Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 19, 2014
Carol Squiers, ed. What Is a Photograph? Exh. cat. New York: International Center of Photography and Delmonico, 2014. 256 pp.; 200 color ills. Cloth $49.95 (9783791353517)
Exhibition schedule: International Center of Photography, New York, January 31–May 4, 2014
Liz Deschenes. Untitled (zoetrope) #1 and Untitled (zoetrope) #2 (2013). © Liz Deschenes. Courtesy Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York.

Curator Carol Squiers’s overview of photography since the 1970s at the International Center of Photography poses a vexing question in its title. For most of photography’s history before this period, the dilemma was: is photography an art? Finally answered to the satisfaction of most art institutions, the central question in the last few decades has dramatically turned to the very basis of the medium’s identity, particularly given the onslaught of digital media. Rather than answering the question directly, or attempting to surmise the future, Squiers’s exhibition offered a contrast to conceptualist-based theories of recent photographic history.

In the opening wall text, Squiers acknowledged the importance of conceptualism in redefining photographic practice as an inextricable component of contemporary art making, but took issue with the movement’s “rejection of the imaginative possibilities of photography.” Her support of subjectivity and what she describes in the catalogue as a “more aesthetically adventurous analysis” of recent photography appeared to be the crux of her alternative theory, a theory bolstered by twenty-one established and emerging artists who “reconsidered and reinvented the role of light, color, composition, materiality, and the subject in the art of photography” (9).

Examples abounded of sculptural photography, yet perhaps one of the surprises of the show is that the more compelling photography tended to be the flattest. The first, large gallery was dominated by aggressively three-dimensional installations, including a Rauschenbergian Combine redux (a kitschy color portrait with a neon light stuck through it) by Marlo Pascual and a set of thin, vertical, semicircular drums that were, in fact, photograms by Liz Deschenes: Untitled (zoetrope) #1 and Untitled (zoetrope) #2 (2013). However, the standout group in the room was oppositional in its flatness. Produced by the artist Artie Vierkant, these Image Objects (2011–present) were computer-generated and flat geometric shapes printed onto foam board material, either Dibond or Sintra. The seductive translucency of the abstract arrangements—reminiscent of painterly experiments by 1920s Constructivists such as El Lissitzky and László Moholy-Nagy, but much more colorful—seemed wholly original as a photographic practice.

Moholy-Nagy, one of the pioneers of avant-garde photographic techniques such as “camera-less” photograms, made his presence similarly felt in the first small gallery off of the large central space. There the viewer was confronted by the works of Marco Breuer, produced by the artist performing procedures on photographic paper rather than by reproducing outside images. Breuer’s hauntingly gorgeous Untitled (News/Paper) (1998) and Untitled (Metal/Day) (2000) were both achieved through burning gelatin silver paper. The small-scale but arresting Metal/Day appeared as ephemeral rusting on a gray background, with mysterious splotches reminiscent of early, Surrealist Mark Rothko. The stacked registers of Breuer’s Metal/Day were placed across the room from Sigmar Polke’s much larger scaled, but also stacked, Untitled (Here and Elsewhere) (1977). As a painter, Polke seemed, in Squiers’s words, to use photography to explore unorthodox “ways of seeing.” This choppy configuration of six rows of photographs were of differing print quality, and sometimes consisted simply of newspaper clippings, including scenes in restaurants of then-current high-level officials who were at one time members of the Nazi party. Thus Polke managed to literally demonstrate the banality of evil through various types of reproduction. Breuer and Polke discoursing across a room is an unexpected juxtaposition due to the stark contrast in their work. It functioned well, in part, due to the mediation of Christopher Williams’s large-scale, also stacked, collaged photographs of actual cameras, cut from postwar European trade publications. Williams’s subject, particularly in combination with the startling sea-foam green background paper, acted as a linkage between Polke’s deadpan approach and Breuer’s sublime aesthetics.

In another small gallery that radiated from the center, Alison Rossiter likewise conjured memories of past avant-gardes. She developed long-dormant sheets of photographic paper to reveal strangely beautiful abstractions, some resembling the clean lines of Paul Strand’s spare landscapes, others more violently expressionistic in their scar-like shapes. This same gallery contained the only video piece in the show, but one using an extraordinary process: Owen Kydd makes “durational photographs”: in Knife (J.G.) (2011), he trained a video camera for an extended period of time on a glinting silver knife displayed in a store window, resulting in a kind of “still” video. It thus became a fascinating example of Rosalind Krauss’s concept of the “post-medium condition” in photography. In her catalogue essay, Squiers frequently refers to Krauss’s “Two Moments from the Post-Medium Condition” (October 116 [Spring 2006]: 55–62), although, interestingly, rather than quibbling with Krauss—and her past critique of the indexical—Squiers makes Krauss an ally to her argument: “For Krauss, this (condition) occurs after a technology ‘breaks down under the force of its own obsolescence,’ which allows artists to experiment with it and utilize its capacities for expressive means” (15; emphasis in original).

