I think you will find this exhibit quite satisfying, in a low key, quiet way.

All of the images in the show were taken in Northampton, Massachusetts, through the seasons over a couple of years. These are landscapes, but not the majestic grand gestures of Ansel Adams. This is second growth scrub forest, river flats, and meadows of weeds, scenes perfectly reminiscent of the sometimes anonymous and deadening landscape of current day New England. The pictures are grouped into seasons, with rooms for summer and fall in the back, and winter/spring together in the main room.

But unlike the less than beautiful California landscapes of Robert Adams, there is a touching affection buried in these images. There is no irony here; in fact, there are no people at all and no clever juxtapositions. These are pictures of a local, who has taken the time to really see the landscape around him, even thought it might not fit the traditional definitions of beauty. This is a person who is noticing and enjoying the turning of the seasons, and selecting out those moments when the yarrow is high, or the river is frozen, or the warm spring light has finally come back after months of dismal grey. These pictures seem to me to be perfectly grounded in the thoughts and emotions of a 21st century world: what have development and global warming done to our traditional lands? how can we re-embrace the local world around us and reconnect to something more meaningful that consumerism? how can we get more in tune with the seasons and the local foods that grow in our communities? (A few Bill McKibben essays would be a nice pairing for this work.)

These pictures will not blow your hair back when you see them in the gallery. And whether they will stand up to the tests of time is still unknown. Perhaps they will be looked back on through the lens of heightened care for the world around us and seem emblematic of the thoughts of these times. Regardless, these pictures reflect the real sentiments of an artist who is watching the nuanced changes in the world around him. And for that, they should be praised.

Collector's POV: The images are priced at $50000 each, which given their size and the prevailing market for Sternfeld's work, seems about right for retail.

As an aside, as relatively anonymous collectors, we are used to receiving the frosty attitude of gallery staff, designed for the unwashed walk-ins. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to get not only a friendly greeting, but genuine enthusiasm for the work from the staff at Luhring Augustine. And when I inquired about the book published to coincide with the show and found they were already sold out, they went out of their way to offer me options for getting a copy later. Well done. Gallery folks out there, think of me as the mystery shopper at Burger King, checking to see if I get a hot meal and a clean bathroom. (For future reference, I am particularly annoyed by misdirection and sneakiness with the price list.) Luhring Augustine passed with flying colors, and made me eager for my next visit.

Rating: * (1 star) GOOD (rating system defined here)

Joel Sternfeld, Oxbow Archive
Through October 4th

Luhring Augustine
531 West 24th Street
New York, NY 10011

Friday, September 12, 2008

Books on Private Collections (Part 1)

As collectors ourselves, one of things we are consistently interested in is how other folks have gone about the process of collection building. Over the years, we've certainly met many collectors who are single minded and don't care at all about what other collectors are doing; we fall at the other end of the spectrum - we're very interested in how other collectors make their choices and how their collections have evolved over time. Perhaps this says something about our interest in the process of collecting; the learning, hunting, sifting, and selecting that is the back story to the artworks themselves. Not surprisingly, whenever we come across a book about a private collection, we buy it, not because there is any particular affinity between our collection/tastes and that of the author, but more to see how they went about it.

So today begins a two-part post on some of these collection books. As an aside, all of the books here are concerned with private, personal collections, not those built inside corporations, museums, or other more public entities. I've prepared a list of a dozen books that I think are particularly interesting - we'll cover half today and half in the next post (sometime soon). Some are out of print, but I'd guess they're all available on Abebooks or elsewhere on the Internet. I'll tackle them in alphabetical order of the last name of the collector, rather than trying to order them in some other way.

For each book, I'll take a look at the major themes or approaches taken by the collector and try to consider further how they went about their own process. It is clear that the process of making a book or exhibition catalogue cleans up many of the messy loose ends of collecting; less strong works are edited out, risks taken and mistakes made are often omitted. A clear narrative is told where the actual events might have been more circular or serendipitous. But I think there is still plenty to learn from each collection's point of view, even if it is pared down and gussied up a bit. And just like in a museum, when you look around a specific room and try to pick the one picture you'd want to take home with you, I'll select a handful of pictures from the collection that we'd love to have and that would fit well into what we are doing as collectors.

