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As a practice based in ideas, ephemeral actions, and linguistic provocations, Conceptual art has been made knowable through photography. Photography served to document pieces like Robert Barry’s Inert Gas Series (1969), in which the artist released a succession of gaseous substances into the atmosphere; the medium also informed the very structure of projects such as Adrian Piper’s Food for the Spirit (1971), in which Piper took a picture in the mirror every day to assure herself of her existence during a summer of fasting and reading only Kant, yielding a serial representation of her changing body. If Conceptual art is indebted to photography, what does photography, as an art in and of itself, owe to Conceptual art?
Diarmuid Costello and Margaret Iversen take up this question in their edited volume, Photography After Conceptual Art. Published in 2010, the book grew out of a two-day session at the annual Association of Art Historians conference held at Tate Britain, London, in 2008. The volume contains ten chapters by a range of scholars who participated in the initial session convened by Costello and Iversen. Drawing on a number of theoretical sources, including Martin Heidegger, Theodor Adorno, and Gilles Deleuze, the essayists consider photographic production following the development of Conceptual art in the 1960s to investigate “whether the majority of recent photographic art is merely ‘after’ conceptual art in a weak historical sense, or whether it is truly post-conceptual in the more substantive sense of not merely coming after, but also internalizing and building upon the lessons of conceptual art” (1; emphasis in original).
A central interlocutor in this historical and theoretical pursuit—which covers the work of Ed Ruscha, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Douglas Huebler, Mel Bochner, Roni Horn, Sherrie Levine, Thomas Demand, and Jeff Wall—is Wall himself. In his influential 1995 essay “Marks of Indifference” (Reconsidering the Object of Art, Ann Goldstein and Anne Rorimer, eds., Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995), Wall argued that photography, however vernacular and mechanical, has always been bound to depiction, or “the Picture,” despite its exploitation by Conceptual artists as a mode of amateur, deskilled production at the boundary of artistic convention. The medium, therefore, “could not follow pure, or linguistic, conceptualism all the way to the frontier” (266). Thus, for Wall, photo-conceptualist work represents “the last moment of the prehistory of photography as art” (266)—a modernist art, that is, defined by its specifically pictorial character.
It was Wall’s photographic tableaux—often mounted on light boxes—that inspired the modernist critic Michael Fried to write Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008). In this book, which was published in the same year as Costello and Iversen’s session at the Tate, Fried takes Wall’s work as exemplary of a turn in photography of the 1970s and 1980s toward large-scale pictures intended for wall display, and argues that this particular medium has overcome the crisis in beholding effected by Minimalism to reengage the objectives of high modernist painting (which he characterizes in terms of absorption). Fried’s position on art photography, along with Wall’s criticism and oeuvre, looms large in Photography After Conceptual Art. While the editors and essayists do much to challenge and nuance the arguments of Fried and Wall, whether the volume as a whole offers a fresh perspective and productive commentary on the relationship between Conceptual art and photography outside the modernist paradigm is another question.