In the longest gallery, a visual discourse between two masters dominated, perhaps even to the detriment of the other artists sharing the space. Adam Fuss’s mesmerizing, large-scale photograms, particularly the purple-tinted Untitled (2001), were placed across from James Welling’s set of abstract inkjet prints, including IRDB (2002) and ILY1 (2002). Fuss’s piece inspired a yearning to lie down underneath it and experience the illusion of bodily evaporation into its central vortex—an eerily similar sensation to that of James Turrell’s monumental Aten Reign light installation in the rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum in 2013. Welling’s pure abstractions were from the Degradés series (1986–2006), color studies created in the dark by exposing half of the chromogenic paper to a strict color filtration: twenty points of Cyan, zero points of Magenta, one hundred points of Yellow, and then the other half to a different filtration (exhibition catalogue, 20). Each of the three pinkish-hued Welling pieces placed across from the Fuss contained hovering squares of color, conjuring an almost alien landscape. Yet they were irresistible to the eye. Both of these artists were responding directly to the material qualities of the medium itself—color spectrum, etc.—with a level of sensuality that would have been anathema to the 1980s generation influenced by Conceptual art, including Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, and Barbara Kruger. As Squiers states about Fuss’s earlier photograms: “In the 1980s, purely photographic explorations had no place in the theorization of postmodern art” (26).

The final gallery included a selection of Gerhard Richter multi-media experiments in smearing paint on his photographs—the most self-conscious collapse of these two media in the exhibition, media which have an ongoing dialectical relationship in many of Richter’s best-known works. In this case the oil-paint smears were made purposefully obvious, like finger-painting. They stood out, especially since this generally dead-serious artist seemed to be having a bit of whimsical fun. The Richters ranged in date from 1986–2008, with the facture appearing heavier and thicker as time progressed. However, it should be noted that an even more contemporary example of this tendency could be seen concurrently at the Whitney Biennial (click here for review), in the form of Ken Okiishi’s gestural smearing of oil paint on flat-screen televisions.

Finally, David Benjamin Sherry’s large-scale photographs recalled the decidedly small-scale Polaroids of many 1970s youths traveling cross-country with their parents. Although the strange and aged-looking process of the prints was not detailed in the wall label, Squiers’s catalogue essay explains that Sherry set up large- or medium-format cameras in front of his subjects from nature, such as Lower Yosemite Falls (2013). Subsequently, in the darkroom he printed them using supersaturated monochromes including, in this case, “hot” or “acidic” hues which became “increasingly artificial” and were printed as large as seventy-two by sixty inches (36). The effect was a strange coming together of the monumental with the throwaway vernacular, like an intense moment of revelation that one can only recall through an old, faded photograph pasted in an album.

A deeply thoughtful accompaniment to the exhibition is presented in Geoffrey Batchen’s catalogue essay, “‘Photography’: An Art of the Real,” which charts periodic efforts by photographers to “tell us what photography really is.” What he finds in included artists such as Rossiter is materiality: they are often compelled to take their “medium back to first principles”—a retort, in essence, to the idea of the postmedium condition (59). The most stimulating past examples Batchen presents come from three distinct historical periods of image-making: the first experiments by William Henry Fox Talbot in the 1830s–1850s to simply capture and fix materiality, such as lace or gauze, onto paper; the attempt by Moholy-Nagy in the 1920s and 1930s to make a photograph that was “true to its own materiality, free from optical illusion” (51); and the advent of Minimalism in the 1960s, with its artistic production that insisted on “perceptual experience being . . . the end in itself” (56, quoting Eugene Goossen in 1968). All of these impulses are summarized by Batchen as a desire to demonstrate what the medium is, not what the medium shows.

As Batchen’s essay underscores, What Is a Photograph? was, at its core, a historical—albeit recently historical—exploration of the medium, and one heavily oriented toward materiality. Squiers’s curation undoubtedly created a florid contrast to conceptualism and the more deadpan and political aesthetic of its descendants. Some may have attended the exhibition expecting to see the future, and therefore more abundant digital contemplations. Be that as it may, it delivered a thought-provoking alternative history to the recent past, requisite for any subsequent leap forward.

Vanessa Rocco
Assistant Professor, Department of Humanities, Southern New Hampshire University