Sunday, November 12, 2017

Fanfare For The Common Denominator

If the Philadelphia Museum of Art wishes to lower its standards to appeal to broader audiences, Philadelphia Assembled (currently running at the Perelman Building through December 17, 2017) is literally the ticket.

In our politicized age museum administrators and donors feel enormous pressure to reach out to their surrounding communities, embrace and underwrite art and artists they have traditionally shunned and engage previously disenfranchised audiences in terms to which they can relate.

Locally, the headlong rush into community outreach began in earnest with the Zoe Strauss retrospective of a few years ago, continued more recently with the “Wild” exhibition that just completed its run and currently reaches its apogee in “Philadelphia Assembled”, an exuberant, muddled assemblage of folk art, fine art, indigenous commerce, ethnic memory, community activism and polemic.

One cannot help suspect these efforts may boost the Museum’s attendance bottom line in the short term but not engage the new audiences when more traditional exhibitions are mounted.  (“Old Masters Now,” a celebration of the museum’s justly famous Johnson collection, will be an immediate test.) One thing is certain:  the pay-as-you-wish policy in effect for this exhibition won’t help the museum’s financial bottom line.

Cultural institutions must evolve to survive.  Whether or not they need to turn their backs on their traditional roles is another matter.  The staff, donors and organizers would have us believe the doors to the Museum no longer secure a forbidding fortress set upon the hill but rather are permanently thrown open, becoming a supersized community center albeit one that predominantly houses priceless objects we still dare not touch!

Philadelphia Assembled, organized by the Dutch artist Jeanne van Heeswjick, gives voice to the dispossessed and oppressed populations of Philadelphia, principally but not exclusively peoples of color.  (I have no problem with outsiders coming to town, staying for a while to take its pulse and then mastermind an exhibition.  However, it is presumptuous in the extreme to believe a year or even two in residence is adequate to claim any meaningful understanding of such a large, diverse urban population.).

If nothing else, the exhibition confronts the viewer with imagery that is unfamiliar in museums and with voices unheard except in the streets.  This is the real thrust of Philadelphia Assembled, displacing alternative visions from their originating communities into a setting where one expects to see art.  It’s a form of illusion and if we grasp the idea, the objects become mere souvenirs of the occasion.  One might test this theory by trying to recall in detail most of the imagery from the exhibition.

Anyone who drives through parts of this city other than its glitzy center cannot have avoided seeing the neighborhoods “re-assembled” in the museum.   Philadelphia has huge expanses of these depressed neighborhoods whose populations have been marginalized and rendered mostly invisible to outsiders.  Museum Director Timothy Rub envisioned an experience “… when our galleries are appropriated to become a stage for the city itself.”  A “period room” reconstruction from a Kensington home that houses the Alumni Ex-Offenders offices is a prime example of Rub’s vision.  So, too, is a wall of street signs proclaiming “We Buy Houses”, all of which display the identical phone number that connects to a voice mailbox where visitors can record messages about personal stories of gentrification and displacement.  In fact, the entire undertaking is a two-way street since Philadelphia Assembled began with a series of community events and participation outside the museum’s walls such as the lighting of an underpass in Nicetown last spring meant to draw attention to mass incarceration.  The second phase is comprised of these installations at the Perelman.

The most striking example of the stark contrast between low and high art is the wall of polaroid photos of Philadelphia prisoners serving life sentences in Pennsylvania and Jeffrey Stockbridge’s photographs of drug addicts and prostitutes in the Kensington neighborhood.  The polaroids, with their frontal flash lighting, centered compositions and inherent small format, are of record-making at its most simple and direct.  Their sheer numbers overwhelm any individuality they might achieve despite being accompanied by statements and names.  

Stockbridge’s photographs, on the other hand, are carefully composed and lighted and in a few instances printed very large.  They are very individual.  Their polish seems strangely out of place here and indeed the images were not made with Philadelphia Assembled in mind.  This last point also dramatically underscores the clear racial distinction between Stockbridge’s nearly all white subjects and the peoples of color that predominate the rest of the exhibition.  His are the very few images that expand the notion of Philadelphia in its greater diversity assembled. (Stockbridge’s photographs also belong to that huge category of images of long-standing presence in museums and galleries that allow viewers who would normally cross the street rather than confront these subjects to feel safe if not compassionate about facing them in a setting of art.)

The museum’s website states the exhibition is organized around five principles: 
Reconstructions: How do we rewrite our histories?
Sovereignty: How do we define self-determination & unity?
Sanctuary: How do we create safe spaces?
Futures: How do we reimagine our tomorrow?
Movement: How do we share knowledge?

All of these beg the larger question of how we begin to arrive at answers, however tentative, in the context of art and the museum.  After all, the Museum is the nexus of assembly.  According to the museum’s website, the “Sovereignty” working group “is exploring the concepts of the marketplace and cultural exchange as they relate to histories of self-determination and the preservation of community wisdom. PHLA will partner with various businesses along the 52nd Street corridor in West Philadelphia to offer spaces for creating unity and cultivating economic sovereignty.”

To that end, events were organized in West Philadelphia such as “Jewelry Making with Esau” , “Knitting for Unity and PaPosse Crafts”, and Essential Oils and Incense Production.”  In the end, however, displacing artifacts, symbols and signs into a museum does not address the fundamental question of what are our expectations of the institution.  And if the ultimate goal is the complete dissolution of boundaries, why move into the museum in the first place?  Why not simply declare Philadelphia and open museum city?

