Human Interest @Whitney

JTF (just the facts): More than 200 works of art chosen from the Whitney’s permanent collections (photographs, paintings, prints, drawings, videos, sculptures, and installations), variously framed and matted, and hung against white walls on the sixth and seventh floors of the museum. The works are divided into eleven themes: Price of Fame; Self Conscious; Body Bared; Making Faces; Institutional Complex; Cracked Mirror; New York Portrait; Portrait of the Artist; Street Life; Portraits without People; and Starstruck.

The following photographers have been included in the show, each represented by one work unless otherwise noted:

  • Ansel Adams
  • Eleanor Antin (2)
  • Diane Arbus (4)
  • Asco (2)
  • Richard Avedon (2)
  • Sid Avery
  • Alvin Baltrop
  • Jared Bark
  • Dawoud Bey
  • Ilse Bing
  • Blythe Bohnen
  • Talia Chetrit
  • John Coplans
  • Imogen Cunningham
  • Louise Dahl-Wolfe
  • Bruce Davidson
  • Roy DeCarava
  • Jay DeFeo (2)
  • Agnes Denes
  • Philip-Lorca diCorcia (2)
  • Roe Ethridge
  • Walker Evans (3)
  • Louis Faurer (2)
  • Andreas Feininger
  • Robert Frank (3)
  • LaToya Ruby Frazier
  • Lee Friedlander (2)
  • Nan Goldin (2)
  • Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
  • Scott Grieger
  • K8 Hardy
  • Lyle Ashton Harris
  • David Hartt
  • Lewis Hine
  • Douglas Huebler
  • Peter Hujar (4)
  • Robert Kinmont
  • William Klein
  • Louise Lawler
  • Deana Lawson
  • Saul Leiter
  • Annette Lemieux
  • Helen Levitt (4)
  • Jerome Liebling
  • Robert Longo
  • Sally Mann
  • Robert Mapplethorpe (5)
  • Ryan McGinley
  • Susan Meiselas
  • Joel Meyerowitz
  • Toyo Miyatake
  • Mark Morrisroe (2)
  • Vik Muniz (2)
  • Billy Name (2)
  • Arnold Newman
  • Dorothy Norman
  • Catherine Opie
  • Gordon Parks (2)
  • Jack Pierson (2)
  • Liliana Porter
  • Robert Rauschenberg
  • Charles Ray
  • Edward Ruscha (2)
  • Cindy Sherman (3)
  • Laurie Simmons
  • Edward Steichen (5)
  • Sturtevant
  • Val Telberg
  • Jerry Uelsmann
  • James Van Der Zee
  • Carl Van Vechten (4)
  • David Vestal
  • Weegee (2)
  • Carrie Mae Weems
  • James Welling
  • Edward Weston
  • Hannah Wilke
  • Martha Wilson
  • Garry Winogrand
  • Francesca Woodman

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: America is Hard to See, last year’s inaugural exhibition in the Whitney’s new downtown headquarters, raised concerns about the museum’s commitment to photography. The scattered examples on the walls were meager in number and haphazardly installed, as if the curators could not find an urgent purpose for the medium unless it served their Conceptual art politics. By expanding the usual outlines of tradition to embrace more fully racial and sexual minorities—a noble aim, to be sure—this view of American art history ended up being oddly triumphalist and self-congratulatory. The selection of works in the show felt skewed to validate the controversial 1992 Biennial. Artists were enlisted if they fulfilled the embattled ideals of liberal democracy rather than for their unique contributions to a particular discipline. Among the many 19th, 20th and 21st century American photographers who deserved to be front and center, only Nan Goldin was prominent.

Human Interest dispels any doubts about the Whitney’s attitude toward photography. Co-curators Dana Miller and Scott Rothkopf and their team have integrated it wholly with every other art in a fashion that slights none of them. Dispensing with chronology in favor of thematic alliances, and emphasizing the last half-century over the pre-WWII era, the selection and installation stress the role played by the camera in representing the human figure, both as a complex psychological entity as well as a social animal. Every room treats the smallest black-and-white and color prints with a respect often lacking in last year’s survey of the collection.

I began my tour on the seventh floor entrance wall where the group of pictures, several by lesser-known artists, announces right away that photography will be central. Laurie Simmons’ Walking Camera II (Jimmy the Camera) makes the compact literal (perhaps too much so) while portrait paintings based on photographs (Henry Taylor’s of Black Panther leader Huey Newton; Robert Bechtle’s of a white suburban nuclear family and their 1961 Pontiac station wagon; and Richard McLean’s of a black jockey atop a thoroughbred at the racetrack) under-line the profound impact of posters, snapshots, and half-tone illustrations on realist art. The off-to-the-side inclusion here of A Woman in the Sun by Edward Hopper, a haunting spirit throughout the show, recalls Geoff Dyer’s observation that the painter “could claim to be the most influential American photographer of the twentieth-century—even though he didn’t take any photographs.”

