Monday, June 29, 2009

Photoconceptualism, 1966-1973 @Whitney

JTF (just the facts): A total of 139 images/works (it is not always clear when a group of images is one work or several, so we have counted everything), various framed and matted, and hung in the single room gallery on the mezzanine level of the museum. All of the works were created during the period 1966-1973. (Since the Whitney does not allow photography in the galleries, there are no installation shots of this exhibit.)

The following artists are included in the show, with the number of images/works displayed in parentheses:

Vito Acconci (1)
Mel Bochner (12, 1 set of notecards)
Dan Graham (2, framed together)
Michael Heizer (1)
Gordon Matta-Clark (2)
Bruce Nauman (11, 4 artist books)
Dennis Oppenheim (74, framed together)
Adrian Piper (14)
Ed Ruscha (4, 1 artist book)
Robert Smithson (8, framed together)
William Wegman (4, framed together)

Comments/Context: In the early days of photoconceptualism, as chronicled in this small but well curated show at the Whitney, the boundaries of the medium were being aggressively explored, merging traditional photography with elements of performance, language and frame breaking ideas.

Bruce Nauman gets meaningful attention in this exhibit, with a large group of his images of linguistic puns (Eating My Words, Waxing Hot, Bound to Fail etc.), 2 artists books of LA Air and Clear Sky (unbounded images of the sky), an additional book of sculpture in a gallery, and my favorite, an artist book response to Ed Ruscha's Various Small Fires and Milk called Burning Small Fires, where Nauman documents the systematic burning of each page of Ruscha's book. All of these works are witty and ironic, using new perspectives to get at unexpected and original ideas.

Mel Bochner's images of colorful shaving cream and Vaseline spread on a flat surface take on the age old issues of painting versus photography, using these mundane ephemeral materials to create transparent and opaque forms and abstract patterns. While they are of course photographs, they have a gestural quality, full of movement, almost like "brushstrokes".

A group of four artists are lined up together one wall, all using architectural motifs in one way or another as the raw material for their riffs. Ed Ruscha is represented by a group of four of his aerial parking lots, while Gordon Matta-Clark is shown cutting a gaping three dimensional hole in the interior of an abandoned building. There is a Dan Graham diptych of a house and a fast food restaurant interior, and a group of four black and white images of a door by William Wegman, taken from both inside and outside the nondescript entrance of a brick building. All of these are wholly unlike traditional architectural photography, and push at the edges of how these places can be used in making art.

Other highlights in this exhibit include Adrian Piper's dark and murky series of self portraits in a mirror, Robert Smithson's images of snow melting, and Dennis Oppenheim's huge array of small prints of an adult swinging a child around and around in circles.

While we have all been inundated with the cool detached style of conceptualism as practiced by the Becher school disciples in recent years, this kind of warm, funny, even goofy conceptualism is much less often seen these days. This exhibit is a great reminder that conceptualism doesn't have to be airless and formal to be exciting, and that little bit of cleverness applied in small doses can not only make the viewer smile, but also scratch his/her head and step back and think.

Collector’s POV: For our collection, the Matta-Clark and Ruscha works would fit best, and both remain on our going forward hit list, Matta-Clark especially. His works have not been widely available at auction, and those that have come up for sale have sold between roughly $20000 and $120000. Ruscha's parking lots tend to be sold in groups at auction, which makes finding a single great image a bit more difficult. Truth be told, I have also always been a closet fan of William Wegman's early conceptual work (pre-Weimaraners), so the series of doors shown here would also be a potential welcome addition.

One sidenote question: why wasn't Robert Cumming included in this show? He seems like an obvious candidate to join this group. Perhaps he was working in a slightly later time period, or maybe he just isn't represented in the Whitney's collection. In any case, if anyone has insights here, please put them in the comments.

Rating: ** (two stars) VERY GOOD (rating system described here)

Transit Hub:

  • Bruce Nauman wins Golden Lion at 2009 Venice Biennale (here)
  • Dan Graham, Beyond @Whitney (here)

Photoconceptualism, 1966-1973
Through September 20th

Whitney Museum of American Art
945 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10021

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