Denise Valentine, a Philadelphia storyteller collaborating in the exhibition, had this to say in Hyperallergic, a “forum for serious, playful, and radical thinking about art in the world today, headquartered in Brooklyn, New York”: “We intend to re-imagine the Philadelphia Museum of Art as a place to unearth stories hidden deep in the soil of Philadelphia. We envision a place where narratives of the enslaved, the incarcerated, the displaced, and the disenfranchised are held in as high esteem as Eurocentric ideas about art, history, and culture.”
The Philadelphia Museum of Art cannot be all things to all people unless, of course, it seeks to preserve and present the lowest common denominator.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Mild

Wild: Michael Nichols (at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through September 17, 2017) is an exemplary show for a major art museum in the 21st Century;  “exemplary” but not very satisfying.

Nichols, a renowned photographer of wildlife as well as a zealous advocate of habitat and species preservation, is also one brave dude.  He ventures into the most remote, forbidding and dangerous environments throughout the world.  He is also an admired technical innovator whose experiments and inventions have made possible images previously impossible to realize.

What he is not is an important artist.  But that isn’t the point the Philadelphia Museum of Art really wants to make though it tries to have it both ways.

Mounting a huge exhibition of oversized prints of wildlife and habitats seeks to draw a broader audience than do the usual sanctified works of, say, Impressionism or 17th Century Holland.  Think of this exhibition as part of the PMA’s new outreach program intended to encourage people not normally disposed to visit traditional museums of art to visit and find works that are immediately accessible and pleasing. Nichols’ work is certainly that, but
it is not particularly challenging intellectually or rewarding aesthetically.

Documentary or advocacy photography has had a long, sometimes tenuous relationship to the traditional art world of painting and sculpture.  Today, however, Walker Evans, Eugene Atget, or Sebastiao Salgado among many are revered, exhibited and collected by both worlds.  All of them made photographs on assignment or for commercial purposes that were later divorced from their original contexts and displaced into the museum or gallery.   Their entry into the pantheon of artists is secure yet few viewers regard their work in its original terms, documenting the Farm Security Administration (Evans), making documents to sell to artists (Atget), or documenting the gold mining industry (Salgado).

As if to lend further credence to the notion that Nichols’ work fits into that broader tradition, the PMA shows a number of paintings and sculptures from its own collection alongside the photographs.  Among these are Edward Hicks The Peaceable Kingdom, Henri Rousseau’s The Merry Jesters or Tommy Dale Palmore’s Reclining Nude.  Yet each of these works is not rooted in advocacy, cataloguing or the making of documents.  (Interestingly, one need only walk down the hall from the Nichols’ exhibition to the concurrent, magnificent show of Goya prints to recognize where documenting ends and art begins.)

Nichols’ work is flat aesthetically.  Big cats leaping towards the lens are dramatic while images of orphan elephants covered by handlers in protective clothing do evoke sympathy, but they do not excite the imagination the way Rousseau’s dreamy invented landscapes inhabited by oddly acting creatures do.  Nor do his photographs exhibit the spiritual origins of Hicks’ biblically inspired painting in which the leopard, kid and children “lie down” together in harmony.  Instead, Nichols gives us a pride of lions devouring its prey as a matter-of-fact statement about survival. And compared to the high irony of Palmore’s Reclining Nude, a huge ape assuming the pose of a classical nude, Nichols’ unambiguous photographs of apes are prosaic.


Photographs of Jane Goodall, monkeys and apes seek to educate and inform.  The series on elephants revolves around the dire conditions created by poachers, who have imperiled the population of wild elephants despite efforts to stop this illegal practice.  Nichols does reach the viewer emotionally, challenging our complacency about disappearance of habitat and the animals living within, but on a level we associate more with appeals from the World Wildlife Federation or the huge number of nature shows on television rather than the ways in which we respond to, say, Durer’s enigmatic and fantastic Rhinoceros.  This is not a bad thing. Indeed, judging from the good attendance I saw on an early, hot Saturday morning in mid-July, I would say the show is a success.  It just isn’t especially memorable.

A version of this article first appeared in the Broad Street Review

Sunday, August 28, 2016

New Mormon Temple Pitched

“Tours” of the new Mormon Temple in Philadelphia are now being offered to the public free of charge until the official dedication in September.  Lasting about an hour, they are preceded by a 10 minute inspirational film that sets the mood for presentations to follow.

“Tour” isn’t exactly the proper term here.  Yes, we were guided through the new space while our hosts, different ones in each room, and others stationed in every stairwell and corridor, briefly explained what each part was used for.  The main thrust of their talk, however, was concerned with devotion, baptism, the afterlife, the joys of belonging to the Temple and personal anecdotes about their faith.  I’ll limit myself here to the building itself.

The overall impression is of an immaculate, pristine space in which nary a paint roller brush stroke, crooked line or imperfect miter appears,  All surfaces, be they granite or drywall, are perfect. Not a single seam wavers.  Switch plate covers are perfectly aligned. Banisters and railings are all perfectly joined and silken to the touch.  Everything sparkles from the enormous chandeliers to stained-glass windows.  Visitors are required to wear booties to preserve the mostly lily-white carpeting, marble and hardwood flooring.  While understandable given the large crowds passing through in devotion or curiosity, one has the feeling the perfection will endure long after the "tours" end and the real business begins.  There is no room here for imperfections.