The opening section, Portraits without People, invokes the absent human presence with aspects of dress and habit or disconnected body parts. There is a folk art painting by Forrest Bess of a crown woven from leaves and branches; a Joseph Cornell box; a Jay DeFeo collage of a flower vase topped by her outstretched hands; and canvases packed with occult autobiographic clues about love and regret by Marsden Hartley and Jasper Johns. Louise Lawler’s crotch shot of a Degas sculpture–the tiny dancer Marie, who may have been a prostitute as well as a member of the Paris Opera ballet– comments slyly on the titillating back story to a beloved post-Impressionist masterpiece, while Imogen Cunningham’s black-and-white portrait of an unmade bed, with hair pins among the crumpled sheets, has a warmer sexual tenor and its own Hopper overtones.

The centerpiece of Portrait of the Artist is a salon-style hanging of more than 20 photos, drawings, and lithographs. Standing out in this crowd (although opposite in mood) are a Walker Evans c. 1930 indoor portrait of his friend Lincoln Kirsten, posed grimly as if for a mug shot, and Richard Avedon’s 1965 portrait of a carefree Jasper Johns in New York’s open air. Charles Sheeler portrayed himself (in pastel-and-charcoal, shirt-and-tie) looking frailer and gloomier than a successful 41-year old should be. When Roy DeCarava photographed Langston Hughes in 1955, he captured the writer with head tilted back and cigarette at a rakish angle in his mouth; the 1995 print is a fine example of his uniquely layered dark-on-dark tonal scale. Louise Dahl-Wolfe’s attitude toward her portrait subject was less benign. She arranged Edward and Jo Hopper rather cruelly and creepily in front of his painting of three children and a dog—a brood the childless couple never had.

The ready solution for a section titled Starstruck would be to stock it with Hollywood publicity stills or Warhol Polaroids. Instead, only four of the nineteen portraits here are of movie actors (James Dean by Sid Avery; and Chaplin, Dietrich and Delores Del Rio by Edward Steichen). Just as glamorous as any of the above are the four black performers photographed by Carl Van Vechten for the Virgil Thomson-Gertrude Stein opera Four Saints in Three Acts. (Couldn’t the curators have researched their names?) A watercolor c. 1910 by Abraham Wolkowitz of Isadora Duncan, and Steichen’s 1921 photo of Therese Duncan whirling across the Acropolis, are reminders that dancers like the Duncans and Loie Fuller showed Hollywood actors and everyone else how to strike a flamboyant, diva pose.

Street Life mixes examples of life-caught-on-the fly by Evans, Jerome Liebling, Helen Levitt, William Klein, Louis Faurer, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, and Joel Meyerowitz, with the composed portraiture of Diane Arbus, the structured spontaneity of Philip-Lorca diCorcia, and even a Cindy Sherman Film Still from 1980 (with a New York City backdrop to give it street cred.) Among the several delightful surprises is a Dawoud Bey portrait from 1999 of a woman in Washington, D.C. Dressed in white sandals and a ribbed tube dress, she has a relaxed posture that only those who like their bodies or trust a photographer can manage to comport. Jamel Shabazz’s 1980 portrait of four young men in front of an uptown New York hat store, their arms folded and scowls full of bravado, captures the relative innocence of hip-hop’s early days.

I’m not sure that any color photographer loves yellow-orange-gold hues as much as Nan Goldin. Her softly glowing 1983 portrait of a blonde woman in a $2.00 movie ticket booth—taken on the set of Bette Gordon’s feature Variety—resonates with Hopper’s theatre paintings as well as with the Times Square porno grindhouse where Travis Bickle brings his date in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.

There is no compelling reason for a separate New York Portrait category except that it takes us inside some choice Manhattan real estate. This is exemplified by Howard Kanowitz’s New Yorkers I, a group portrait from 1965 of seven serious white men in a dark paneled room, a setting that accentuates their shared sense of quiet power. But the photographic studies Robert Longo made on rooftops for his Men in the Cities series and Ryan McGinley’s Dan Dusted (a three-quarter length portrait of a drug-addled friend) belong as comfortably in Street Life as here.

The sixth floor opens with paintings by Chuck Close and Alex Katz, a photorealistic sculpture by Duane Hanson, and a 2008 monumental self-portrait by Cindy Sherman in which she is coiffed, bejeweled and gowned like a moneyed art collector or museum trustee. (The anomaly here is a 1984 painting by Julian Schnabel, a rare instance from his crockery period in which a figure—in this case, a head—is the expressive heart.)

