What you bump into when you stand back from a photograph
The Original Copy: Photography of Sculpture, 1839 to Today at The Museum of Modern Art
August 1 to November 1, 2010
11 West 53 Street, between 5th and 6th avenues
New York City, 212 708 9400
Art has its objects and MoMA has its mediums.
Considering how much energy artists of the last 120 years have put into subverting boundaries, testing conventions, inventing ostentatiously category-defying new techniques, and tapping emphatically non-fine art technologies it is supremely curious that modernism’s principal collecting and theorizing institution is so rigidly organized by medium-defined curatorial departments. Prints and Illustrated Books, Drawings, Film and Media, Photography: what a glutton for punishment MoMA is, to demarcate so unruly a period along the lines of the very disciplines it subverted.
Even stranger, having divvied up the century by medium, is that the two time-hallowed activities that witnessed most acutely the striving for medium specificity are actually thrust together. Painting and Sculpture is the grand duchy among the fiefdoms—perhaps, indeed (along late Hapsburg lines) the dual monarchy. MoMA’s taxonomy spotlights a struggle at the heart of modernism between materialism and transcendence, essence and dissolution—the very codependency, perhaps, that keeps painting and sculpture together.
Enter the fray an exhibition that offers a provocatively novel take on the interplay of mediums, The Original Copy: Photography of Sculpture, 1839 to Today. Organized by Roxana Marcoci, a curator from Photography, this refreshing, audacious, thought-provoking survey brings together some marvelous photography—but it tells a sad tale about sculpture. For the show reinforces many of the problems with institutional modernism’s definitions of mediums. As this show argues, photography is the medium through which the majority of people in the world have come to know sculpture – André Malraux’s “museum without walls” – and yet in its democratizing of sculpture the young medium has played snake to sculpture’s Laocoön, feeding voraciously on a dying hero.
This might seem like miscasting to the traditional view in which painting, not sculpture, is usurped by photography. My point is that while, in reproduction, painting loses, never mind its aura Walter Benjamin, its surface and color and relative size it keeps its dimension and at least its internal scale. Sculpture, on the other hand, is at the mercy of photography’s interpretation of it. Context trumps intention. Sculpture, you could say, becomes an extra in its own biopic. At the very historic juncture, furthermore, at which sculpture insists on truth to materials, and demands to be experienced “in the round,” it suffers to be flattened to be better known.
The Original Copy compounds sculpture’s problem by presenting joint winners and a poor third among various strands of sculptural photography. There is photography of sculpture, and photography as sculpture. The consolation prize goes to photography for sculpture. Where it could be the subject of photography sculpture becomes its motif, which is not the same thing. And as the camera becomes the means by which the sculptor reconceived the medium as whatever it is that he or she, the sculptor, is doing, rather than a thing or a process (art’s objects), the camera hastened the demise of medium specificity. Painting is either alive or dead. Sculpture, on the other hand, must endure a sort of zombie state in which it is congratulated for looking so healthy when actually it has ceased to be a cast, or a carving, or a welded or assembled thing, to become instead merely a found (as likely by the camera as the hand) object or a walk in the countryside or the artist singing vaudeville on a table in the gallery with his boyfriend.
Ms. Marcoci steps into sculpture and yet steps around it at the same time. She gives us, in her medium, the fate of another medium. And yet her show – kudos for honoring the boundaries of medium-balkanized MoMA – is devoid of sculpture. One section of the show – its geographic but not thematic heart – packs a veritable retrospective of Constantin Brancusi’s own photographs of his own sculpture in a display of 26 prints, predominantly borrowed from the Centre Pompidou. In a feat of restraint – or missed opportunity – there are no examples (as there could easily have been) of the very works the Romanian photographed. If there had been, an updated definition of sculpture would have presented itself as being what you bump into when you step back to admire a photograph of a sculpture.
The show claims a thematic organization, but is actually more chronological than intended, for a definite narrative unfolds. At the outset, photography is at the service of sculpture. By the middle, it flips, to devour sculpture, to deny that statuary and ornaments are distinct from any other class of object one might encounter in life. And in the end, photography is sculpture, whichever side of the lens the sculptor places him or herself.
“Sculpture in the Age of Photography,” the show’s opening section, marks an innocent moment when the camera quivers humbly before ancient stones. A Lorraine O’Grady conceptual work juxtaposing a portrait of a contemporary African-American woman and Nefertiti’s sister Mutnedjimet, or Barbara Kruger’s Your Gaze Hits the Side of My Face (1981), try to throw us off the path, but these accent, rather than disrupt, a display of often exquisite photographs of classical and renaissance statues. Adam Fenton, William Henry Fox Talbot or Stephen Thompson are let loose in the British Museum or places like it, while Clarence Kennedy captures loving details in a 1933 set of The Tomb by Antonio Rosselino for the Cardinal of Portugal. Whether these images are viewed in intentional terms as functional or formal, as essays in light and shade they exploit photography’s capacity to capture textures, to engender a sense of the object’s visceral presence. Sculpture, in return, was the perfectly behaved sitter when long exposure required composure.
Rodin hijacks this calm formalism to insist on the melodrama of chiaroscuro in heavily directed images of his works. Whether from Eugène Druet, Jacques-Ernest Bulloz, or most famously the American Edward Steichen, the sculptor enlisted interpretative artists to serve up propaganda for his romanticism. Steichen’s portrait of the master in Rodin – The Thinker (1902) employs double exposure to abut bronze and marble, maker and made. The other side of Rodin was that he opened up his creative process to photography, documenting the evolution of sculptural ideas. Rodin tapped opposing powers of photography, to evoke mystery and to demystify.