Photography After Conceptual Art is divided into chronological halves: the first investigating the role of photography in Conceptual art practices of the 1960s and 1970s, and the second addressing the development of pictorial photography—heavily weighted toward Wall—following the initial period of conceptual experimentation. The evocation of Marcel Duchamp in the first and last chapters as a genealogical source for both Ruscha and Wall, however, troubles the ostensible historical divide marked by the “after” in the book’s title. Iverson argues that Duchamp’s instruction-framed pieces such as Three Standard Stoppages (1913–14) are a precursor for Ruscha’s automatic, affectless photo-books produced through instructional performances (also connected to Fluxus word scores), while Christine Conley connects Wall’s Morning Cleaning (1999) to The Large Glass (1915–23) to suggest, in contrast to Fried’s reading of Wall’s work, that the photograph is in fact a “Duchampian delay” that “interrupts the gaze of the modernist beholder” (177). Another intriguing connection suggestive of the themes and variations comprising a conceptual tradition of photography emerges between Sarah James’s reading of the Bechers’s rejection of subjective expression and pursuit of objectivity through photography in terms of Adorno’s post-Auschwitz negations of beauty and lyricism and Gordon Hughes’s analysis of Huebler’s imperfect systems as undermining both systems-based practice and the expressivity of portrait photography. Elaboration of photographic and conceptual practices through philosophy also yields interesting results across the volume: Aron Vinegar’s comparison of the “deadpan” of Ruscha and Buster Keaton by way of Heidegger, for example, opens up an analysis of Ruscha’s photo-books as exhibiting a “resolutely non-judgmental receptiveness of the world—hence the ‘Every’ in Every Building on Sunset Strip” (3). Further, Deleuze’s concept of the “body without organs” aids Tamara Trodd in examining how, if Thomas Demand’s photographs contain no figures, they nonetheless elicit a visceral reaction by “describ[ing] a space of the irrational body” (139) through pictorial deformation—a bodily force she also ascribes to Wall’s work, disturbing the unified wholeness of both artwork and viewer posited by modernist discourse.
While its individual chapters are well researched and insightful and will no doubt be of use to scholars interested in the artists discussed, the sum of the parts of Photography After Conceptual Art is ultimately greater than the whole. Given the breadth promised by the title and the editors’ stated aim “to open up a debate about what is at stake in contemporary photographic art” (1), the selection of artists with which the book concerns itself is underwhelming. The discursive range of the collected texts feels pinned to a roster of well-known names (particularly with two chapters devoted to Ruscha and three focused on Wall) representative of a familiar (and overdetermined) history: photography’s “apparent transformation from anti-aesthetic to aesthetic medium of choice,” from the idea-based art of the 1960s to the appropriation tactics of the 1980s to “the large-scale, pictorial and frequently digital, color photography that has dominated photographic art since the 1990s” (1). With this timeline largely structuring the volume, the editors seem to concede from the outset that the “after” in Photography After Conceptual Art signals a historical transition (suggestive of the end point of conceptualism and beginning of art photography that Wall has described) rather than a bridge of influence between a shifting medium and a practice known for its challenges to apparatuses of aesthetic display, distribution, and legitimation.
If a genealogical reevaluation of artistic/technical influence is too much to ask from a book derived from a two-day conference session (though it still seems like a missed opportunity), omissions quickly present themselves as compromising the volume’s goal of initiating a discussion of the stakes of contemporary photographic art. Aside from a supporting role granted to Sherrie Levine by Trodd in her chapter on Demand and Wall, the photographers of the Pictures Generation are absent, for instance, as is a consideration of how figures such as Louise Lawler and Cindy Sherman reworked conceptual engagements with photography as feminist critiques of representation. Aspects of documentary and photojournalism, and the ways in which they might connect early conceptual work to the current direction of social practice, are left unexplored. Also missing are contemporary artists, such as David Horvitz and Penelope Umbrico, who, while perhaps lesser-known, are elaborating conceptual practice through new forms of photographic capture and circulation, rather than utilizing digital technology to make large-scale, pictorial prints.
Though it began as a timely riposte to the publication of Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, Photography After Conceptual Art now seems shortsighted in its choice of Fried—whom Robert Smithson, in the year he published his photo-conceptual work Monuments of Passaic, called “the orthodox modernist, the keeper of the gospel of Clement Greenberg” (Artforum, October 1967)—as a primary interlocutor, and Wall as a representative of recent photographic practice. Fried’s understanding of photographic tableaux as engaging the aims of modernist painting and Wall’s claim that photography became art precisely in its turn from conceptualism are opinions that need to be reckoned with. Nevertheless, for all of the detailed argumentations of its contributors, this duo becomes a common denominator that largely sets the terms of Photography After Conceptual Art—delimiting its contribution to scholarship on Conceptual art and relevance to directions in contemporary photographic practice.
PhD candidate, Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University