1.) From the Heart; The Power of Photography - A Collector's Choice, Aperture, 1988

The is the personal collection of Sondra Gilman. It is a strong selection of Modernist and particularly Post-Modernist works, beginning in the early 1900s and continuing through until the present. There are no 19th century works in the book.

The book is divided into 5 sections:

Marking Time - this group is about images capturing a fleeting moment
Picturing Pictures - these works center around the ideas of appropriation and image selection
Uncommon Familiar - these are unusual still lives and portraits
The Divided Self - more portraits and images of people
Telling Tales - these pictures are about narrative

My guess is that these divisions are an artificial construct for the book/exhibit, but they do in some sense help focus how Gilman might have thought about pictures. This isn't by any means a "greatest hits" collection - there are lots of lesser known or obscure images. But the editing eye that has selected these works was pretty consistent and strong, especially given that she was buying work that hadn't already been canonized. She doesn't appear to have been interested in an encyclopedic view of post-Modernism; rather she has carefully selected images here and there that are challenging, thought-provoking and beautiful.

My favorites here would be (acknowledging that this collection doesn't match ours much):
  • Andre Kertez, Cyclist, 1948
  • Walker Evans, Roadside Gas Sign, 1929
  • Bill Brandt, East Sussex Coast, 1957 (nude)
By the way, there is a great shot of the staircase in their house, with the walls covered in pictures. How collectors hang their collections in their homes is another interesting topic.

2.) Degrees of Stillness; Photographs from the Manfred Heiting Collection, SK Stiftung Kultur, 1998

The Manfred Heiting collection has 5000+ works in it, so any particular catalogue is clearly reductive in terms of telling the whole story. The collection spans the entire history of photography, and seems to be a bit heavier on European photographers.

The particular sample of works found in this book are all built around the concepts of pairs, series, multiples, and interrelation. There are several works from a single artist, all part of the same body of work or from the same shooting session. There are photographs from different photographers working with similar subject matter. It is a selection full of echoes and recombinations.

My learnings from this book center around just how powerful these associations can be, and that pairing works together or grouping like images can dramatically increase the overall energy of the point of view. While a single image might be interesting, a grid of four, or a combination with something else may be even more intriguing.

Here my favorites were:
  • Peter Keetman, Ohne Titel, 1959 (striped building multiple
  • Berenice Abbott, 3 images of the Third Avenue Lines,
  • Bernd and Hilla Becher, Water Towers, 1978-1982

3.) Chorus of Light; Photographs from the Sir Elton John Collection, High Museum of Art, 2000

In the 1990s, Elton John was one of the most visible collectors in the photography market. From a standing start, he quickly built up a collection of several thousand pictures, routinely set auction records, and supported many new and emerging contemporary artists. This book is a catalogue from a show in his hometown of Atlanta, at the High Museum of Art.

As evidenced by this book (and I believe some of the works here have been sold off, so the collection is clearly evolving), John's collection was/is dominated by fashion images, portraits (often of celebrities), and male nudes, with a strong mix of iconic, trophy pictures by the likes of Man Ray and Andre Kertesz. Irving Penn and Robert Mapplethorpe are represented in depth. I don't believe there is any 19th century work.

While there were clearly some collectors of fashion photography before John, he really (for me) was the first major collector to collect fashion and related work in such a depth and breadth. I imagine there are those in the photography establishment who initially scoffed at some of the work he chose, but the end result is a remarkably consistent vision. Elton John is a flamboyant guy, and this collection isn't meek and quiet; it's large, loud and fresh. My conclusion from his collection is that taking more risks, especially with contemporary work, can be a good thing.

As far as favorites are concerned, I would choose:
  • Margaret Bourke-White, Radio Transmitting Tower, 1935
  • Margaret Bourke-White, Chrysler Building Spire, 1930
  • Aleksander Rodchenko, Shukov Tower, 1920s
  • Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, From Radio Tower, Berlin, 1928
  • Edward Weston, Nude, 1927 (knees)
  • Edward Weston, Nude, 1937
There are also some crazy shots of his home and the photographs on the walls in this book, well worth checking out.

4.) The Graham Nash Collection, Nash Press, 1978

The fact that this book was published in 1978 tells you something pretty important; Graham Nash was a very early collector, way ahead of his time. He was buying when no one else was. His collection seems to be centered on humanity, on storytelling, on images of people in surprising or evocative moments. It is almost entirely a 20th century collection, with no color photography included.

