Friday, October 22, 2010

Abstract Expressionist New York @MoMA

JTF (just the facts): A single room of photography, seen as part of the larger exhibition (entitled The Big Picture) located on the 4th floor of the museum, not far from De Kooning's Woman I. The mini-exhibit takes the form of a group show of the work of 9 photographers. There are a total of 29 black and white photographs on view, framed in white and matted, and hung against grey walls. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, made between 1943 and 1973. (Installation shots at right.)

The following photographers have been included, with the number of works on view in parentheses:
Harry Callahan (9)
Paul Caponigro (1)
Walter Chappel (1)
Roy DeCarava (1)
Nathan Lyons (2)
Robert Rauschenberg (1)
Aaron Siskind (10)
Frederick Sommer (1)
Minor White (3)

Comments/Context: If you were to look in one of my little notebooks where I write down notes from photography shows I visit, you'd see that for every show, I try to put down a list of stream of consciousness adjectives that pop into my head while seeing the work on view. Later, when I write the reviews, I use these words to help me get back into the same frame of mind I experienced while standing in the gallery. For this show, which is only a small part of a much more sprawling exhibit of painting and sculpture, my notebook contains the word INFURIATING written in all capital letters.
I can't say that I can remember ever using the word infuriating to describe a show of photography, and yet, my annoyance with the exhibit was indeed quite piercing. The reason is that I think the selection and sequencing of works is a massive missed opportunity to tell a more compelling and coherent story about the role and influences of Abstract Expressionism in photography. While I realize that MoMA does not hold every great work of AbEx photography, I had such high hopes that we would, for once and for all, get a lucid explanation of how photography and the other arts interacted with each other, how the visual vocabulary evolved over those decades, how aesthetic ideas bounced around and were incorporated back and forth between artists in different mediums. Unfortunately, this mini-show could best be called "Some Abstract Expressionist Photography from the Collection"; it entirely lacks a definite point of view, it has no apparent thesis which it is attempting to prove.
This is not to say that the photography on view is somehow deficient. On the contrary, there are great works, particularly by Siskind and Callahan, that tackle many of the same themes of abstraction raised out in the painting galleries: scale, gesture, fluidity, and compositional complexity. As one might expect, Siskind's peeling paint, up-close walls, and dripped surfaces make an appearance, as do Callahan's swirling light on water, spiky grasses, and multiple exposure city views.
Rather than simply dismantling this show as a disappointing failure, let me offer two ways that I think it might have been more successful in teasing out the connections to the work in the other galleries. First, the works in this room are not organized chronologically, they are instead mixed around, likely based on the quirks of balance in hanging the room. What I would have preferred is a very rigorous chronological look at how photography was evolving over these decades. We needed to see the specific difference between the aesthetic ideas of early 40s Siskind and Callahan, versus what came in the late 40s, or 50s, or even 60s. These periods don't all meld into one, they are distinct, and there are important evolutions of style and subject matter that get muddied by jumbling the pictures around. Similarly, the work of other AbEx photographers needed to be put into this chronological framework to better see how they fit into the larger trends. Then this whole package could be better matched against the themes explored in painting and sculpture - and then we would be able to see how photography reconsidered the gestural ideas of painting, how the picture plane got flattened, who influenced who, who took something and changed it, and who was simply derivative. Until we line up the works by date, and match all the photographs from 1942-1945 with the works in painting and sculpture from those same years (for example), we won't be able to draw any conclusions about what was really going on. This is what was so intensely irritating for me about the approach that was employed; it is impossible to discern any thoughtful connections.

Another way to perhaps clarify the ideas would be to pare the photo portion of the exhibit down to just Siskind, or just Siskind and Callahan (although we might make an argument that he really isn't "New York"), instead of a survey of the many photographers working during the period. Then again, a strict chronological hanging might help tease out the nuances of aesthetic influence, albeit on a smaller, single artist scale. I found the inclusion of an image from Siskind's Homage to Franz Kline series to be particularly maddening. Of course, I understand why it is here; it has bold strokes of black lines that echo Kline and show that Siskind was interested in many of the same ideas. But it was done in the 1970s. It is an afterthought, a look back, not a point of actual influence in the discussion. There are no paintings from the 1970s or 1980s in the larger exhibit that are "in the style of" the earlier AbEx painters. That's not what this exhibit is about.

I was really hoping that this exhibit would integrate photography into the larger thesis, treating it as an equal in the exploration of how this important period in American art history actually took place. Instead, photography is off in the corner, once again a novel tangent, and the organization of the works actually on display does nothing to make the case that anything important or influential went on behind the camera. What chafes me most is that I think that there may indeed be some startling connections that would be amazing to see, if someone would take the time to rigorously look for them. That unfortunately did not happen here. And so I scratched down my all capitals INFURIATING and left the room wondering about what might have been.
Collector's POV: Since this is a group show of vintage work in a museum setting, I'm going to forgo the usual discussion of prices and auction histories. But while my comments above might lead you to believe I somehow didn't like the work on view, the truth is in fact the exact opposite. In fact, we actually own prints (or variants) of several of the works on display in the show and will likely add more images to our collection from this photographic period in the future.

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

Transit Hub:
  • Exhibition site (here)
  • Review: NY Times (here)
  • Review roundup: Hyperallergic (here)
Abstract Expressionist New York
Through April 25th
Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
New York, NY 10019

1 comment:

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