That said, the structure has as much character as a convention hotel or mortuary.

Worst are the god awful paintings adorning nearly every wall and corridor.  Many look as if they’ve been acquired from the firms that supply motel chains.  Badly painted and generic, they seem to be after thoughts intended to break up the monotony of the endless perfection.  Reproduction furniture abounds.  The overall impression is of Neo-Bland, antiseptic and unexceptional.

The colors of the walls are almost all a variation on white or beige, soothing to the point of boredom. There are no grand halls though a few larger spaces have soaring ceilings.  There are, however, dozens of small rooms, like breakout conference rooms in any of a thousand corporate centers and hotels.  These, our guides tell us, are where most of the real work is done, behind closed doors.  There is no main sanctuary with its row after row of pews, altar or bema.

The exterior of the building makes no pretense of being modern.  Indeed, it is unabashedly retrograde without ever defining any particular style.  There are plenty of classical elements to go around, all the more to establish pedigree and tradition.  There are occasional elements suggesting the Baroque and some that even attempt to evoke the 18th Century colonial traditions of Philadelphia.  In other words, it is a pastiche pure and simple.  Having seen Mormon temples in several other cities throughout the United States I can say they vary more than your average McDonald's but all clearly adhere to a style book.

A baptismal font set on 12 bronzed oxen representing the twelve tribes of Israel is perhaps the most soothing room of all because unlike nearly every other space in the temple, one looks down, not up or across, into the cool, inviting water, which swirls softly in contrast to the stasis everywhere else.  This view is small consolation for an otherwise forgettable experience.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

A Triumph of Didacticism & Delectation

My first reaction to the news last year the Philadelphia Museum of Art would be mounting a major exhibition of the Impressionists this spring was that the last thing we need is another damn Impressionist show.

I was wrong, terribly wrong.

Discovering the Impressionists: Paul Durand-Ruel and the New Painting, revolves around Durand-Ruel, the prescient and shrewd Parisian dealer who championed, promoted, bought and sold thousands of works by the Impressionists.  His acuity and vision are attested to by the wondrous collection of paintings seen here, many for the first time in the United States and some for the first time together in more than a century.

The wall labels require as much scrutiny as the art itself.  On each we learn not only the year in which the painting was excecuted, but also the year it was first acquired by Durand-Ruel, to whom it was subsequently sold or auctioned, and, sometimes, the  year it was reacquired and resold--often by Durand-Ruel.  The last entry on each label names the current institution or individual who owns the work and from whom it was acquired.

Also included among the artifacts of the exhibition is Durand-Ruel's ledger, which lists, among its many columns, the asking and selling prices for each work he handled.  This was a dealer who was clearly willing to gamble but also one who maintained meticulous records of each transaction.

Audiences today are generally well aware of the role that major galleries and private dealers play, not just in the success of individual artists but in the prices realized for their work.  Indeed, beginning in the mid-19th century, dealers became celebrities themselves: in some cases, they became the subject of works.  This exhibition successfully limns not only the triumphs of the relationship between a dealer and his stable, but also its pitfalls and failures.

Durand-Ruel took risks in championing artists who were unknown or unpopular at the time.  He never doubted the revolutionary qualities of their work, but he was faced with hostile or indifferent critics and audiences and skeptical collectors.  He employed -- often for the first time -- all the strategies with which we are now familiar: bidding on his own artists’ works at auction to prop up the prices; purchasing paintings in bulk from the artists, sometimes before all in a series were even executed; and prodding his artists on aesthetic grounds.
Durand-Ruel would often visit an artist’s studio and buy 25 to 30 paintings or more on the spot. Needless to say, these purchases (or advances he would make for future works) were entirely speculative. Monet’s 1883 exhibition of roughly 60 paintings was a complete failure — nothing sold. A decade later Durand-Ruel exhibited Monet’s Poplars and all of them sold.
Durand-Ruel flirted with or went through a few bankruptcies. He purchased works in collaboration with other dealers. He borrowed heavily. He opened galleries in other European capitals and in New York. He traveled ceaselessly in support of his artists. Indeed, he first met Monet and Pissarro in London, where they and others had fled to escape the Franco-Prussian War.
The Impressionists’ first major exhibition as a group was in 1874. Two years later, they mounted their second important group show at Durand-Ruel’s gallery in Paris. It was not a commercial success. The first major commercial success from a show came in New York, not Paris — an 1886 exhibition at the American Art Galleries in New York was well received. A second exhibition followed immediately at the National Academy of Design in New York. Buoyed by the positive experiences in New York, including sales to a number of important American collectors (many of whom are represented on the wall labels of this exhibition), Durand-Ruel returned to Paris, where future exhibitions, including the Monet show of Poplars, were both critical and financial successes.
This exhibit is not simply about the making of reputations and the business of art. Durand-Ruel can be said to have discovered, as well as promoted, these artists, but had he not, someone else would have come along — the art is wonderful. Many of the paintings that fill the exhibit’s walls were unknown to me, even in reproduction; others I was seeing in person for the first time. All of them confirmed their original champion's intuition. 
(This article first appeared in the Broad Street Review)

Monday, July 13, 2015

Finishing First & Last

If nice guys finish last, the biggest SOBs must finish first, right?