Since the ironic, self referencing, and challenging ideas of Post Modernism were still just emerging when this book was put out, this collection feels a little like a time capsule, taking you back to a time when all the images were true, the emotions real, and the issues meaningful. While there are images of death and other atrocities, none of them have the harshness of later work. This collector chose images of the beauty of people, in all forms.

Given the focus of this collection, there isn't really a single image that would fit well into what we are doing (we have virtually no narrative pictures of people). Given all the greatest hits assembled here, it is a strong reminder that there really are an infinite number of ways to collect photography. I would be interested to learn how his collection has evolved since the publication of this book.

5.) Taking Place; Photographs from the Prentice & Paul Sack Collection, SFMOMA, 2005

The Sack collection began with the unifying subject matter theme of the built structure, and has evolved into a behemoth, spanning the entire history of photography (up until about 1975). Sack's approach resonates with me strongly, as we too have defined a sand box that encompasses our collection, and those boundaries help define what to spend our time on. It's easy to say that this approach is simplistic, but we have found that limits have forced us to focus and define our collection more fully and have prevented us for ending up with a grab bag of unrelated pictures. The collection has also tried to deliver on depth, with 8-12 pictures for each of the important photographers. Again, I like this kind of plan, even if you break the rules from time to time.

The collection catalogue breaks the Sack collection up into a handful of categories:

Beginnings - early photography
Territories - Grand Tour and 19th century travel images
North, South, East and West - 19th century America
Progress and Its Discontents - Pictorialism, 1900-1930s street life, FSA
The Modern Eye - Classic Modernism 1920-1940s
Inhabitants - People, inside and outside

Many of these categories don't fit well with our particular collection, but the Modern Eye is almost a direct match. There are plenty of pictures in this group that we like. Here are a few that would fit for us, from across the collection:
  • Charles Sheeler, Side of White Barn, 1917
  • Margaret Bourke-White, Ammonia Storage Tanks, 1930
  • Martin Bruehl, Untitled (Grain Elevator), 1932
  • Ralph Steiner, Bank of New York, 1926
  • Germaine Krull, La Tour Eiffel, 1928
  • Alexander Rodchenko, Courtyard, 1928
  • Florence Henri, Paris, 1930
  • Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Helsinki, 1930
  • Art Sinsabaugh, Midwest Landscape #60, 1961
  • Ray Metzker, Philly Walk, 1965
  • Gordon Matta-Clark, New York City, 1972
6.) Beyond Time; Photographs from the Gary B. Sokol Collection, Israel Museum, 2006

The Sokol collection is perhaps my favorite collection that I have not seen in person. Since finding this book among the shelves at the Strand bookstore a year or two ago, I find that I am continually pulling it off the shelf. It is full of post-it notes and scraps of paper.

The collection (at least as shown in the catalogue) has two distinct parts:
  • 19th century images of buildings and trees
  • 20th century Modernism, both American and European, extending all the way into the 1970s
This collection reminds me of several important collecting ideas, which is why I think I continue to be interested in it:
  • Focus can be good, when it forces a narrowing of vision and a subsequent deepening of understanding of a particular sub-section of work
  • Great images (beyond the best known ones) can be found in the work of known and unknown artists if you take the time to look carefully and thoroughly
  • Resonance and interrelation of images are a byproduct of discipline in selecting works for a collection
For us, if you stripped out the 19th century work, which we find intellectually interesting, but not to our tastes, and left the Modernist work in the collection, we would enjoy having 95% of the images in our own collection; the consistency of quality is staggering. I can literally flip through this book and say, yes, yes, yes, yes, to page after page after page. (Compare this to Nash's collection above where there wasn't a single image that was a real fit.) What is exciting is that most of these aren't well known images. So while we may know the photographer, the image in this collection is one that is less familiar, but just as amazing as the ones we all know and love. I am hard pressed to select favorites, as there are just so many that are wonderful. This is why I keep coming back to this collection; I can use it as a guidepost to look for things we might like, and use it as an encouragement not to settle for weaker work that we might come across.

Go out and find this book for your library!