Body Bared gathers together post-1960s works that mark the transformation of the nude, as the wall text says, “from a classical ideal to something decidedly personal.” The richness of this category could have formed a show unto itself and the curators have unearthed some oldies but goodies: a 1973 video by Mary Kelly of her swollen belly during pregnancy; Joan Semmel’s enormous 1975 dual portrait of herself and her lover post- (or is is pre-?) coitus–the body as landscape. There are gay nudes by Alvin Baltrop, Robert Mapplethorpe, Catherine Opie, Peter Hujar, Jack Pierson, and Mark Morrisroe, along with one of John Coplans’ far less romanticized multi-panel self-portraits of his sagging, hairy sixty-something body. Documentary photos of nudes by Susan Meiselas and Bruce Davidson reveal the trust that a photographer used to need to earn to depict strangers in the nude. A Sally Mann nude of her daughter Virginia at 5 years-old, her chin cupped by an unseen adult, raises anew the question of consent, manipulation and self-empowerment that has driven her explorations of children and sexuality.

Body Bared and Making Faces overlap considerably in their focus on the performing body, although the tone of the latter is more playful and self-mocking than confessional and histrionic. Yvonne Rainer’s 5 min. Hand Movie and Scott Grieger’s goofy 1970 spoofs of contemporary works by Robert Rauschenberg, Sol LeWitt, and George Rickey are typical and should not be missed.

Price of Fame is the dark side of Starstruck, the selected works revealing the fissures in celebrity culture. A couple of notorious images are here: a zonked-out nude Viva (deleted from the Arbus Aperture portfolio after the Warhol actress threatened a lawsuit) and a multi-frame portrait of Mick Jagger from Robert Frank’s film Cocksucker Blues (another work with a tangled legal history.) Along with expected appearances by Warhol (multiple images of Jackie O and of Ethel Scull), Mapplethorpe (a self-portrait and a Patti Smith icon) and Weegee (irreverent views of Nixon and Marilyn Monroe), there are some oddities. The revisionist influence of last year’s International Pop can be seen in the inclusion of paintings by Rosalyn Drexler and Allan d’Arcangelo—two deceased artists briefly famous in the ’60s and receiving another look since that touring exhibition. Rachel Harrison’s colored-pencil rendering of a beehived Amy Winehouse, drawn as a Picasso mutant, deserves its honored place, whereas a Roe Etheridge photograph of the writer Deborah Muller, pensively posed with a tripod, has a less secure purchase, and might have wandered in from another show.

Self Conscious and Institutional Complex are each dominated by a single work. Occupying an entire wall is a giant self-portrait by Rudolf Stingel as a tired, sated but comfortably wealthy man, reclining fully dressed in white shirt and jeans on a hotel bed. A wooden architectural model of all the schools attended by Mike Kelley stretches almost the width of the floor. A number of works in these two sections—self-portraits by Hujar, Charles Ray, Carrie Mae Weems, and Elizabeth Peyton, and a series on young mass murderers by Robert Beck—could just as easily have found homes in other categories.

It’s puzzling that no Internet or post-Internet art appears in the show. There are paintings here made as recently as 2015. The self-portrait is a new currency, internationally traded on iPhones and, one could argue, individually debased as a result of ubiquity. Shouldn’t the curators have commented in some way on this by now decades-long phenomenon?

Human Interest is as politically inclined as was America is Hard to See. The choices in many instances seem determined by a desire to redress historical discrimination and to bring forward into the light artists who either have never been fixtures in textbooks or whose styles have been out of critical favor for years: painters or sculptors Alston, David Bates, Beck, Drexler, Mabel Dwight, Nancy Grossman, Susan Hall, Bartley L. Hendricks, Kanowitz, McClain, Semmel, Avery Singer, Taylor, and John Wilde; and photographers and performance artists Jared Bark, Blythe Bohnen, Grieger, Toyo Miyake, Cynthia Maughan, Liliana Porter, Val Telberg, David Vestal, and Martha Wilson.

The difference in this show, at least as regards photography, is that individual pictures are sensitively grouped or allowed to exist on their own without always having to serve a larger cause. Sometimes a marvelous detail (the shiny heel in Saul Leiter’s Shoe of the Shoeshine Boy) or an ironic sentiment (the battered loafers in Edward Ruscha’s The Artist’s Shoes, London) should be justification enough for a picture to live and breathe again in public.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are, of course, no posted prices, an given the diversity of work on view, we will dispense with our usual discussion of gallery representation and secondary market histories.

Read more about: Alvin Baltrop, Bruce Davidson, Carrie Mae Weems, Catherine Opie, Charles Ray, Charles Sheeler, Cindy Sherman, Dawoud Bey, Diane Arbus, Edward Steichen, Garry Winogrand, Helen Levitt, Imogen Cunningham, Jack Pierson, Jerome Liebling, Joel Meyerowitz, John Coplans, Laurie Simmons, Lee Friedlander, Louis Faurer, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Louise Lawler, Mark Morrisroe, Nan Goldin, Peter Hujar, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Richard Avedon, Robert Frank, Robert Longo, Robert Mapplethorpe, Roe Ethridge, Roy DeCarava, Ryan McGinley, Sally Mann, Saul Leiter, Sid Avery, Susan Meiselas, Walker Evans, Weegee (Arthur Felig), William Klein, Whitney Museum of American Art

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