Well, if your name is Robert Frank, the answer appears to be a resounding “yes.”

The cover story in the July 2 New York Times Magazine name Frank “the most influential photographer alive.” In the process of making that case, author Nicholas Dawidoff also paints a portrait of a misanthrope of epic proportions.

Both assessments have much merit.

Frank’s great achievement was the publication of The Americans, 83 photographs culled from the tens of thousands he shot as he crisscrossed the country on a Guggenheim fellowship in the mid-1950s.

Initially, the book was hardly a success. Indeed, Frank could not find an American press willing to publish it. Les Américains was first published in 1958 in Paris, where it found a sympathetic audience among left-wing intellectuals hostile to post-war American hegemony.

The first edition did not even carry a photograph by Frank on the cover; instead, a Saul Steinberg drawing graced it. The French edition also contained numerous writings by well-known authors, including Simone de Beauvoir and William Faulkner, and some critics felt these overshadowed the pictures. It wasn’t until 1959 that a U.S. edition was printed by Grove Press. In that case, the French edition’s texts were removed entirely, a forward was written by Jack Kerouac, and a photograph by Frank appeared on the cover.

That first American edition enjoyed limited success, but Kerouac’s introduction was instrumental in introducing Frank’s work to a small but sympathetic audience here. The second edition, printed in 1969, achieved tremendous success and established Frank’s place among the most influential photographers of his time.

The work was revolutionary, but its timing was also critical.

Unlike earlier “street photographers” like Cartier-Bresson or “documentarians” like Walker Evans, Frank was not interested in order, structure, decisiveness, or public policy. (Actually, Evans wasn’t interested in the latter either, but he produced some of his most important work under the aegis of the Farm Security Administration.)

Rather, Frank’s was a gruff, sharp-eyed and -tongued look at the underbelly of American society. He eschewed beautiful prints or, at times, even focus and perspective correction, to stare unflinchingly at the otherness of America, that is, the America that ended up on the metaphorical cutting room floor of the exhibition The Family of Man, which opened the same year Frank began his American sojourn.

Frank, a curmudgeon from an early age, openly disdained the sort of thinking that saw humankind as one big, happy family. He held institutions in general in contempt and professed disdain for the trappings of success even while he benefited financially from the acclaim he received and the support they provided.

The Times Magazine piece also makes it clear he was a lousy husband and even lousier father, as well as an unpredictable friend as likely to turn on you as not — neither of which, of course, precludes greatness in art.

Whether or not Frank consciously perceived the sea change about to get underway in America (and the argument can be made that as a foreigner he was in a unique position to do so), he did exploit two converging movements in the late 1960s in America. As the hippie movement expanded, American youth hit the road in record numbers not seen since the migrations of the Great Depression — the difference being that in the later period road trips were more often than not elective. Kerouac’s On the Road had been published a decade earlier, but by the time of the second printing of The Americans, it seemed as though everyone was headed for Haight-Ashbury or a commune in New Mexico or some music festival on some farm in upstate New York.

The other element of the zeitgeist coinciding with the second printing of The Americans was the antiwar, antiestablishment mood. The American dream had soured badly, and youth openly rebelled at racial and economic inequalities and the imperial arrogance of the best and the brightest. The Americans became a kind of visual anthem for a rebellious generation newly attuned to the outliers in its midst.

Meanwhile, Frank abandoned photography, and eventually New York, for film and rural life in Nova Scotia. He also divorced his first wife and more or less abandoned his children. Now celebrated in both the art and photography worlds (they were still seen as largely separate in those days), Frank nevertheless disdained elitism and high culture. “Once respectability and success become a part of it, then it was time to look for a new mistress,” he wrote in 1969. Occasionally he would appear in issues of Creative Camera — a short-lived photography magazine — writing his "Letter from New York", a missive so vitriolic and bitter regarding the art scene, the editors dropped it.

Frank no longer made photographs. He was spent, having said all he had to say in that medium. Dawidoff quotes more than a few indie filmmakers who insist that even had Frank not established himself as one of the gods of photography, his influence and reputation in film would suffice to secure his reputation. His films never achieved a significant audience. Pull My Daisy, his first film, enjoyed the most “success,” but not for its disjointed, rough, unorthodox appearance and “celebrity” cast of beat personalities. Rather, it was seen as a cultural document of irreverent hijinx.

Today, 90 years old and, as documented in Katy Grannan’s marvelous photographs, which accompany the article, disheveled in the extreme, Frank lives in New York part of the year. He still likes to hurl barbs at the self-important and entitled, but he knows the value of his name and his work as a photographer and isn’t above capitalizing on these when it suits him.

(This article first appeared in the Broad Street Review)

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Second Acts

One seldom realizes historic moments have occurred until well after the fact.  Fortunately, there are occasional second acts in life.  The Met's show of the Leonard Lauder Cubist Collection is just such an occasion. One hundred years after Cubism's revolution, visitors to this exhibition can witness history unfolding again in all its radical, inventive glory.

Cubism emerged over a decade, primarily in two studios, and in two stages.  The Lauder collection includes four artists, Braque, Picasso, Gris and Leger, but only the first two were making history.  The other two, along with peripheral figures, were drafting in their wake.

Of course Cubism did not emerge in a vacuum, and Braque and Picasso acknowledged as much with their numerous tributes to Cezanne.  But Cubism's grand gesture, drawing the blinds on the window of Renaissance tradition and convention, was a discreet moment in painting's history and everyone, especially its two heroes, knew it was happening and consciously took credit for it.