While Rodin threw open the studio doors to photography, Eugène Atget, that industrious flâneur, took a camera around the metropolis, as far as Versailles, to capture baroque statuary in a campaign that was at once encyclopedic and wistful. From his gentle humor The Original Copy segues to the sharper ironies of Dada. Dust Breeding (1920), Man Ray’s photograph of Marcel Duchamp’s Bride Stripped Bare lying in shattered grace in a New York loft, is co-attributed on the exhibition label to both men. But why? This is a photograph by one of the masters of that medium. The sculpture that is its subject is cropped and in a state of decay . (It would subsequently be cleaned by Duchamp and reassembled, some of its dust fixed into selective areas of the glass.) Yes, the maker of the object collaborated, perhaps directed, the photographer. But Rodin is not co-credited on any of the images that he, arguably more forcefully directed than the legendarily laissez-faire Duchamp.
This theme of authorship will take two further twists in the course of The Original Copy. Where Duchamp and Man Ray share the author line of their label, each one in capital letters, by the last segment of the show, “The Performing Body as Sculptural Object,” the artist is the performer not the snapper. Yves Klein is the credited artist in Yves Klein’s Leap into the Void, rendering his feat all the more acrobatic. In parentheses, on the small print line of medium details, Harry Shunk and János Kender are credited for the photograph. And this from a curator from Photography.
Similarly credited are Peter Moore for Yayoi Kusama, Robert R. McElroy for Robert Whitman and for Jim Dine, Max Baker for Red Grooms, Julian Wasser for Claes Odenburg, and so on. And in this section, for Tonsure (1921), in which a pipe smoking Duchamp, with a star shaved into his scalp, is photographed from behind, it is “MARCEL DUCHAMP …. (…photograph by Man Ray.)” The label for the photograph of Gilbert and George performing Great Expectations (1972) is unencumbered with the name of any photographer. I for one can’t tell whether this is because Gilbert and George set up the camera on a timer themselves or because the photographer was some jobbing hack paid by the hour who forgot to leave a calling card.
In the historical process by which sculpture is no longer a thing one has made somewhere else, but is instead a gesture made before the camera, a curious upstairs-downstairs, gentlemen and players game of class is enacted – a coda to the paragone debates (Leonardo versus Michelangelo) of the high renaissance. Now that the sculptor no longer “gets dirty” – from sculpture that is; he or she gets more than dirty, as Dine and Kusama and Gilbert and George and Cindy Sherman all demonstrate, in their performances – the dematerialization of the art object elevates the sculptor to a higher class, the class of thinking (rather than making) artist, to be rewarded with attributed authorship of works (photographs) they didn’t make. And to earn that honor they had to stop making works in their own medium.
Everything started so amicably in this show, with albumen virtually caressing marble, that the divorce half way through of photography and sculpture, with no joint custody, is all the more brutal. Dropped from the narrative are non-celebrity photographers who actually enriched their medium at the service of sculpture: I’m thinking of John Riddy’s work for Anthony Caro for instance or Aurelio Amendola’s on Michelangelo. (Incidentally, why are there no Henry Moore photographs of Henry Moore?)
As to the divorce: On the one side are first rate image makers for whom second rate statuary happens to be their motif. Lee Friedlander, for instance, who covers America as intrepidly as Atget did Paris to catch the bathos of small town Civil War memorials; or the South African David Goldblatt whose lens is attuned to a bitter sweet post-Apartheid topography, as in Monument Honoring the “Contribution of the Horse to South African History,” Erected by the Rapportryers of Bethulie in 1982. Laura Rautenbach was the Sculptor (2005) in which the earnest work of a pompier animalier has had to be placed in a huge cage to keep thieves off the bronze.
On the other side are photographers whose capture of wondrous forms in nature or culture constitutes a kind of found sculpture, brought to life in two dimensions: Polish photographer Alina Szapocznikow’s Photosculptures of 1971 directly recall Brassaï’s Involuntary Sculpture series, close by, of 1932. Interspersed among various kitsch findings of the young sculptor Rachel Harrison are a few shots of historic sculpture, in Voyage of the Beagle 2007. These works are heir to a genre that could be classed as the sculptural photograph – the marionettes, dummies, prosthetic limbs and dismembered dolls of André Kertész, Hans Bellmer, Eward Weston, Walker Evans and Iwao Yamawaki – that fills a section titled “The Pygmalian Complex: Animate and Inanimate Figures.”
They say child of divorce can still respect both parents, and that perhaps is the case with Cyprien Gaillard, the young French artist (savior, to my mind, of the New Museum’s Younger than Jesus) whose installation of Geographical Analogues is the closest thing the show has to sculpture. In table mounted frames with concave bases he has assembled diamond grids of nine Polaroids each (shades of the Bechers) of distressed and forlorn sculptures from various eras, whether prehistoric dolmens or grim World War II memorials, often amidst vandalized utopian housing projects. Gaillard is rather like a land artist whose nature happens to be failed sculpture.
Rodin and Brancusi could attempt, through deft camera work of their own or others, to steer viewers’ experience of their work. For earthwork or land artists like Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer and Richard Long, the camera, used with less artistry, is more urgently required, to reify conceptual or remote or ephemeral happenings that would otherwise be lost. The photograph is a souvenir of an event few if any viewers can have witnessed. This is the truly original copy as it alone was intended to survive, and it alone can originate a response.