JTF (just the facts): A group show consisting of 54 color and black-and-white photographs and 2 films, hung against white walls in a series of connected gallery spaces on the second and third floors of the museum. The exhibition was organized by Helen Molesworth.
The following works have been included in the show:
- 15 pigment prints, 2012, 2013, 2016, 2017, 2019
- 6 chromogenic prints, 1993, 1994, 2009, 2017
- 22 gelatin silver prints, 1987, 1991, 1995, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2008, 2010, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021
- 1 set of 5 gelatin silver prints, 1987
- 1 set of 6 pigment prints, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2008, 2012, 2013
- 1 16mm color film projection, continuous loop, optical sound, 2016, 16 minutes
- 1 16mm color film, 2021, 50 minutes 30 seconds
A catalog of the exhibition has been published by the museum (here).
Comments/Context: The well-worn idea that a photographic portrait is a one-way transaction between the sitter and the photographer is rooted in an implied imbalance of power, where the photographer has control over the artistic interaction, and in many cases may be “taking” something from the subject that he or she wasn’t “giving” entirely freely. But this fundamental dynamic can change somewhat when there is deeper connection between the photographer and sitter, which makes the exchange into something closer to a mutual trade, or at least a more knowing and sympathetic process of collaborative engagement.
This exhibit gathers together photographic portraits made by three artists – Catherine Opie, Brigitte Lacombe, and Tacita Dean – where their sitters have been narrowed down to a selection of artists, writers, designers, actors, musicians, and other creative types. As a result, the typical portraiture transaction is now taking place essentially between two equals, with one artist seeing another. With both the observer and observed keenly aware of how the complex process of seeing and being seen actually functions, the assumption is that these portraits have been created with a more profound sense of nuance, compassion, and understanding, on both sides of the camera.
The three artists included in the exhibit can be arranged in plenty of alternate configurations – as a group of white women well into their artistic careers (from Dean in her late 50s to Lacombe in her early 70s), as artists with different backgrounds, geographies, and sexual orientations, and as artists with a spread of aesthetic vantage points, ranging from the more conceptual to the more editorial/commercial. Most obviously in terms of their approaches to portraiture, the three are meaningfully distinct from each other, with Opie consistently working in a studio setup, Lacombe going out into the world to meet her sitters, and Dean adding a durational aspect (via film) to her portraits. The exhibit is arranged as a three-way conversation, with Opie’s and Lacombe’s photographs most often directly intermingled and Dean’s films shown in nearby darkened rooms.
Opie’s contributions to the dialogue come in two forms, as seen in a handful of her portraits from the mid 1990s and in a much larger selection of portraits from the last decade or two. Both sets of works are made in the controlled setting of the studio, but the moods and aesthetics of the two groups are noticeably different. Opie’s 1990s era images make bolder use of color, using saturated color backdrops as the setting for portraits of artists, performers, and friends in the gay and lesbian communities, bringing sensitivity and attention to many who had been overlooked and under appreciated. At the time they were made, these portraits delivered a bold splash of confirmation and acceptance, with Opie seeing these fellow artists as they wanted to be seen, in drag, in suits, in a corset and black gloves, and even in a fuzzy green wig (and little else).
Opie’s 1990s color portraits capture a particularly resonant moment in time, and in that sense, they can feel appropriately dated as we look back at them from the present; in contrast, Opie’s more recent portraiture efforts seem to deliberately stretch for timelessness, layering a more somber and serious mood of grandeur on top of the proceedings. Aside from John Waters, whose contagious irreverent energy is nearly impossible to tamp down, most of Opie’s recent sitters take their poses with regal, unsmiling authority. She surrounds them with enveloping darkness, using spotlighting to highlight their faces and chiaroscuro to hide their bodies, in a manner that recalls the Old Masters, particularly Rembrandt. Even the most rebellious and provocative looking of her sitters, like Ron Athey and Michèle Lamy, settle into an embrace of reverence, with Opie using oval frames in a few cases to make the resulting photographic objects look that much more like traditional 19th century society portraiture, and these many aesthetic choices fit particularly well with bearded figures like John Baldessari and Lawrence Weiner, who peer out from the darkness like misunderstood saints. In all of these more recent pictures, including her own self-portrait, Opie applies establishment aesthetics to a range of figures who have challenged those very rules (in one way or another), giving the portraits an air of quiet celebratory regard for those who have disregarded the boundaries that tried to limit them.