Try as we might, the objects and figures referenced in the matter-of-fact titles bestowed on their canvases by Braque and Picasso led the viewer into dead ends.  One could not penetrate the canvas, that is, look through the window.  Even their reductive monochromatic palettes thwarted the expectations built up over four hundred years of painting.  The framed canvas was no window on the world. Modernism's water had broken.

A few years later the second stage emerged as Braque and Picasso began incorporating newspaper clippings or chair caning among other objects in their canvases.  Thus, these masters of representation willingly stepped aside and allowed things to represent themselves.  Modernism was born.  Paintings were indeed flat panels on wood, canvas or other material with paint and things on them.  Pure abstraction was unleashed and Modernism surged ahead.

The Lauder collection is extraordinarily rich in surveying these dramatic moments as they burst onto the scene.  As a bonus since all 81 works in the collection now permanently reside at the Met, the gift not only makes that museum a prime destination for anyone wishing to understand Cubism, but a mere 30 blocks south sits MOMA, which owns the greatest, large-scale triumph of Cubism, Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.  Thus, the visitor to New York can see the birth of modernism in a single afternoon.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Ray Metzker

Innovator.  Formalist.  Intellectual searcher.  Legatee of the American Bauhaus.

Ray Metzker, who passed away in early October at the age of 83, has been called all of the above.  He has also been called one of the most important photographers of the second half of the 20th Century.

These labels are accurate albeit incomplete.

Ray, who was my mentor in graduate school and my friend and colleague after that, was one of the most important artists of the second half of the 20th Century and first decade of this one.  Despite the often brooding, mysterious, intense and foreboding nature of much of his work, he had a whimsical, playful side to him as well.  Light dances.  Lines pulsate.  Titles such as "Flutterbye" and "Hot Diggedy" are hardly expressions of existential angst.

The last important body of work he completed, images of reflections in car windshields and bodies, was executed as late as 2009. These capped a career of relentless discoveries and summarized the qualities that set Metzker apart and defined his legacy:  curiosity, an eye for the ordinary and a resultant extraordinary vision in bold black and white.  He could see in layers, combinations, simultaneity.  Like the late modernist he was, he learned the lessons not only of photography but of art in general, distilled them and synthesized his own take.  He understood photographs were objects themselves and went about rethinking how they could be realized, how they could appear.

Metzker was never a big star, nor did he seek celebrity.  He wasn't even particularly famous most of his career, recognition coming relatively early and then quiet and subdued for many years.  He spoke of receiving little recognition from colleagues where he taught, but, then, he was too jealous of his time to work to let them intrude socially. He did, however, receive important recognition from the Guggenheim Foundation (twice), the National Endowment for the Arts, and other sources.


When I would tell people I had studied with him they invariably would say, “Oh, yes, the photographer who did the composites.”  These were clearly his breakthrough pieces, the ones that established him as a formidable figure.  Not satisfied with the single image, Metzker explored multiple images, assembled or printed as uncut rolls of film, rhythmic and pulsating and dazzling.  They were also quite large in many cases, well before the current era of huge prints, many of which are large simply because it is possible, not because the vision demanded it as was the case with Metzker.  The multiples were, ironically, predominantly one of a kinds, another challenge to the notion that the photograph was endlessly reproducible.


But the reception of the multiples (or composites as some labeled them) were hardly laurels upon which he rested. Double-frame images, single images, landscapes, non-representational photograms, figures lying on the beach preceded and followed them and ultimately constituted a prodigious output in both numbers and quality.

Ray's studio walls were covered with found objects, many of which did not make it into his work but clearly influenced it.  He was a flaneur, roaming with and without his camera.  To walk the streets of Philadelphia with Ray was to see them anew if not for the first time! He'd noticed a new business or renovation underway and recall what was there previously.  He would marvel at some architectural detail and, suddenly, stare at a shaft of light following across a façade.


After graduate school and a stint in the military, Ray traveled in Europe for more than a year, taking walks and pictures, developing his film in makeshift “darkrooms” in hotels and pensions.  When I asked him how he would work during that sojourn he said simply, “One day I would walk out the door and turn to the left; the next day I would turn to the right.”

As arbitrary as that sounded to me then, I realized later he always carried what he called “terms” with him.  Some thing or quality of light or forms had caught his attention on one of his walks and he went out the next day with them in mind.  He didn't have a specific picture planned, just these qualities that made pictures worth taking...and looking at.  This approach was the key to what made Metzker an artist of importance and what made his work challenging.  He understood that the artist begins his exploration by admitting what he doesn't know.  Then he sets out to try and discover meanings.

(Versions of this piece first appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer's Op-Ed page and The Broad Street Review)


Monday, January 27, 2014

Oddities R Us

David Graham has made a career of searching for and finding cultural oddities and modest  -- very modest -- visual ironies.  A survey of them is on view at Gallery 339 in his show "David Graham: Thirty-five Years / 35 Pictures",  through March 15th.