As I mentioned above, Part 2 of this post, with another 6 collection books, will come along sometime in the next week or so. And if I have missed any great collection books (collectors up to the letter S), please post them in the Comments.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Auction Results: Phillips, Christie's and Sotheby's recent sales

There are plenty of places online where you can get summary auction results, and both Alex Novak and Stephen Perloff do a great job of giving the blow by blow of what happened during the major sales in their newsletters, so there is no need to duplicate either of those efforts here. Instead, I thought I would take off my art appreciation hat for the moment and put on my business hat and do some statistical analysis of the sales results to see if we can discern any patterns or draw any interesting conclusions from what has happened so far. I've used the data from the first three sales of the season that included photography (Saturday @Phillips London, Christie's First Open, and Sotheby's Contemporary Art).

While overall aggregate numbers from the sales can tell us something (and we'll get to those in a minute), I want to lay out some more explicit definitions for how I have sliced and diced the data. I've divided the photography market into three categories, as defined by lots that have certain high estimate prices prior to the sale. These ranges are:

Low: $10000 and under for the high estimate
Mid: between $10000 and $50000 for the high estimate
High: above $50000 for the high estimate

While we might quibble about where these break points are, I think they generally reflect the behavior of the majority of buyers. (For the London sale, executed in pounds, I have converted to dollars to make the items comparable.) So for each sale, I have divided the photography lots into these groups, tallied estimates, actual sales, and buy ins, and then generated some comparative percentages. (Blogger doesn't seem to support tables or charts, so please bear with the row by row data presenatation below.)

So let's start with Christie's:

Total Lots 238
Photo Lots 29
Photo Lot % 12.18%
Photo Lots Sold 21
Photo Lots Bought In 8
Photo Buy In % 27.59%

Total Sale Total $6507800
Photo Sale Total $1368250
Photo $ % 21.02%

So given that the photography accounted for 12% of the lots but 21% of the sales, the contemporary photography clearly held its own in this sale.

Now the segmentation:

Low Total Lots 6
Low Sold 4
Low Bought In 2
Buy In % 33.33%

Total Low Estimate $46000 (the sum of all the high estimates of these specific lots)
Total Low Sold $62500 (the sum of the actual sales for these specific lots)

Mid Total Lots 21
Mid Sold 16
Mid Bought In 5
Buy In % 23.81%

Total Mid Estimate $431000
Total Mid Sold $403250

High Total Lots 2
High Sold 1
High Bought In 1
Buy In % 50.00%

Total High Estimate $570000
Total High Sold $902500

My conclusions from this data are that the Low and Mid ranges did quite well in this sale, and Cindy Sherman carried the High (her one lot sold for the entire High sum) and made the total numbers look even better overall. I'm guessing the folks at Christie's are generally happy with this.

Here's Sotheby's:

Total Lots 418
Photo Lots 21
Photo Lot % 5.02%
Photo Lots Sold 18
Photo Lots Bought In 3
Photo Buy In % 16.67%

Total Sale Total $10556940
Photo Sale Total $286875
Photo $ % 2.72%

In this sale, the contemporary photography did not pull its weight (lot % higher than sale %), but in general it was a small number against the whole.

Here's the segmentation:

Low Total Lots 6
Low Sold 4
Low Bought In 2
Buy In % 33.33%

Total Low Estimate $45000
Total Low Sold $23125

Mid Total Lots 15
Mid Sold 14
Mid Bought In 1
Buy In % 6.67%

Total Mid Estimate $266000
Total Mid Sold $263750

There were no High lots in this sale. So here, the Low end didn't perform well, but the Mid range was solid.

And finally Phillips (converted to dollars):

Total Lots 454
Photo Lots 96
Photo % 21.15%
Photo Lots Sold 59
Photo Lots Bought In 37
Photo Buy In % 38.54%

Total Sale Total $1173326
Photo Sale Total $251208
Photo $ % 21.41%

In this sale, even with a high buy-in percentage, the photography appeared to carry its weight, with the lot % and the sale % almost exactly equal.

Here's the segmentation:

Low Total Lots 87
Low Sold 54
Low Bought In 33
Buy In % 37.93%

Total Low Estimate $318200
Total Low Sold $173708

Mid Total Lots 9
Mid Sold 5
Mid Bought In 4
Buy In % 44.44%

Total Mid Estimate $164000
Total Mid Sold $77500

There were no High lots in this sale. These numbers show that both the Low and Mid ranges underperformed in this sale, and the buy-in rates were high. This must have been a bit of a disappointment for Phillips.