Brigitte Lacombe’s black-and-white portraits strip away some of Opie’s aesthetic mannerisms in search of a more pared down sense of vibrant immediacy. Freed from the constraints of a formal studio setting, her square format portraits often get in close, resulting in larger than life sized heads that actively engage us with their casual intensity and intimacy. Compositional echoes take shape here as groups of faces turned in reserved profile, faces looking squarely at us with direct openness, and faces further amplified by the movement of hands, each grouping made clear and bright by the use of natural light. A set of five portraits of the writer Maya Angelou shows just how powerfully nuanced Lacombe’s straightforward approach can be, with each discrete frame offering a subtle shift in emotion or tone, Angelou’s contemplative introspection dissected into a range of gloriously human moments.
The freedom in Lacombe’s approach to making portraits also allows her to step back a bit to take in more surrounding context. Several images hung down a narrow hallway capture artists in their studios, standing amid their workspaces and works-in-progress. Flanked by pinned-up sketches, carts of paint, and folding tables, each artist is rooted in a comfortable place of work, leading to portraits that feel energized by the invisible presence of that creative activity. Another group of photographs (that we might or might not call portraits) hung on the huge wall in the main second floor gallery space tracks director Martin Scorsese as he engages with various actors (most often Leonardo DiCaprio), the painstaking craft of movie making captured in his small gestures, comments, and side conversations.
Tacita Dean’s portraits of artists are somewhat removed from the back-and-forth interchange between Opie and Lacombe, and their contribution to the discussion mostly comes in elongating the classic idea of portraiture from a single frame out into a much longer interaction or conversation (captured on film), where the sitter has the opportunity to take shape as a three-dimensional individual rather than as a snatched moment or fleeting expression. Dean’s portrait of David Hockney in his studio is calmly meditative, her camera watching as he nonchalantly smokes cigarettes in his signature blue cardigan sweater (an article of clothing that shows up again in Opie’s portrait of Hockney nearby) and reads standing up, his mind seemingly following an unseen path of artistic curiosity. Her dual portrait of the conversation between two female painters -Luchita Hurtado (age 99) and Julie Mehretu (age 49) – is more discursive, the discussion wandering from topic to topic, with Dean not always giving us a talking heads view, but instead lingering over a glass on the table, folded hands, pages of books, and other details of the room, documenting the exchange with patience so that we can savor its real-time rhythms.
As with the aforementioned Hockney, the show offers a few cases of overlap, where the same sitter is seen by more than one artist. Since the styles of particularly Opie and Lacombe are different enough, it isn’t entirely surprising that the two would end up with divergent views of the same person – perhaps more what this reminds us is that most people, especially creatives, have more than one public facing facet to themselves. Critic and essayist Hilton Als is warm and engaging in one moment, and aloof and wary in the next, his mind seemingly clicking through a set of arguments and questions while he sits in judgement. And Kara Walker seems more careful with the masks she wears, not giving up much in portraits by both Opie and Lacombe that capture her in contemplative profile; only when Lacombe finds her in her studio does Walker allow us to see more nuance, her work on the walls behind her still doing most of the talking.
The thesis underlying this show is that artists see other artists with an increased degree of insight, and while such a sweeping generalization might be a bit of an overstretch, the portraits gathered together from these three artists do successfully support the essential argument. Given the way that the exhibit is installed however, the three-way dynamics that Helen Molesworth likely envisioned don’t really materialize with much force; the Dean film works (seen in side rooms) feel a little like an unbalanced bolt on to the otherwise paired tete-a-tete between Opie and Lacombe that circles the walls. But for those that rebalance the three artistic viewpoints equally in their heads, the resulting mix is resonant and thought-provoking. The enduring complexity of portraiture as a genre is perhaps the real winner here, with versions of self (and their multi-faceted interpretations by observant artists) never quite as obvious or single-minded as we might have thought or expected.
Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum exhibition, there are of course no posted prices. The included artists are represented by the following galleries in New York:
- Catherine Opie: Lehmann Maupin (here)
- Brigitte Lacombe: contact the artist directly (here)
- Tacita Dean: Marian Goodman Gallery (here)
In terms of secondary market activity, Opie’s work has started to show up in the secondary markets with more regularity in recent years, with prices ranging between roughly $2000 and $300000. Dean’s photographs have only been intermittently available in the secondary market in the past few years, with recent single image prices ranging between roughly $4000 and $18000. And Lacombe’s work has little secondary market history.