Graham has covered a lot of territory lo these three and half decades and Gallery 339 chose a single picture from each year summarizing his peregrinations across the Continent.  Most of these images are of the built environment and man's interaction with it and are predominated by the vernacular architecture and signage that dots mostly rural and small town America.  Many bring to mind the tall tale postcards of another era. Indeed, one image of the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward, WI, is a direct descendant of those Tall Tale postcards captioned "The fish are big here", which usually showed a bass filling up an entire canoe or held aloft by a fisherman who is the same size. 
Tall Tale Post Card
In Graham's take the fish are so enormous people can be seen inside the open mouth of one of them gazing over the landscape.

Huge novelty dinosaurs outside a McDonald's in Benson, AZ., or a giant black and white dairy cow tethered to a trailer looming over a parking lot south of Oshkosh, WI, typify Graham's quest for the odd or incongruous. (In the Wisconsin photo a black and white dog is seen in the foreground lapping water from a puddle, announcing to anyone insufficiently impressed merely by a big cow "Look, they're both black and white!")

There are several photographs of pictures as well, some the interiors of artists' studios with still life setups and canvases on easels, others of trompe l'oeil paintings on building walls and still others of the pictures that make up the artifacts with which people surround themselves.  In one, from Claremont, KY, a framed photograph presumably of the deceased stands next to a grave and fresh flowers.  In front of them is an image on fabric of a telephone with the receiver off the hook and the caption "Jesus Called". One might be tempted to say this subset constitutes Graham's foray into an examination of the process of making pictures itself, but the probing is strictly for effect, not insight.

There are colorful views of old cars parked in front of a garage offering batteries; multi-colored doors on motels; public monuments of canon aimed at wall murals of the Statue of Liberty; road signs out in the middle of nowhere offering "Good Luck"; football players doing drills beneath a huge tower capped by an ear of corn; and an abandoned gas station in Golden Meadow, LA,  at which the huge canopy over the pumps has partially collapsed.

Unlike the work of his best-known predecessors who focused on vernacular expression, Walker Evans in particular, Graham's work inevitably plays for the easy laugh rather than anything penetrating.   Indeed, what impresses most here is how Graham treats every subject the same without nuance or distinction, just an endless supply he needs to collect and add to the catalog.

Though he started his project nearly forty years ago, long before the age of computers, Graham's work most reminds me of today's internet jokes.  You read them and then delete them.

(A version of this piece first appeared in the Broad Street Review:  Read it here)

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Tradition


Much more than just the art was moved when the Barnes Foundation relocated its collection from Merion to Philadelphia a year and a half ago. The powers-that-be also packed up and moved the attitude for which the collection was equally famous.

Many people unfortunate enough to purchase memberships in advance of opening day were more than a little miffed to discover that their privileges expired in exactly one year, even though it was months before they could first exercise them. Even more subscribers were angered when repeated phone calls and emails protesting this policy went unanswered.

One anecdote in particular stands out in underscoring just how unreasonable and outrageous the Barnes staff remains.

A friend and her out-of-town companion went to the museum on a summer weekend. Midway through their visit, both went to the rest room. When they returned by the only route available to re-enter the galleries, they were told to stand in line and wait to be admitted.

They explained that they’d already been admitted earlier and simply went to the rest room. The attendant wouldn't budge.

For years, the old Barnes restricted the number of people who could enter the institution at any given time. Even certain kinds of footwear were restricted. Visitors were eyed with suspicion. Many residents in the immediate Merion neighborhood objected to the numbers of cars (not to mention buses) parked along Latches Lane.
Apparently the new Barnes continues to view attendance as a necessary evil.

Then, of course, there are the eccentricities of the collection itself. For every fine Matisse or Cézanne, the Barnes offers mind-numbing quantities of saccharine Renoirs. For every fine Glackens, there are pedestrian others. 

Albert Barnes knew a stick in the eye when he saw one. All of that hardware sprinkled among the paintings, hinges and other pieces of medieval ironwork purporting to support his peculiar notion of art were transferred to the new location with absolutely no changes permitted.

It’s all of a piece: the bizarre theories and uneven quality of work, coupled with indifference spilling over into outright hostility. Then and now, the Barnes is no unalloyed pleasure to visit. The people who run it have maintained that tradition! 

A version of this first appeared in the Broad Street Review.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

The Easy Way Out


Curators periodically prefer to take the path of least resistance and mount exhibitions culled from their own institution’s vaults rather than pursue the more exhaustive and expensive enterprise of assembling works from far-flung sources.  Apart from the time and money saved, there is surely some appeal in the notion of seeing what’s in the basement rather than racking one’s brain coming up with an original idea. 

A prime example of this approach is the exhibition "Treasures of the Alfred Stieglitz Center: Photographs from the Permanent Collection" currently showing in the Honickman and Berman Galleries at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through April 7.

Curator Peter Barberie never sets out to offer a comprehensive survey of the PMA’s vast, rich holdings.  Instead, we are informed, these works are “highlights” purporting to “trace the medium’s history as an art form.” 

He should have racked his brain. 

While any responsible museum rotates its permanent collection now and then, if an underlying organizing principle lies behind the decision, it deserves more than a casual exposition.  The challenge with these didactic shows quite often lies as much in the accompanying materials and wall labels as in the concept.  Curators shouldn’t be cavalier just because they have unlimited treasures from which to pick.  A little effort is required to elucidate, not just illustrate.  In this instance, visitors unfamiliar with the details of photography’s history won’t glean much from this highly abridged edition; nor is there any serious attempt to help educate them.