So what does all this tell us? Here are a few potential conclusions about the market, potentially supported by the very few data points above:
  • The High end is still hot, driven by the trophy lots that continue to get bid up.
  • The Mid range seems generally solid across the board, with pockets of weakness based on variation in material.
  • The Low end seems to have more pervasive uncertainty and softness, again driven by variation in the quality of material up for sale.

If you draw other conclusions or think I should consider other ways to look at the data, that's what the Comments section is for...

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Photography on Photography: Reflections on the Medium since 1960 @the Met

JTF (just the facts): 22 artists represented by one work each (although some contain multiple images or a series), displayed in the Joyce and Robert Menschel Hall, a large white box of a room with a high ceiling. Here's a list of the artists in the show (alphabetically):

Vito Acconci
William Anastasi
Lutz Bacher
Sarah Charlesworth
Moyra Davey
Liz Deschenes
Roe Ethridge
Kota Ezawa
Janice Guy
Sherrie Levine
Robert Mapplethorpe
Allen McCollum
Richard Prince
Josephine Pryde
Thomas Ruff
Allen Ruppersberg
Karin Sander
Hiroshi Sugimoto
Andy Warhol
James Welling
Christopher Williams
Mark Wyse

Comments/Context: The new contemporary photography gallery is probably the only place (save the special exhibits areas) in the hallowed halls of the Met where some real risk taking in exhibit making can take place. The art in this room hasn't necessarily weathered the trials of decades or centuries, and any one work may or may not have yet risen to the top as best of breed for a certain style or time period. It's a place where fresh ideas can be shown, providing interesting contrasts to what's on view elsewhere in museum.

This exhibit takes on the challenge of making sense of the entire sweep of photography since the 1960s. Some of the themes it touches on include:

  • Appropriation/rephotography
  • The idea of truth in photography
  • Conceptual photography
  • Photography as a ubiquitous mass medium
  • Photographic advertising
  • New and old photographic processes
This is a small gallery remember, and therefore a relatively limited place in which to tell the stories of all these individual movements/concepts coherently. As a result, I'm sorry to say that this exhibit had a random "dressed in the dark" feel for me. I felt I had to engage each work and play the guessing game of which theme this particular image was trying to represent - "why is this here" for each and every picture or series of images. With some effort, these puzzles can be deciphered and the audience can see the thought process behind the exhibit; it just takes some work, and I'm guessing that 80% of the fly-by viewers who stroll through these galleries on their way to someplace else will leave mystified. While the mix of established artists and unknowns is a good thing, there was just so much going on that the juxtapositions of different works didn't seem to make much sense (I bet this will be the first and only time that a Sugimoto portrait and a Welling flower will hang next to each other; see the Welling image at right, 012 Flowers, 2006). Given the size of this space, any one of the themes mentioned above could fill this room with an interesting and representative array of work to tell its particular story more thoroughly. So while risks are good, perhaps some tighter focus is required.

As an aside, there are two entrances to this room, that are nearly equally likely for someone to come through. This exhibit was arranged generally chronologically, so if you came in through the far doors are worked back (as I did), it seems even more of a grab bag, until you get to the other end, where the historical context is more obvious. I think the lesson here is that this room does not lend itself well to a linear narrative, and shows need to be monolithic in this space.

Collector's POV: For our particular collection, there were really only a couple of works that would fit well. The first is the flower image I referenced above by James Welling. This is a large image, hearkening back to various hand crafted processes of the past, but fully rooted in the present and with a strong point of view. If we had a wall big enough, I could imagine one of these in our collection.

A second is Mark Wyse's Mark of Indifference #1 (Shelf) from 2006 (see image at right). This artist was previously unknown to me, but I liked the simplicity of the vision.

While not a fit for us, I think the Sugimoto wax figure portraits in general (there is one of Fidel Castro in this show) are both thought provoking and spectacular. My guess is that they will end up being truly signature pieces from this era.

Rating: * (1 star) GOOD (rating system defined here)

Photography on Photography: Reflections on the Medium since 1960
Through October 19th

Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10028