The famous (William Henry Fox Talbot) and less well-known (Charles Aubry) are represented here employing the earliest methods (paper negatives, daguerreotypes, albumen and collodian wet plates) up to the most current.  A wide variety of styles and movements are also on view including but not limited to architectural records of the ancient world, street photography, portraiture, still life, etc. Again, the work ranges from the famous (Robert Frank) to the not-so-famous (Joachim Koester)

At the exhibition’s core are a series of works by Alfred Stieglitz and Dorothy Norman, a Stieglitz protégé, lover and keeper of the flame, whose generous donations in the late '60's helped establish the Center.  Stieglitz’s work has long belonged to the canon; Norman's work has not.  Nothing here will change that circumstance.

No reputation in the history of photography has been more inflated than that of Stieglitz.  Had he only been a promoter and gallery owner, his championing of photography and modernist art would have sufficed to secure his reputation; but Stieglitz was a photographer of enormous energy if not talent who had a way of mythologizing his efforts.

It is sacrilege not only to suggest he talked a better game than he photographed, but worse, the failure to genuflect in front of works such as “The Steerage” or his badly exposed and printed “Equivalents” is grounds for derision by the photographic community.  “The Steerage” has often been cited as photography’s own Cubist apotheosis rather than the matter-of-fact image it is, while the “Equivalents” may take the heavens for their subject but remain earthbound for all that.

Stieglitz innovated insofar as he took lots of pictures under difficult circumstances.  The labors themselves, in blizzard conditions and driving rain, presented serious challenges and he answered them all.  The images themselves rarely rose above the level of snapshots.

The exceptions to his overblown and overwrought oeuvre were his photographs of Georgia O’Keefe, Norman’s predecessor.  These include a number of powerful images whose subject’s own provocative life ensured their renown.  For these Stieglitz was justifiably well known.  They did not merit beatification, however.

Stieglitz’s portraits of Norman are another matter altogether.  They pale in comparison to those of O’Keefe.  Perhaps the fault lay in the subjects’ stardom, not the photographer.  Norman was no O’Keefe in most respects, temperament in particular.  She was lovely and adoring, and in the end perhaps all that mattered…to Stieglitz.

Meanwhile, Norman’s images pale on their own merit.  There is nothing about them that meets the exhibition’s criterion to “trace the medium’s history as an art form” let alone qualifies them as highlights of the collection.  They appear only out of politeness.

(A version of this piece first appeared in The Broad Street Review.  Click here to see it.)

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Ordinary For All That

 Zoe mania, aka Zoe Strauss: Ten Years, recently began its third and final month, and when the media frenzy surrounding it finally exhausts itself, we will have witnessed the most hyped extravaganza (labels like "show" or "exhibition" being far too restrained) ever mounted by the Philadelphia Museum of Art for a local artist, living or dead.

The curator of photography, Peter Barberie, was not content merely to install the 150 photographs by Strauss in what the museum officially called a "mid-career retrospective".  He and the museum's PR machinery had their own agenda, seizing on the opportunity to market Strauss as a  one-woman outreach program aimed not only at the usual museum-going crowd but at her disenfranchised and marginalized subjects -- as well as their friends and neighbors -- many of whose visits were likely one-offs.  (Frankly, in our Twitter age that may be all the attention span a museum board should expect!)

The proceedings got underway with a lavish and raucous opening night dance party attended by thousands.  (See the obligatory YouTube here) Strauss' work was also installed on 54 billboards around town replete with a trolley tour making the rounds.  In addition, an office was set aside at the museum to allow visitors to sit and chat with the photographer.  It all had a carefully planned common touch.

The forty-two year old Strauss took an unorthodox route to the big time.  She had no formal training in either art or photography, beginning her public career by mounting photographs she'd taken in the adjacent neighborhoods on the support columns beneath I-95.  "Invitations" to this ultimate open studio went out to the hood by word-of-mouth, flyers and the internet and the show became an instant sensation and annual event.  Strauss even sold photo-copies of the pictures for $5 a piece.

The art world soon took notice.  Strauss received a PEW grant and was included in the Whitney Biennial.  She acquired a New York dealer.  In the process, she was anointed an artist of the people, for the people and by the people.  No one seemed willing to consider whether her celebrity begged a larger question: just how important is her work?

Strauss' photographs fall into four general categories:  portraits, the urban environment, signage, and graffiti.  Nearly all the images were made in Philadelphia with occasional forays to the hinterlands.  With rare exception the subject is smack dab in the middle of the frame.  Everything is meant to be simple and honest.  And it is.  Lots of people in tank tops with tattoos. Endless dilapidated store fronts seen head on. Signage, some ironic, but in a sophomoric way.  Scrawled graffiti such as "You shouldn't of taken more than you gave."  In the end, however, one should never mistake bad grammar for profundity, and therein lies the rub with Strauss' work.

The overriding approach here is of straight forward description and relentless cataloging.  There is nothing particularly artful about what she does.  Indeed, given her outsider origins it isn't surprising Strauss eschews artifice, considered composition or handsome prints, focusing solely on content, specifically the downtrodden and decay..  The work certainly isn’t original, nor is it particularly imaginative (apart from the I-95 venue).  If her intent were to evoke sympathy or offer insight into the worlds of people living hard lives in tough environments, the work falls flat, competing as it must with endless daily images of a similar persuasion to say nothing of a long tradition of concerned photography.  Strauss is empathic but apart from her subjects, those looking at the pictures are more likely to feel inured from overexposure.

Did Strauss deserve such unprecedented exposure and treatment on the merits of the work?   I'm afraid not.  There is no mistaking her sincerity, but the work fails to challenge our preconceptions or expectations or to engage us in any discovery.  Strauss' photographs are like snapshots in other peoples' albums;  we recognize them for what they are but we cannot know the stories behind them.  More to the point,  Strauss does not enlighten us or compel us to understand more. 

Since the curator considered this a mid-career treatment, one has to wonder what Strauss will do in the second half.  The guess here is more of the same.

(A version of this piece first appeared in The Broad Street Review.  Click here to see it.)

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Enhanced Status

Kurt Schwitters occupies a spot in the pantheon of modernism, peripheral perhaps, but he's in there, off to one side in the wing reserved for those hard to classify.  The Color and Collage show at the Princeton University Museum of Art should  go a long way toward improving his position.

Featuring approximately 100 works, a full-scale facsimile of his Merzbau, along with some writings and sound recordings, this is the first major exhibition of his work in the United States since the retrospective at MOMA in 1985.  If it took a generation to gather these pieces from collections all over the globe, the prospect for future shows of this scope promises to get even more difficult given the insurance, logistics and related costs of such undertakings.

Organized by the Menil Collection in Houston, it is curated by Isabel Schulz, co-editor of the Kurt Schwitters catalogue raisonné and curator of the Kurt Schwitters Archive at the Sprengel Museum in Hannover.

Schwitters has long been thought of as one of the chief proponents of non-traditional media, incorporating every-day found objects into his collages and constructions.  There were precedents, to be sure, including Picasso's Still Life with Chair Caning of 1912 and Duchamp's Readymades of 1913 - 17, but unlike these artists, Schwitters would make incorporation of common objects the centerpiece of his aesthetic.  As this exhibition makes clear, however, treasure-hunting, displacement and recombination were hardly the sum total of his legacy, a lesson not altogether convincingly understood by some of the artists who acknowledge his influence on them, particularly Robert Rauschenberg.  On the other hand, artists who may not have openly spoken of their debt to Schwitters, especially Joseph Cornell, shared more of his feel for color and organization than is commonly thought.  They were clearly on to something long before the Princeton show reinforced this central point: Kurt Schwitters was an image-maker whose palette included things as well as pigments and forms.

Frequently viewed in the light of Dadaism and Constructivism, in the end Schwitters was sui generis.  He coined the term merz, derived from the German word for commerce, to express his ambition to synthesize quotidian experience with art but without the nihilism and polemics of the Dadaists, nor, frankly, their posturing..

The collages and constructions that issued forth were the distillation of this ambition, the marriage of every day commerce with the more rarefied world of the studio .  The public, including many of the artists he would subsequently influence, took away only part of his message, the finding, displacement and synthesis.  This exhibition restores the full force of his vision, acknowledging his magnificent feel for color, composition and surfaces.  Schwitters may have begun with ordinary, common objects of no apparent "value", but the results were uncommonly beautiful and tranquil.  He understood it was just as reasonable to "dab" a patch of newsprint onto his "brush" as a cadmium yellow.

Schwitters also experimented with the effects produced by the glue he used, creating subtle layers above and beneath the tram tickets, newspaper clippings and product labels he incorporated.  Trained as a painter, he would embrace Modernism's challenge to Renaissance tradition by shedding the frame altogether in some of his assemblages of three-dimensional found objects.  (It is worth noting that even the frameless assemblages are presented here with newer frames around them.  Some conventions just don't die.)

Many of Schwitters better-known images are the large assemblages, bold, dimensional and masculine.  The Merzbau he built in Hanover, destroyed by Allied bombing during World War II, was the logical culmination of this strain in his work, literally a walk-in sculpture that began in one room in his home and extended finally to six of them.  The reconstruction of a single room in Princeton relied on the few extant photographs of the original but is forced to leave out many of the surface details and objects the source pictures' fuzziness and distance could not reveal.

Naturally, the walls of the "room" have no right angles as their surfaces organically veer off in multiple directions, a variation on this framelessness.  And just as naturally, the logical extension here was Schwitters' literal combination of every-day life, his own living space, and his art.  In the end, however, this facsimile, stripped of most of the color and ordinary objects he incorporated, barely hints at the culminating spirit of the original, the dichotomies of messy, chaotic, random life and ordered, considered, practiced art.

Had this survey stopped here, it would have fulfilled its organizers' dream, the bringing about of a reassessment of Schwitters' importance; however, there is much more in Princeton to enhance his value.  Included are several collaborative lithographs made with a commercial printing establishment in which Schwitters combined his own drawings with portions of advertisements from previously printed litho stones lying about, i.e., found in, the printing plant.

Along with samples of his written work (poems, essays, childrens' stories), the gallery is filled with the sounds of Schwitters reciting his phonetic poem “Ursonate,” or “Sonata in Primeval Sounds.”  Nonsensical sounds usher forth in a staccato pattern beneath a large series of photographs of the artist himself, arranged on the wall, repetitive themselves save for subtle changes in facial expression.

This audible accompaniment to the overall experience of standing in front of and walking into Schwitters' art underscores his insistence on a total experience that makes no distinction in forms or media or where they come from.  There aren't many artists about whom that can be said, even those in the pantheon.